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Income and Health Inequalities Cut U.S.’s High Marks for Development

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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un development index

This chart shows the shift in the U.N. development index for Norway (top purple), the U.S. (second purple), Turkey (green) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (red) from 1990 to 2011

If global development were a horse race, would you put your money on the slow-and-steady contenders or a fast new contender? With this year’s results just in, the old stalwart Scandinavian countries are still in the lead, according to the 2011 United Nations’ Human Development Index, published Wednesday.

With Norway leading the charge in this annual assessment of national education, health and income levels, most of the other 186 countries and territories evaluated in this year’s report are also on the up and up. The U.S. ranks fourth—with Australia and the Netherlands inching out just ahead.

When the national numbers, based on factors such as life expectancy, poverty and years spent in school, are recalculated to account for internal inequalities, however, the U.S. falls to the 23rd spot—the largest drop of any of the top 85 countries in this  analysis.

“The Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index helps us assess better the levels of development for all segments of society, rather than for just the mythical ‘average’ person,” Milorad Kovacevic, the lead statistician for the report, said in a prepared statement. “We consider health and education distribution to be just as important in this equation as income. And the data show great inequalities.”

The U.S.’s slide is due primarily to income inequality (a phrase that’s now peppering the headlines courtesy of the recent Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide). But, the report suggests, it also took a hit from the uneven distribution of health care.

The U.S. spends 7.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health (U.S. public spending on education is 5.5 percent). And although life expectancy is now 78.5 years in the U.S., it is still years off from the corresponding statistics in Australia and the Netherlands, which both have life expectancies of more than 80 years—and spend less of their respective GDPs on health costs.

un development index country map

This world map shows the 2011 U.N. development indexes across the globe. Countries with "very high" index numbers are blue and those with the lowest numbers are light green.

Development is not, of course, a zero-sum competition. And as the birth of the purported seven billionth person earlier this week has emphasized, rapidly depleting natural resources are a very real concern for the whole globe. According to the authors of the new report, a smarter, more sustainable development strategy tide could raise all ships—and with so many developing nations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where life expectancy is 48.4 years and 73 percent of the population lives in poverty, there are many ships that need a smart development strategy, and fast.

“Sustainability is not exclusively or even primarily an environmental issue,” Helen Clark, who chairs the U.N. Development Program, said in a prepared statement. “It is fundamentally about how we choose to live our lives, with an awareness that everything we do has consequences for the seven billion of us here today, as well as for the billions more who will follow.”

Charts courtesy of U.N. Human Development Report

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. JamesDavis 7:47 am 11/3/2011

    Spreading the wealth around is fine and dandy, but spreading the wealth around and spreading the food around did not help in the past, it just increased the problem by 5 billion, so what makes you think doing that now is going to help anything? The Earth can no longer sustain all of us. Tell us how to rid the planet of 5 billion humans and our health will improve and our wealth will also improve. Or should we just wait and let the Earth rid itself of that many humans the hard way with disease and starvation? You cannot solve the problem with “goody-too-shoes” solutions. Humans will not change until they are forced to change.

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  2. 2. ASHIK 12:16 pm 11/3/2011

    Inequality in various grades on individual peoples point of view may be a concern to think about but for a nations point of view i think its good that there exists inequality amoung people.

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  3. 3. Postulator 6:19 am 11/4/2011

    Strangely enough, taking some directions to socialising health (such as Australia’s model) saves an awful lot of money.

    “OMG, bunch of commies” – but it works and it saves money for all taxpayers. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of economic dogma getting in the way of good social policy (spurred on by the companies that get rich off charging too much for healthcare).

    And ASHIK, you’re comfortable with walking down the street past beggars every day? That was one of the most striking things I found in visiting the US several years ago – most civilised nations have at least some minimal safety net to ensure people don’t end up like that.

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  4. 4. jgrosay 8:51 am 11/4/2011

    I guess the oppinion that the problem is on inequities has no serious rationale. The problem always has been that some people do not get a payment high enough to sustain a minimal level of welfare, and this is all that can be requested, differences per se are not bad at all; if somebody becomes angry because others have much more than them, it’s their problem to find a way to calm. The cause of this disfunctions in the system may rely in some that charge too high prices for their good and services, and do accumulate money in a way that can even remind the Shylock character in the Shakespeare’s work. Price regulations are impossible in the frame of a free market economy, but those who have enough economical power as to their decisions having influence on the whole economy and general wellbeing must be more careful in measuring the consequences of how they behave. I’ts just a matter of having a minimum of respect to your neighbour.

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  5. 5. gmperkins 3:14 pm 11/4/2011

    @JamesDavis: The US doesn’t have all that many people living in it. The worlds bursting pop is a problem but population is not the cause of US inequality and other problems.

    Education and healthcare go beyond the simplitistic tag of inequality but it is a fact that the US has become quite polarized and the middle class is weakening. This UN report seems spot on, the US has been stumbling over core problems for decades now.

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