No Longer The Country We Think We Are

Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times today speaks for itself …

‘We’re No. 28! And Dropping!’

A measure of social progress finds that the quality of life has dropped in America over the last decade, even as it has risen almost everywhere else.

nicholas-kristof-thumblargeBy Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

This should be a wake-up call: New data suggest that the United States is one of just a few countries worldwide that is slipping backward.

The newest Social Progress Index, shared with me before its official release Thursday morning, finds that out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, the United States, Brazil and Hungary are the only ones in which people are worse off than when the index began in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.

“The data paint an alarming picture of the state of our nation, and we hope it will be a call to action,” Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and the chair of the advisory panel for the Social Progress Index, told me. “It’s like we’re a developing country.”

The index, inspired by research of Nobel-winning economists, collects 50 metrics of well-being — nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education and more — to measure quality of life. Norway comes out on top in the 2020 edition, followed by Denmark, Finland and New Zealand. South Sudan is at the bottom, with Chad, Central African Republic and Eritrea just behind.

The United States, despite its immense wealth, military power and cultural influence, ranks 28th — having slipped from 19th in 2011. The index now puts the United States behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.

“We are no longer the country we like to think we are,” said Porter.

The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.

The Social Progress Index finds that Americans have health statistics similar to those of people in Chile, Jordan and Albania, while kids in the United States get an education roughly on par with what children get in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. A majority of countries have lower homicide rates, and most other advanced countries have lower traffic fatality rates and better sanitation and internet access.

The United States has high levels of early marriage — most states still allow child marriage in some circumstances — and lags in sharing political power equally among all citizens. America ranks a shameful No. 100 in discrimination against minorities.

The data for the latest index predates Covid-19, which has had a disproportionate impact on the United States and seems likely to exacerbate the slide in America’s standing. One new study suggests that in the United States, symptoms of depression have risen threefold since the pandemic began — and poor mental health is associated with other risk factors for well-being.

Michael Green, the C.E.O. of the group that puts out the Social Progress Index, notes that the coronavirus will affect health, longevity and education, with the impact particularly large in both the United States and Brazil. The equity and inclusiveness measured by the index seem to help protect societies from the virus, he said.

“Societies that are inclusive, tolerant and better educated are better able to manage the pandemic,” Green said.

The decline of the United States over the last decade in this index — more than any country in the world — is a reminder that we Americans face structural problems that predate President Trump and that festered under leaders of both parties. Trump is a symptom of this larger malaise, and also a cause of its acceleration.

David G. Blanchflower, a Dartmouth economist, has new research showing that the share of Americans reporting in effect that every day is a bad mental health day has doubled over 25 years. “Rising distress and despair are largely American phenomenon not observed in other advanced countries,” Blanchflower told me.

This decline is deeply personal for me: As I’ve written, a quarter of the kids on my old No. 6 school bus in rural Oregon are now dead from drugs, alcohol and suicide — what are called “deaths of despair.” I lost one friend to a heroin overdose this spring and have had more friends incarcerated than I could possibly count; the problems are now self-replicating in the next generation because of the dysfunction in some homes.

You as taxpayers paid huge sums to imprison my old friends; the money would have been far better invested educating them, honing their job skills or treating their addictions.

That’s why this is an election like that of 1932. That was the year American voters decisively rejected Herbert Hoover’s passivity and gave Franklin Roosevelt an electoral mandate — including a flipped Senate — that laid the groundwork for the New Deal and the modern middle class. But first we need to acknowledge the reality that we are on the wrong track.

We Americans like to say “We’re No. 1.” But the new data suggest that we should be chanting, “We’re No. 28! And dropping!”

Let’s wake up, for we are no longer the country we think we are.

35 thoughts on “No Longer The Country We Think We Are

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  4. Well, I guess the rest of the world would say the USA were never as great as its citizens thought they were. But the country was definitely a powerhouse and many countries waited to see what the potus said about a matter before setting out a course of their own. Now, the world is mostly trying to avoid hearing everything the potus says.

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    • We were once much better than we are now, for sure. The rest of the world respected us, looked to us for a number of things in the areas of trade and defense. But, we’ve always had that racist underpinning, the uber-capitalist mentality. Today, the rest of the world has no reason to respect us … in just under 4 years, the trust and respect we had spent the last century building is gone. How long it will take to rebuild it is anyone’s guess … my guess is at least a decade.


  5. Pingback: Jill posts some more food for thought with statistics: No Longer The Country We Think We Are — Filosofa’s Word | ShiraDest: toward The Four Freedoms for All Human Beings

  6. “No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.”

    I don’t think that we ever were a shining beacon, given Jim Crow, Urban Renewal = Negro Removal, Red Lining, the War on Drugs only in the inner cities which resulted in Mass Incarceration, and our slowness to ack these issues until now. This has been brewing since the 1980’s, and Dr. King called it out in his last book: Where Do We Go from here: Chaos or Community. The Citizen’s Income he called for would have helped, as would implementing the Kerner Commission recommendations. We still can.

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    • Like you, I question whether we were ever that ‘shining beacon’, but we were definitely a lot better than we are today. However, instead of working together to solve our problems, we took the path of hatred and divisiveness. There are a number of reasons for that, and none that I see being addressed anytime soon. Yes, we can change, but it will be a slow process and until we take corporate money out of the political arena, there’s little chance for it to change much.

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  7. Jill, this is not a surprise given our lower levels of math and science education (one is 23rd and one is 27th), our lower level in health care outcomes (38th), our civil discord, our economic disparity, and our focus on entertainment. Until we admit these problems, we cannot solve them. Keith

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      • True, but like the Free People of Color in MD, who paid taxes for schools while protesting the prohibition of Colored residents, despite being free, from attending those schools, we must make alternative ways to improve the state of Public Education for all kids (especially the ones who may be rejected by the public charter schools, if I understand correctly).

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        • Complex issues, but I fully agree … we are NOT going back to the day of segregated schools!!! Charter schools, Betsy DeVos’ favourite cause, are a joke. Those who support them claim they provide a better path to learning, but in truth they are just another way of a) discriminating, and b) shoving religion down kids’ throats. Since they are private, it is easier for them to pick and choose, keeping out Blacks, Latinos, Jews, Muslims and others.

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          • Hmm, I applied to teach, a few years ago, at a Public charter school in DC: it was public, but apparently could still pick some students? Half fo the funding was private, but they were definitely aiming at the public school constituency.


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