U.S. A Humiliating Also-Ran When It Comes To Stuff That Really Matters

If you have the sinking feeling that the American colossus is becoming a little frayed around the edges, then a new study will be a very cold shower.  While the U.S. still has the biggest and baddest military and can wipe out anything and anybody on earth with the flick of a neocon’s wrist, while it continues to maintain the technological edge with a tsunami of new products from Apple and other innovators, and while its music and film juggernaut is the undisputed big dog culturally, it has fallen way behind on the things that really matter: Quality of life and commitment to all of its citizens.

The 2015 Social Progress Index ranks the colossus 16th in the world behind the usual suspects, including Scandinavian countries, led by Norway, at the top. Canada (so near and yet so far), is 6th and the rest of the rankings are dominated by core European Union countries, as well as two of the three countries the U.S. defeated in World War II (scusami, Italy).  A total of 133 countries were ranked overall, with Chad, Afghanistan and Central African Republic at the bottom.

The U.S.’s ranking in key indicators was:

  • 1st in access to advanced education
  • 6th in shelter
  • 8th in opportunity
  • 15th in tolerance and inclusion
  • 16th in social progress
  • 21st in meeting basic human needs
  • 24th in personal rights
  • 28th in water and sanitation
  • 30th in life expectancy
  • 30th in personal safety
  • 35th in well being
  • 38th in educational equity
  • 38th in saving children’s lives
  • 39th in nutrition and basic medical care
  • 49th in high school enrollment rates
  • 55th in women surviving childbirth
  • 74th in ecosystem sustainability

To say that Americans focus on the wrong measures in evaluating their country’s relative worth beyond financial indicators such as gross domestic product is an understatement.  This is because what drives the humiliating ranking the U.S. received overall in the Social Progress Index is poverty, pretty much a non-issue in the national dialogue, such as it is, as well in presidential campaigns past, present and future.

Poverty is strongly associated with low social progress, according to the team that devised the index.  This was true for both absolute poverty, the proportion living below a certain threshold, and relative poverty, those earning much less than their peers.

Michael E. Porter, a Harvard Business School prof and team member, notes that it’s important to measure stuff like GDP, but social progress is at least as important because it’s a critical measure of how a country is serving its people.
“We’re not now No. 1 in a lot of stuff that traditionally we have been,” said Porter.  “What we’re learning is that the fact that we’re not No. 1 on this stuff also means that we’re facing long-term economic stresses. . . . Countries must invest in social progress, not just economic institutions, to create the proper foundation for economic growth.”
I hear you, professor, but is anybody listening?

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on April 9, 2015, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.

Image Credit: www.thinkinclusive.us

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