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Jan Lee headshot

United States Drops to Second Tier On Social Progress

By Jan Lee

Ask any North American what his or her measurement for success is and you'll probably hear money is one of the top indicators of a comfortable, good life.

And it's true. United States residents score pretty well when compared with those of many other countries . We generally have the ability to earn a lot more than say, most Guatemalan workers, who earn an average of $346 per month. And almost all of us can afford to send our kids to school, unlike in say, Niger, where 40 percent of children don't go to school. And no matter how expensive our cell phone bill may be, we still can count on a dependable communications network where we live, unlike in many places in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But according to the nonprofit Social Progress Imperative, which has put together an index by which to score each nation's social and economic opportunities, our paychecks don't really paint a true picture of the level of opportunity we have in our country.

Instead, there are other nuanced ways to look at a nation's progress and current standing across the globe, like the very things we use that money for: access to lodging, a quality environment free from pollution with robust laws and methods to protect that ecology, or higher education options for out-of-school grads. And while we don't think of freedom of speech as a reflection of our economic standing, freedom of expression and religious tolerance are strong indicators as well.

And that's where the bad news comes in. The United States, once thought of as the bastion of opportunity and accomplishments, is now a second-tier nation.

What's a Second-Tier Nation?

The Social Progress Index rates countries based on a comprehensive score of three key areas: Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing and Opportunity: Basically, the three tiers of advancement. The authors further broke those categories down to what it takes to achieve success: Things like basic access to knowledge, water and sanitation and personal rights.

They found that while the U.S. excelled in providing access to education and in the number of people with post-secondary schooling, the country failed in a wealth of other areas, including health and wellness, tolerance and inclusion and access to information and communications.

The U.S. had improved slightly from last year in terms of environmental quality, but it had plummeted in regard to tolerance and inclusion. Personal rights had also dropped, as had guarantees to personal freedoms and choice.

Its neighbor, Canada had dropped in overall scores as well, although Canada was still considered a top-tier nation, meaning it excelled in areas that the U.S. didn't: higher education scores, nutrition and basic medical care, and personal rights. But it had also dropped when it came to basic human needs and opportunities afforded its residents, like personal rights, freedoms and choice.

This year's top-ranking country was Denmark, which was found to offer a better selection of affordable housing than most developed nations as well as better access to information and communication. But it suffered considerably when it came to scores for parity in education. Researchers were also unable to determine the literacy rate of adults in Denmark.

The Social Progress Index is only one of several new tools that have been developed in recent years to determine the true "wealth" of a society. The Happiness Index and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index are two more pieces to a puzzle that increasingly seem to point toward the idea that while money is useful, it isn't what defines our idea of the perfect society.

Images: Child with puzzle - Flickr/gosheshe; Map and graph - Social Progress Imperative


Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee