Thursday, December 11, 2008

Measuring America's Human Development

Last week, authors of The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009, the first human development report to focus on an industrialized OECD nation, presented their findings to the Carnegie Council. You can watch the video from the event here.

In their discussion, Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, two of the three coeditors and authors of the report, highlighted the general need for greater availability and standardization of human development data on industrialized countries such as the United States. According to the authors, the aim of the report is to provide a tool for international comparisons on human development, to stimulate public debate, to empower everyday people to hold elected officials accountable, and to connect research to action on wellbeing.

Most importantly, the report provides an approach to social progress that is not solely reliant upon economic indicators.

Defining the concept as "enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their wellbeing," human development is measured as an indexed figure that incorporates levels of healthcare, education, and income. For enhanced comparison, the report disaggregates data by region, state and congressional district, and by gender and ethnicity.

What, then, is the state of human development in the United States, and how does this compare to the rest of the world? Which U.S. citizens enjoy the highest level of human development and the greatest opportunities and freedoms?

While general measures of wellbeing – such as income, high school completion rates, and life expectancy at birth – improved between 1960 and 2005, they did so at much slower rates than in other parts of the industrialized world. At the same time, particular social groups and local constituencies have been altogether left behind. Mississippi was found to have the lowest overall human development score of any of the states, while Connecticut had the highest. By congressional district, Fresno CA. obtained the poorest results, whereas the east side of Manhattan showed the most encouraging.

Across gender lines, females recorded similar scores to males, but achieved these through better education and health scores as opposed to income. Across ethnic groups, Asian males were found to enjoy a level of human development almost 50 years ahead of African American males. Moreover, the average life expectancy for African Americans today is shorter than it was for average Americans in the late 1970s. According to the data, African American males today can expect to live up to 20 years less than Asian females.

Internationally, the United States compares poorly with other OECD countries across health, education and income data. While per capita healthcare spending is three times that of Japan, the Japanese continue to outlive Americans by an average of four years. Similarly, upper secondary graduation rates in the United States are also comparatively low, and the United States registered some of the highest infant mortality and child poverty rates of any of its OECD peers. On top of this, the United States remains one of only four countries across the globe with no federally mandated paid maternity leave system in place.

In an attempt to improve America’s human development scores, the report also offers several guiding principles for future policymakers – from making healthcare affordable across the country and promoting prevention as a best practice, to modernizing school curricula, investing in at-risk kids, boosting incomes and asset building capacities, and taking responsibility for the nation’s most vulnerable.

At a time of political transition in the United States, The Measure of America serves as a useful beacon showing policymakers the direction they must take to move the country forward.

- Daniel Schuurman


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