Measuring Well-Being in the U.S.

Map of Jim Moran’s (D-VA) 8th Congressional District from GovTrack.us, using data from The Open Planning Project. Virginia-8 is second highest in well-being in the country, according to the American Human Development Project

Note: For my regular readers, thanks for your patience, as I return to daily blogging after taking time out to catch up the entries for June before turning to events this month. Besides my trip to the coal fields, we’ve been busy at NewsTrust, with two major collaborations–one with Huffington Post on john McCain in June which netted us a huge number of new members and then a two week partnership with PBS and the documentary series P.O.V. on electoral reform, for which I wrote the wrap-up yesterday. Since it’s July 17, I’ll have some catching up to do for July, also.

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A poor child born in Germany, France, Canada, or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle class in adulthood than an American child born into similar circumstances.

That’s just one of a list of distressing “factoids” from the American Human Development Project‘s The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009 (July 16, 2008, Columbia University Press ), which provides a snapshot by state, congressional district, gender, race and ethnicity. The report includes key social, economic, political, environmental, housing, transportation and military data distilled from an array of primary sources and describes successful policies in America and other wealthy nations.

The research is a national version of the United Nations Development Program‘s human development index (HDI), published every year since 1990 as a measure of well-being for each country.

HDI provides a composite measure of three dimensions of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment at the primary, secondary and tertiary level) and having a decent standard of living (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP, income).For years, the United Nations has compiled the Human Development Index, which combines measures of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and gross domestic product per capita for countries worldwide.

While the U.S. rates twelfth overall (behind Iceland, Norway, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Netherlands, France and Finland) in the HDI, that score is an aggregate for the whole country. Those of us here in the 9th Congressional District of Virginia, which includes towns as affluent as Blacksburg and as struggling Appalachia, know that even Congressional Districts can vary widely. For instance, according to the Measure of American, , the second highest rating of well-being in the U.S. goes to Rep. Jim Moran’s 8th District in Virginia, which includes Alexandria and Arlington County, Alexandria City and parts of Fairfax County. Next to the bottom of the whole list is Harold Rodgers 5th District in Kentucky, which includes Breathitt County, Pike County, Pulaski County, Wayne County, and parts of Bell, Clay, Floyd (including Prestonsburg, which is fairly affluent compared to surrounding areas), Jackson, Laurel, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Mccreary, Rockcastle, Rowan and Whitley Counties. Having been to both Appalachia, Virginia and to many of the counties in Kentucky 5, I can tell you that Appalachia, Virginia looks a whole lot more like Eastern Kentucky than like Blacksburg. Still, even looking on the scale of Congressional Districts, there are huge gaps.

Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-author of the book explains,

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, the state human development index shows that people in last-ranked Mississippi are living 30 years behind those in first-ranked Connecticut.

Adds co-author Kristen Lewis,

By ranking the fifty states, the 436 congressional districts, and the major racial and ethnic groups, the American Human Development Index allows everyone to see where his or her community fits in terms of access to opportunity and standard of living.

Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, which is a co-sponsor of the report, said in a July 16 newsrelease,

The American Human Development Index is unique 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. 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.

According to OxFam, here are some of the statistics revealed by the report:

  • In Texas’ 29th Congressional District, the percentage of the adult population with less than a high school degree is at about the level of the U.S. average in the early 1970s.
  • Among the nation’s 436 congressional districts, New York’s 14th District (in Manhattan) ranks first and California’s 20th District (around Fresno) ranks last; the average resident of New York’s 14th District earns more than three times as much as the average California’s 20th District resident.
  • Nationally, Asian males have the highest human development index score and African American males the lowest, with a staggering 50-year gap between the two groups.
  • Despite the fact that the United States spends roughly $5.2 billion every day on health care, more per capita than any other nation in the world, Americans live shorter lives than citizens of every Western European and Nordic country except for one.

Some 140 countries around the world have replicated the human development index for their country, but the U.S. is the first developed nation to do so. Says Eduardo Martins, co-author of the report

The human development index is such an accepted standard that in Brazil, for example, the human development index of each team’s country was flashed on the screen during televised World Cup soccer matches.


Can you imagine the United States television stations covering th eOlympics flashing on their screens, “We’re Number 12?”

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