UN Development Rankings: U.S. Sliding Down

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The U.S. is falling behind its developed-nation peers in checking the boxes of progress, according to a recent report from the United Nations Office of Sustainable Development.

The U.S. last year ranked 32nd out of 193 UN member states has dropped 11 places in a single year and now trails even Ukraine and Cuba on the list, coming in just head of Bulgaria.

The ratings are based on a country’s progress in fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, 17 metrics meant to epitomize societal progress. They include concrete achievements like “clean water and sanitation” and “zero hunger” alongside less defined aims like “quality education” and “responsible consumption and production.” These are described on the UN’s website as critical to implementing the organization’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – something all member nations have agreed to do.

Scandinavian countries lead the UN’s rankings for 2022, with Finland at number one and Denmark, Sweden and Norway rounding out the top four. The first non-European country to make the list is Japan, which narrowly made the top 20 at 19.

Historian Kathleen Frydl blamed racism and “American exceptionalism” for the apparent U.S. decline in her piece for The Conversation on Friday, arguing the former has “cheated many Americans out of the healthcare, education, economic security and environment they deserve” while the latter “keeps the country from candid appraisals and course correction” amid a rise in ill-defined “threats to democracy.”

Surging economic equality and a two-year sustained drop in life expectancy would appear to put the U.S. on the wrong side of several of the Goals, including “good health and well-being,” “no poverty,” and “reduced inequalities.”

The UN ranked its performance on two of those three as improved, with only the inequality metric showing negative, and focused instead on a supposed decline in “responsible consumption and production.”

The UN is not the only entity to flag the U.S. as a nation in decline.

The Economist classified it as a “flawed democracy” earlier this year in its evaluation of the “state of democracy” worldwide. Its metrics take into account countries’ electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties.

Kathleen Frydl, Sachs Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University, writes in the article (US is becoming a ‘developing country’ on global rankings that measure democracy, inequality):

“The U.S. currently ranks 21st on the United Nations Development Program’s index, which measures fewer factors than the sustainable development index.

“The United States may regard itself as a “leader of the free world,” but an index of development released in July 2022 places the country much farther down the list.”

The article said:

“The Office of Sustainable Development’s rankings differ from more traditional development measures in that they are more focused on the experiences of ordinary people, including their ability to enjoy clean air and water, than the creation of wealth.

So while the gigantic size of the American economy counts in its scoring, so too does unequal access to the wealth it produces. When judged by accepted measures like the Gini coefficient, income inequality in the U.S. has risen markedly over the past 30 years. By the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s measurement, the U.S. has the biggest wealth gap among G-7 nations.

“These results reflect structural disparities in the United States, which are most pronounced for African Americans. Such differences have persisted well beyond the demise of chattel slavery and the repeal of Jim Crow laws.

Scholar W.E.B. Du Bois first exposed this kind of structural inequality in his 1899 analysis of Black life in the urban north, “The Philadelphia Negro.” Though he noted distinctions of affluence and status within Black society, Du Bois found the lives of African Americans to be a world apart from white residents: a “city within a city.” Du Bois traced the high rates of poverty, crime and illiteracy prevalent in Philadelphia’s Black community to discrimination, divestment and residential segregation – not to Black people’s degree of ambition or talent.

“More than a half-century later, with characteristic eloquence, Martin Luther King Jr. similarly decried the persistence of the “other America,” one where “the buoyancy of hope” was transformed into “the fatigue of despair.”

“To illustrate his point, King referred to many of the same factors studied by Du Bois: the condition of housing and household wealth, education, social mobility and literacy rates, health outcomes and employment. On all of these metrics, Black Americans fared worse than whites. But as King noted, “Many people of various backgrounds live in this other America.”

“The benchmarks of development invoked by these men also featured prominently in the 1962 book “The Other America,” by political scientist Michael Harrington, founder of a group that eventually became the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington’s work so unsettled President John F. Kennedy that it reportedly galvanized him into formulating a “war on poverty.”

“Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, waged this metaphorical war. But poverty bound to discrete places. Rural areas and segregated neighborhoods stayed poor well beyond mid-20th-century federal efforts.

“In large part that is because federal efforts during that critical time accommodated rather than confronted the forces of racism, according to my research.

“Across a number of policy domains, the sustained efforts of segregationist Democrats in Congress resulted in an incomplete and patchwork system of social policy. Democrats from the South cooperated with Republicans to doom to failure efforts to achieve universal health care or unionized workforces. Rejecting proposals for strong federal intervention, they left a checkered legacy of local funding for education and public health.

“Today, many years later, the effects of a welfare state tailored to racism is evident — though perhaps less visibly so — in the inadequate health policies driving a shocking decline in average American life expectancy.”

The article said:

“There are other ways to measure a country’s level of development, and on some of them the U.S. fares better.

“The U.S. currently ranks 21st on the United Nations Development Program’s index, which measures fewer factors than the sustainable development index. Good results in average income per person – $64,765 – and an average 13.7 years of schooling situate the United States squarely in the developed world.

“Its ranking suffers, however, on appraisals that place greater weight on political systems.

“The Economist’s democracy index now groups the U.S. among ‘flawed democracies,’ with an overall score that ranks between Estonia and Chile. It falls short of being a top-rated ‘full democracy’ in large part because of a fractured political culture. This growing divide is most apparent in the divergent paths between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states.

“Although the analysts from The Economist applaud the peaceful transfer of power in the face of an insurrection intended to disrupt it, their report laments that, according to a January 2022 poll, ‘only 55% of Americans believe that Mr. Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.’

Election denialism carries with it the threat that election officials in Republican-controlled jurisdictions will reject or alter vote tallies that do not favor the Republican Party in upcoming elections, further jeopardizing the score of the U.S. on the democracy index.

“Red and blue America also differ on access to modern reproductive care for women. This hurts the U.S. gender equality rating, one aspect of the United Nations’ sustainable development index.

“Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republican-controlled states have enacted or proposed grossly restrictive abortion laws, to the point of endangering a woman’s health.

“I believe that, when paired with structural inequalities and fractured social policy, the dwindling Republican commitment to democracy lends weight to the classification of the U.S. as a developing country.”

The article said:

“To address the poor showing of the United States on a variety of global surveys, one must also contend with the idea of American exceptionalism, a belief in American superiority over the rest of the world.

“Both political parties have long promoted this belief, at home and abroad, but “exceptionalism” receives a more formal treatment from Republicans. It was the first line of the Republican Party’s national platform of 2016 and 2020 (‘we believe in American exceptionalism’). And it served as the organizing principle behind Donald Trump’s vow to restore ‘patriotic education’ to America’s schools.

“In Florida, after lobbying by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state board of education in July 2022 approved standards rooted in American exceptionalism while barring instruction in critical race theory, an academic framework teaching the kind of structural racism Du Bois exposed long ago.

“With a tendency to proclaim excellence rather than pursue it, the peddling of American exceptionalism encourages Americans to maintain a robust sense of national achievement – despite mounting evidence to the contrary.”

Burton L. Mack, Wesley Professor of Early Christianity at Claremont School of Theology, writes:

“Consternation reigns, as it should. Both the Christian myth (with its logic of absolute power and its division of the human race into Christian and heathen) and the myth of capitalism (with its reduction of all values to success in the accumulation of wealth) combine and conspire against the concept of a multicultural social democracy and the range of human values now required to encourage social cohesion and cross border negotion in our global age. No wonder the people are demonstrating and the women are marching. No wonder the rest of the world is looking for new leadership. Let us hope that the freedom for them to do this is not simply the leftovers from a past American exceptionalism, but a sign of the human energies projecting a democratic future for the world.” (A Brief History of American Exceptionalism, February 28, 2017, https://yalebooks.yale.edu/2017/02/28/a-brief-history-of-american-exceptionalism/)

On U.S. ranking in democracy, one year ago, Sam Levine wrote in The Guardian (US sinks to new low in rankings of world’s democracies, 24 March 2021):

“The U.S. has fallen to a new low in a global ranking of political rights and civil liberties, a drop fueled by unequal treatment of minority groups, damaging influence of money in politics, and increased polarization, according to a new report by Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group.

“The U.S. earned 83 out of 100 possible points this year in Freedom House’s annual rankings of freedoms around the world, an 11-point drop from its ranking of 94 a decade ago. The U.S.’s new ranking places it on par with countries like Panama, Romania and Croatia and behind countries such as Argentina and Mongolia. It lagged far behind countries like the United Kingdom (93), Chile (93), Costa Rica (91) and Slovakia (90).”


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