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Nasty, Brutish and Short: New Study on Life in America

July 17, 2008

In 2007, Americans learned that they had relinquished their 200-year hold on the title of world's tallest people. Now a devastating new report shows that across a growing range of indicators of health, wealth and education, Americans simply aren't measuring up.
The "Measure of America" study by the American Human Development Project (funded by Oxfam America, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Conrad Hilton Foundation) documents a laggard United States trailing other leading advanced economies. Reflecting growing income inequality and the exploding population of Americans without health insurance, the U.S. has dropped from its lofty second place ranking in 1990 to #12 on the study's index of human development now.
The grim numbers portray an American people living lives that are less healthy and less secure than those in countries where per capita income - and health care expenditures - are dramatically lower than in the U.S. Among the grim harvest of numbers from the report:

  • The U.S. ranks 24th in life expectancy out of the 30 most affluent nations and 42nd globally despite spending $5.2 billion a day for health care. The racial disparities are even more glaring, with African-American living 4.6 years less than the national average of 77.9.
  • America is only 34th in infant mortality, putting it on a par with is on a par with that of Croatia, Cuba, Estonia and Poland.
  • 40 million Americans (14%) lack the literacy skills to perform simple, everyday tasks such as understanding newspaper articles and instruction manuals.
  • Income inequality in the U.S. also surpasses virtually every other industrialized nation. The richest fifth of Americans earn on average $168,170 a year, almost 15 times the average of the lowest fifth, who must get by on $11,352.
  • The US has a higher percentage of children (15% or 10.7 million kids) living in poverty than any of the world's richest countries.
  • Sadly, the United States ranks first among the 30 OECD member states in terms of its prison population, measured both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of its population. A nation with 5% of the world's population has 24% of its prisoners.

Of course, residents of the United States are not returning to a Hobbesian state of nature where life is nasty, brutish and short. No doubt, the American standard of living remains high and the envy of much (if not as much) of the world.
But the Measure of America analysis reveals a nation where life is harsher than many people - and probably most in the United States - would have expected. As the authors suggest, the disintegrating health care system with its 47 million uninsured, the skyrocketing indebtedness of Americans, the spiraling cost of education, nonexistent childcare and a vanishing safety net are putting "the American Dream in peril."

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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