Wed, Jul 23, 2008 - Page 9 News List

When it comes to human development, the giant is slipping

With an infant mortality rate on a par with Croatia, Cuba, Estonia and Poland and 24 percent of the world’s prisoners, it is no wonder the wealthy US has been gradually falling behind other developed countries

By Ashley Seager  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Despite spending US$230 million an hour on healthcare, US citizens live shorter lives than citizens of almost every other developed country. And while it has the second-highest income per head in the world, the US ranks 42nd in terms of life expectancy.

These are some of the startling conclusions from a major new report that attempts to explain why the world’s No. 1 economy has slipped to 12th place — from second in 1990 — in terms of human development.

The American Human Development Report, which applies rankings of health, education and income to the US, paints a surprising picture of a country that spends well over US$5 billion each day on healthcare — more per person than any other country.

The report, Measure of America, was funded by Oxfam America, the Conrad Hilton Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. It shows each of the 11 countries that rank higher than the US in human development has a lower per-capita income.

Those countries score better on the health and knowledge indices that make up the overall human development index (HDI), which is calculated each year by the UN Development Program.

And each has achieved better outcomes in areas such as infant mortality and longevity, with less spending per head.

Japanese, for example, can expect to outlive US citizens, on average, by more than four years. In fact, citizens of Israel, Greece, Singapore, Costa Rica, South Korea and every western European and Nordic country save one can expect to live longer than people in the US.

There are also wider differences, the report shows. The average Asian woman, for example, lives for almost 89 years, while black American women live until 76.

For men of the same groups, the difference is 14 years.

One of the main problems faced by the US, says the report, is that one in six US citizens, or about 47 million people, are not covered by health insurance and so have limited access to healthcare.

As a result, the US is ranked 42nd in global life expectancy and 34th in terms of infants surviving to age one. The US infant mortality rate is on a par with that of Croatia, Cuba, Estonia and Poland. If the US could match top-ranked Sweden, about 20,000 more US babies a year would live to their first birthday.

“Human development is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it,” said the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, who developed the HDI in 1990.

“We get in this report ... an evaluation of what the limitations of human development are in the US but also ... how the relative place of America has been slipping in comparison with other countries over recent years.” Sen said.

The US has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than any of the world’s richest countries.

In fact, the report shows that 15 percent of US children — 10.7 million — live in families with incomes of less than US$1,500 per month.

It also reveals 14 percent of the population — some 40 million US citizens — lack the literacy skills to perform simple, everyday tasks such as understanding newspaper articles and instruction manuals.

And while in much of Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia, levels of enrollment of three-year-olds and four-year-olds in pre-school are running at about 75 percent, in the US it is little more than 50 percent.

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