The Measure of America
by Hugh Hamilton
February 1st, 2009
We are awash in a sea of economic data. Mostly these days, the reports range from the alarming to the impenetrable, but the message remains the same: hard times are here and even tougher times are in the offing. This weekend, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell at an annual rate of 3.8 percent in the closing months of 2008; if you exclude the value of unsold inventory in the fourth quarter, the decline actually exceeded 5 percent. Last week alone saw announcements of more than 70,000 layoffs in sectors from trucks to technology.
Add to that the number of new people filing for unemployment benefits last week (588,000), which now brings to 4.78 million the number of those who have filed continuous claims for at least a month. Not only is that figure the highest on record, but it does not include the population of “under-employed” Americans, nor does it reflect those who have been without jobs for so long that they are no longer counted. Increasingly, the consequences of this economic quagmire are being measured in the trillions of dollars.
But beyond this minefield of macro-economic data lies another measure of America. It asks not only whether things are getting better or worse, but for whom. It utilizes an approach known as the human development model to measure the everyday experiences of ordinary people and their quality of life. Based on the Human Development Index first applied as a measure of living standards in the Global South some two decades ago, the American Human Development Index looks beyond such conventional indicators as gross domestic product and the consumer price index to emphasize three core areas of wellbeing:: life expectancy, level of educational attainment, and median income. The 2008-2009 American Human Development Report, published by the non-profit American Human Development Project, ranks all 50 states and 436 congressional districts according to these three criteria. What the report reveals is a tapestry of uneven development and opportunity within the United States and a less than favorable comparison to other developed nations in several key areas. For example, the authors note:
“The United States is a country of unparalleled opportunity and personal freedom. Yet, despite great progress and the unmatched resources at our disposal, United States is still beset by challenges that undermine the capacity of many Americans to realize their full potential. The United States ranks second in the world inper-capita income (behind Luxembourg), but 34th in survival of infants to age one….We rank 42nd in global life expectancy, and first among the world’s twenty-five richest countries in the percentage of children living in poverty.
“Comparisons among different groups of Americans reveal much about who is being left out of improvements in health, education and living standards: African American babies are two-and-a-half times more likely to die before age one than white babies; Latinos are twice as likely to drop out of high school as African Americans and almost four times more likely to drop out than whites. The earnings of African American women are about two-thirds of men’s earnings.”
Then last week, the American Human Development Project released its first-ever report at the state level, with data broken down by county, race and gender. Titled, “A Portrait of Mississippi: Mississippi Human Development Report 2009,” the report looked deeper into the conditions of human development inside the state that ranked dead last among all 50 U.S. states in the national report. Here again, what they found were significant variations in health, education and income among the subgroups within the state. In fact, researchers found that although Mississippi as a whole ranked last nationwide, some groups in the state enjoy levels of economic well-being similar to those in top-ranked Connecticut, while others experience levels of human development comparable to that of the average American nearly half a century ago. For example:
* Whites who are worst-off in the entire state in terms of income are still better off than the vast majority of African Americans.
* An African American baby boy born today in Mississippi can expect a shorter lifespan than the average American in 1960
* African American babies die in Mississippi at more than twice the rate of white babies
* About a third of Mississippi’s African American men over 25 do not have a high-school diploma; the state is spending twice as much per prisoner as it is on education per school child
So what do we do with these new data? Clearly, the human development index cannot take the place of conventional economic indicators as an overall measure of the nation’s economic wellbeing. Is there some practical value to be derived from adding this new measure to the mix? I put the question to Kristen Lewis, co-director of the American Human Development Project, on Talkback! Here’s part of her response:
“The reality is that a composite index like this has strengths and weaknesses. The strength of a composite index is that if you take just a few variables that everyone agrees are important, and that are easy to understand and explain, it’s a good way to start a conversation. It’s a powerful advocacy tool for raising awareness. But the weakness of any kind of composite index like this is that it is, of course, an oversimplification. There is much more to life than health, education and income. These are necessary — though not sufficient — characteristics, for leading a life of choice and value and personal freedom. It does leave out whole domains like politics and a range of psychological factors that are tremendously important. But these are the things that people are talking about around their kitchen table. And as a measure, it’s better than nothing … it’s certainly better than GDP.”
These reports should be required reading for all our nation’s leaders as they go about the business of crafting an economic recovery and reinvestment effort in the period ahead.
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