Social Progress Index of 2014: Where America Doesn’t Rank



The Social Progress Index of 2014 is out, providing “a rich framework for measuring the multiple dimensions of social progress, benchmarking success, and catalyzing greater human wellbeing,” as it self-professes. Interestingly, the United States is hardly the top dog on the index in any of the four categories of Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, Social Progress, or Opportunity. As Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times so bluntly put it, “We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!” This is despite our iPhones and NBA games.

The overarching Social Progress ranking lists the United States placed at 16th, under such countries as New Zealand, at number one, Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark, and Australia. Of course, there are areas that the U.S. does well in, according to the report, with its best being seen in Nutrition and Basic Medical Care, Personal Safety, and Access to Basic Knowledge, as well as Access to Advanced Education. The downsides? Ecosystem Sustainability and Tolerance and Inclusion.

With categories color coded between “relative weaknesses” in red and “relative strengths” in blue, the data for the U.S. shows a shocking amount of items in red. Perhaps compared to countries with considerable distance in infrastructure to make up, the U.S. should do well — however, the Social Progress Index pits nations against countries within the same GDP range. For the United States, that includes Norway, Kuwait, Switzerland, Ireland, Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, Austria, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Iceland, United Kingdom, Belgium, and Denmark. As Kristof points out in his op-ed, some of these, such as Switzerland, Iceland, and New Zealand, are poorer in per capita income, yet manage to surpass the United States’ social progress.

“The United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet,” Kristof points out, “the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one American in five lacks Internet access.”

Back when the Social Progress Index was first published in 2013, only 50 countries were listed, and the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland took the top of the list. At the time, John Elkington, chief executive of Volans, a consulting company, told The Economist, “You can prove all sorts of things by selecting your sample. Denmark, if included, would certainly have outranked the UK. This is very much work in progress and I suspect that some of the authors will be somewhat embarrassed when they look back on these first-round results.”

Among the acknowledged in 2014′s report? John Elkington of Volans. It is also notable that the list of countries included has expanded from 50 to 132 nations. The United States’ State Department lists 195 independent states in total, so perhaps the study will expand that much further in 2015.

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