By Michael Green via Harvard Business Review
One thing we know for certain from the presidential primary campaigns is that a lot of people in America are not just unhappy with the status quo — they are angry about it. Media outlets frequently report that the economy is foremost among concerns of the average citizen, and according to traditional economic measures the United States is doing pretty well. The economy is growing steadily, the unemployment rate is below 5%, and on GDP per capita America still is one of the richest countries in the world. So what’s the problem? The answer, according to the recently released Social Progress Index, is that the United States is not turning those positive economic numbers into basic improvements in the lives of citizens.
A significant part of the problem is in how we measure — and, more precisely, what counts as — well-being and progress. One possible reason for the surprise and even shock many Americans feel at the current political turmoil is that important evolving socioeconomic dynamics have been veiled in recent years due to an overfocus on traditional measures. The Social Progress Index directly measures the lived experience of the citizens of 133 countries around the world. Using 53 different indicators, including nutrition, safety, education, human rights, tolerance, higher education, and others, it paints a vivid picture of American failure. The United States is one of the richest countries in the sample, ranking 5th out of 133 on GDP per capita, and yet is 19th in the world on social progress.
The U.S. is doing significantly worse on social progress than countries it is beating economically. America lags behind not just the high-performing Nordic countries (Finland tops the ranking this year) but also Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands, and it is just one place above Slovenia. And there is no sign that the U.S. is turning things around: In the last year, America has slipped three places in the rankings.
Worse, the U.S. joins China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia in a group of countries that significantly underperform on social progress relative to their wealth. The U.S. is the only major industrial nation to significantly underperform in this way. By contrast, countries such as Costa Rica, Nepal, and Malawi have much lower levels of economic and social development than the U.S., but these countries are overperforming. They are doing a good job at turning their GDP into social progress; the U.S. is not.
This should be a wake-up call to Americans across the political spectrum. Even though the U.S. has been doing OK for the last 30 years in terms of economic growth, social progress has not kept pace. The Social Progress Index shows this troubling divergence. Economic performance, measured in terms of GDP per capita, gives us only a limited view of an economic average, and although that average may have been improving, the gains have been poorly distributed across society.
Tools like the Social Progress Index can help us break down the challenges that the U.S. (and other countries) face to see where the biggest problems lie. America isn’t safe: It ranks 27th on personal safety because of a high homicide level and because too many Americans die on the roads. The education system is failing: The U.S. is just 40th in the world on access to basic knowledge because too many kids are not in school. Environmental quality is poor, ranking 36th, because of high greenhouse gas emissions, poor water quality, and the threat to biodiversity. Most shocking for a country that spends so much on health care, the U.S. is 68th in the world on health and wellness, due not only to the obesity rate but also to suicides and to early deaths from cancer and heart disease. The U.S. is underperforming even on personal rights (26th in the world) because of restrictions on freedom of assembly.
There may be explanations or excuses for each of these failings, but together they paint a troubling picture. The lives of too many Americans are blighted, compared to the citizens of other wealthy countries. It’s not just about the economy; it’s about how the benefits of economic growth are used.
The Social Progress Index shows that countries with higher GDP per capita tend to have higher levels of social progress, but it also reveals that GDP is not the whole story. Of course economic performance matters a great deal. But just as important — possibly more important — are the choices countries make about how to leverage that performance into social progress, such as the provision of basic infrastructure, the provision of education and health care, and ensuring the rights and freedoms of citizens.
Some may bridle at these findings, suspecting that a measure of social progress somehow favors more-socialist countries. That would be to misunderstand what the Social Progress Index measures. The Index makes no judgments about policies, such as money spent or laws passed, since it is based entirely on outcome measures. Moreover, although the more-socialist Nordic countries are among the highest performers, there are plenty of countries with free-market systems that perform equally well.
The Social Progress Index is crucial for providing an aggregate measure of how countries are doing as a complement to GDP, but it also is a practical tool for leaders and decision makers as they work toward solutions to social problems. It can highlight the most serious problems, and it can point to examples of other countries that have solved those problems. If we can identify what is not working in America and address these things with solutions that are working elsewhere, there is a chance of turning things around.
The model of development based on rising economic prosperity has served the world pretty well for the last half-century or so. But rising GDP per capita alone is inadequate to address the range and depth of problems across the globe. The Social Progress Index can help every country make better choices and, hopefully, address the root causes of the anger that is starting to boil over in our societies.