Source: by Ashley Seager/ Guardian/ July 17, 2008
· Nation slumps from 2nd to 12th in global table
· Richest fifth take home $168,000, poorest $11,000
Despite spending $230m (£115m) an hour on healthcare, Americans live shorter lives
than citizens of almost every other developed country. And while it has the second-highest
income per head in the world, the United States ranks 42nd in terms of life expectancy.
These are some of the startling conclusions from a major new report which attempts
to explain why the world’s number-one economy has slipped to 12th place – from
2nd in 1990- in terms of human development.
The American Human Development Report, which applies rankings of health, education
and income to the US, paints a surprising picture of a country that spends well
over $5bn each day on healthcare – more per person than any other country.
The report, Measure of America, was funded by Oxfam America, the Conrad Hilton Foundation
and the Rockefeller Foundation. It shows each of the 11 countries that rank higher
than the US in human development has a lower per-capita income.
Those countries score better on the health and knowledge indices that make up the
overall human development index (HDI), which is calculated each year by the United
Nations Development Programme.
And each has achieved better outcomes in areas such as infant mortality and longevity,
with less spending per head.
Japanese, for example, can expect to outlive Americans, on average, by more than
four years. In fact, citizens of Israel, Greece, Singapore, Costa Rica, South Korea
and every western European and Nordic country save one can expect to live longer
There are also wider differences, the report shows. The average Asian woman, for
example, lives for almost 89 years, while African-American women live until 76.
For men of the same groups, the difference is 14 years.
One of the main problems faced by the US, says the report, is that one in six Americans,
or about 47 million people, are not covered by health insurance and so have limited
access to healthcare.
As a result, the US is ranked 42nd in global life expectancy and 34th in terms of
infants surviving to age one. The US infant mortality rate is on a par with that
of Croatia, Cuba, Estonia and Poland. If the US could match top-ranked Sweden, about
20,000 more American babies a year would live to their first birthday.
“Human development is concerned with what I take to be the basic development
idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of
the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it,” said the
Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, who developed the HDI in 1990.
“We get in this report … an evaluation of what the limitations of human development
are in the US but also … how the relative place of America has been slipping in
comparison with other countries over recent years.”
The US has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than any of the world’s
In fact, the report shows that 15% of American children – 10.7 million – live in
families with incomes of less than $1,500 per month.
It also reveals 14% of the population – some 40 million Americans – lack the literacy
skills to perform simple, everyday tasks such as understanding newspaper articles
and instruction manuals.
And while in much of Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia, levels of enrolment of three
and four-year-olds in pre-school are running at about 75%, in the US it is little
more than 50%.
The report not only highlights the differences between the US and other countries,
it also picks up on the huge discrepancies between states, the country’s 436
congressional districts and between ethnic groups.
“The Measure of America reveals huge gaps among some groups in our country
to access opportunity and reach their potential,” said the report’s co-author,
Sarah Burd-Sharps. “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
“For example, the state human development index shows that people in last-ranked
Mississippi are living 30 years behind those in first-ranked Connecticut.”
Inequality remains stark. The richest fifth of Americans earn on average $168,170
a year, almost 15 times the average of the lowest fifth, who make do with $11,352.
The US is far behind many other countries in the support given to working families,
particularly in terms of family leave, sick leave and childcare. The country has
no federally mandated maternity leave.
The US also ranks first among the 30 rich countries of the Organisation of Economic
Cooperation and Development in terms of the number of people in prison, both in
absolute terms and as a percentage of the total population.
It has 5% of the world’s people but 24% of its prisoners.