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Blog: A Real Measure of Our Wellbeing

Nov 12, 2010 | By Andrea Pascual

Economic inequality can’t be ignored anymore. It is the topic of the month as everyone desperately hopes for change in the upcoming year. Since the beginning of November, everywhere I turn someone has written on inequality. This month’s Time Magazine features an article titled “How to Restore the American Dream.” On November 4th my colleague Casey Schoenenberger wrote in her NETWORK blog, “For the first time in America, parents believe that this dream has fallen out of reach.” New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof wrote on November 6th,“You no longer need to travel to distant and dangerous countries to observe such rapacious inequality.” Senior writer for Slate Magazine Timothy Noah has been praised for his excellent series on inequality, “The Great Divergence.” He writes at the end of his introduction that “people who say we don’t need to worry about income inequality (there aren’t many of them) are wrong”.

With all the news around the subject of inequality I wanted facts. Yesterday, November 11, I attended a presentation by the American Human Development Project. The panelists (Kristen Lewis, Sarah Burd-Sharps, David Brancaccio, Candy Hill and Ron Haskins) introduced the study, The Measure of America 2010-2011: Mapping Risks and Resilience by Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis. Their study gives the answers to these questions:

How is opportunity distributed in America? Are we falling behind other affluent democracies? Which groups are surging ahead, and which face the greatest risks? Which congressional districts enjoy the highest and lowest levels of wellbeing?

This is just want I needed! Rather than simply looking at GDP, The Measure of America uses an alternative method to measure the progress of our nation. GDP is just a number; it’s doesn’t assess the well being of a population. Their measurement does. It is called the Human Development Index (HDI). By assessing three aspects of development—a long healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living—they are able to calculate the human development index. The health index, education index and income index are ranked on a scale from 0 to 10. Their scores combined and divided by three makes up the HDI. A higher score means more progress. Their study looks at the nation as whole, by state and by congressional district. They also disaggregate the results by gender, race and ethnicity.

Their results are astonishing and disturbing. Currently, our country has an HDI of 5.17 compared to 1.23 back in 1960. Although we have made great progress, the differences in development between different geographic areas highlights the problem of inequality. The state of Connecticut has the highest HDI at 6.30 and West Virginia the lowest at 3.85. They are separated by about a generation in progress and they are only a few states away (how can this be)!

Just here, in the Washington DC metro area, there are wide gaps between residents. The study shows that there is an 8-year life span difference between the residents of Virginia’s congressional district 8 and the DC residents. The DC Latino population is expected to live one year longer than white residents and seven years longer than African American residents. Although DC Latinos are expected to live longer, 40% have not completed high school—compared to white adults, among whom fewer than 5% have not completed high school. The average personal earnings of DC metro area residents are at least $10,000 more per year than residents in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Los Angeles.

I agree with Mr. Noah – inequality in the United States worries me. We need to address the economic inequality and assess the access to opportunity of different groups in America. The Measure of America is a great tool to understanding our nation’s disparities. Their online website gives you access to interactive maps to see the HDI of your own state and compare it to other states. Other tools include a well-o-meter to measure your own human development index and a common good forecaster. This tool allows you to change the current levels of educational attainment in your state and see how it affects income levels and life expectancy.