DEVELOPMENT: U.S. Sliding By Nearly Every Measure

Global Geopolitics Net / IPS
Friday, July 18, 2008

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2008.

Alison Raphael

WASHINGTON, Jul 17 (IPS) - The United States is ”woefully behind” other developed countries when it comes to providing opportunities and choices -- the very essence of the so-called ”American Dream” -- according to a new analysis ranking the quality of life in the country.

The first-ever ”Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009,” launched Wednesday by the non-profit organisation Oxfam America, offers a statistical analysis of numerous aspects of U.S. well-being, broken down by gender, race, ethnicity, state, and even congressional district.

One surprising finding was that although the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation in the world (5.2 million dollars daily), its citizens live shorter lives than citizens of virtually every Western European and Nordic country. And the U.S. has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than any of the world's richest countries.

A global human development index ranked the U.S. first in 1990. Today, it ranks 12th.

Not only are U.S. citizens behind other developed countries, but Oxfam's study, supported by the Rockefeller and Conrad Hilton foundations, revealed ”huge gaps” in living standards and quality of life among different U.S. states.

Study author Sarah Bird-Sharps noted that: ”Some Americans are living anywhere from 30 to 50 years behind others when it comes to issues we all care about: health, education and standard of living.”

For example, residents of Connecticut, in the northeast of the country, enjoy a lifespan averaging 30 years longer than that of residents of the far-south state of Mississippi. The two states have the highest and lowest rankings, respectively, for life expectancy in the United States.

Not so surprising was the finding that African American men have the lowest human development index rating of all groups of men studied. The rating for Asian American men was 50 points higher.

In Texas, according to ”Measure of America,” the percentage of adults lacking a high school diploma is about the same as it was in nationally in the 1970s.

Disparities are so great in California that the state contains both five of the highest-ranking congressional districts, as well as the district with the lowest ranking in the country, congressional district 20, including Fresno and Bakersfield.

The report brings together an array of data -- covering social, political, economic, environmental, housing, transportation and other factors -- to provide an overall snapshot of the quality of life.

The information will empower citizens' groups to lobby for improvements and enable non-profits, foundations, and local governments to target assistance to the areas with the greatest needs.

The idea for a Human Development Index comes from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which publishes a similar index annually covering every country in the world.

”The American Human Development Index is unique,” argues Oxfam President Raymond Offenheiser, ”because it reveals the interlocking factors that create or deny opportunity and determine life chances.”

”The analysis is particularly revealing in places like the Gulf Coast region, where we work with 34 regional organizations,” he said. ”The report clearly illustrates the conditions residents were struggling with even prior to the hurricanes of 2005 -- limited access to education, lower incomes, and shorter lives -- and argues for a comprehensive solution for recovery.”

The data provide insight into which public policies have been successful, and should be emulated, and which have failed to meet their goals.

”The data in this report,” says Rockefeller Foundation Vice President Darren Walker, ”can be used to build on past policy successes and to create opportunities that serve a new generation of Americans.”

Steven Hilton, president and CEO of the Los-Angeles-based Hilton Foundation -- the legacy of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton -- pointed out that his grandfather embodied the spirit of entrepreneurship and opportunity that characterise the American Dream.

Today, he said, ”It's clear from this report that the American dream is at risk.”

The ”Measure of America” report was co-published by Columbia University Press and the Social Science Research Council.