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America’s failing report card for social progress

REUTERS/file 2014

IN THE aftermath of the most challenging recession of the last half century, the policy debate in the United States is understandably preoccupied with economic concerns. Polarization has grown around issues of income inequality and the uneven gains during the current recovery. But this inequality is a symptom of deeper causes. Progress in America has never been exclusively about economic prosperity. Historically, we have been a nation that is a leader in social progress, such as moving to universal public education, widening the ability of citizens to go to college, expanding access to health care, and putting in place the policies that have opened up opportunity for all citizens regardless of their background. In these and other areas, America has often led the world.

However, America no longer leads the world in many dimensions of the kind of society we want to be. The 2015 Social Progress Index, released this week, aims to measure and compare the social progress of nations with the same rigor as we have long measured economic progress, such as GDP per capita or growth in median income. Created in collaboration with Professor Scott Stern of MIT and the nonprofit Social Progress Imperative, the index ranks 133 countries on multiple, objective dimensions of social and environmental performance. Drawing on 52 indicators, it is the most comprehensive framework developed for measuring social progress, and the first to measure social progress independently of GDP.


For the United States, the results are sobering. Though the United States ranks sixth among covered countries in terms of GDP per capita, we only achieve 16th place in social progress. In terms of success in meeting the basic human needs of our citizens, equipping them to improve the quality of their lives, and opening up opportunity for every citizen to meet his or her full potential, the United States is well below major G7 nations, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.

On health and wellness, the United States ranks 68th in the world, a position even more striking when you consider that we spend far more on health care per capita than any other country. Despite some improvement over the past two decades, we still rank only 30th in terms of personal safety. Even after a significant education reform movement, we rank 45th in access to basic knowledge. In ecosystem sustainability, despite much lip service, we rank 74th.


America continues to be strong in the crucial area of providing rights, freedom, and opportunity for our citizens. But even here the latest data are not where we want them to be.

What's the problem? How did we lose our leadership? The reality is that advancing social progress in America has become embroiled in the same polarizing debates and gridlock that have stalled progress in so many areas, including our economic agenda. We as Americans must start to assess ourselves candidly and objectively, and mount a coherent social progress agenda. And we have much to learn from other nations. Canada is a leader on personal safety, for example, and Australia can teach us much about health and wellness.

Renewing American leadership in social progress will pay huge dividends in terms of the sense of inclusion in our society. But the stakes are even higher. American economic dynamism has drawn heavily on our past social progress leadership. Today, lagging social progress is holding us back. And, when social progress lags behind economic success, less advantaged citizens especially suffer.


The Social Progress Index, only in its second year, is becoming a tool for citizens of many nations to understand the facts, hold leaders accountable, and help to set priorities and guide action to address society's most pressing challenges. It has opened up a dialogue about the real meaning of success, involving millions of citizens of countries around the world. Initiatives to improve performance, based on the index, are underway in more than 40 countries. In Somerville, Mayor Joseph Curtatone has begun to deploy the index framework to benchmark his city and prioritize an agenda going forward.

Measuring social progress offers a more complete picture of how America is doing. Through enabling a more honest dialogue, it can help us restore leadership in creating a better society. And ultimately, to help build a stronger America.

Michael E. Porter is a professor at Harvard Business School and chair of the Social Progress Index Advisory Board.


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