The week before last, there was an entry in the NY Times Economix blog, "Going Back in Time: Progress, or Lack Thereof, Around the Country" by Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-directors of the American Human Development Project. Human development measures represent a more robust measure of population well-being than economic measures alone, such mean income, and thus are better measure of policy success, past, present and future. It's related in spirit to the genuine progress index I've discussed previously, as well as the opportunity maps from the OneRegion report I discussed a few months ago. It also allows us to look at a state or congressional district in terms of development in time. Thus, the authors note, three decades of development separate Connecticut from Mississippi. More broadly, they explain:
Human development is about what ordinary people can do and what they can become, about the liberty they have to exercise real choice in their lives. For most Americans, the last half-century has brought greater freedom, opportunity and well-being. But the American Human Development Index tells us that huge segments of society are being left out. And it offers a tool to hold leaders accountable for investing in an infrastructure of opportunity that better serves the next generation.
The erosion of America since the advent of Reagan is clearly visible through the lens of this measure. Although we've continued to advance as a nation, others have advanced faster, and passed us:
On the flip, we look at the authors' work on the American Human Development Index, and what it tells us about us in more detail.
|Ironically, although the Democratic party is clearly more responsive and more concerned with the interests of those who have less, there is a clear correlation between higher levels of development and Democratic political representation. For example, Here's what the congressional district map of human development looks like:
I'll have more to say about this later.
The authors wrote:
America experienced great progress in human well-being in the last half century. A baby born in 2005 will live, on average, eight years longer than one born in 1960. High school completion rates have doubled, and the percentage of college graduates has almost quadrupled. The typical American earned almost twice as much in 2005 as in 1960 (in 2005 dollars).
But these averages - as averages are wont to do - hide a world of variation, as well as just how much certain groups have been left behind in that path toward progress. Manhattan's East Side and the South Bronx, for example, are five subway stops and little more than two miles apart, but going from one neighborhood to the other is a trip back in time in terms of human development....
In 2008, we constructed a first-ever American Human Development Index to assess the relative well-being of different groups of Americans. Our index is not comparable to the global Human Development Index produced by the U.N. Development Program, a measure that looks at the social and economic development of different countries. The U.N. index, which is rooted in the work of the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, was, however, the model for our index.
The American Human Development Index combines official American government data on health, education and income into a single, composite measure. Health is measured by life expectancy; education by a combination of educational attainment and school enrollment; and income by median personal earnings (wages and salaries). The value of having a single number is that it allows for methodologically sound yet easily understood comparisons among different population groups. We ranked the American population in terms of well-being by state, by congressional district, by the five major racial/ethnic categories of the Census Bureau, and by gender.
In addition, using the same indicators, we calculated a historic index for the country as a whole for every decade from 1960 onwards.
Here's a more detailed explanation of the index, taken from the report itself:
The American Human Development Index
The American Human Development Index is calculated from measures of three dimensions:
• A long and healthy life is measured using life expectancy at birth, calculated from mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2005.
• Access to knowledge is measured using two indicators: school enrollment for the population age three and older, and educational degree attainment for the population twenty-five years and older. Both indicators are from the American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, 2005.
• Decent standard of living is measured using median earnings from the American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, 2005.
A dimension index number is created for each dimension, using the formula:
Dimension Index = actual value - minimum value × 10
maximum value - minimum value
The three dimension indices are then averaged to get the single number for the Human Development Index.
The authors continue:
What did we find?
In the state index, Connecticut was at the top and Mississippi was at the bottom. While their ranks may not surprise you - isn't Mississippi always at the bottom of these sorts of lists? - the size of the gap might. Connecticut has an H.D. index of 6.37 (on a scale of 0 to 10), which, if current trends continue, will be the average of America as a whole in the year 2020. Mississippi, on the other hand, has an H.D. index (3.58) lower than that of the whole country some 20 years ago.
Nearly three decades, a generation of progress, separate the two states.
Talk about stark differences.
In terms of health, African-Americans today have a lifespan shorter than the average American in the late 1970s, three decades ago. African-American men live shorter lives today than the average American in 1960. The life expectancy today in Kentucky's 5th District (the southeastern part of the state) is below that of the United States as a whole 30 years ago.
Somehow, this sort of stark reality never figures into to discussions of race dominated by white males ranting about affirmative action.
When it comes to education, the percentage of the adult population in Texas's 29th District (the Houston area) that did not complete high school - close to half - is at about the level of the United States average in the mid-1960s. Nationwide, Latinos have the lowest ranking for education - roughly 40 percent of Latinos age 25 and up don't have a high school diploma, about the same rate as America as a whole in the mid-1970s.
Interesting side-note: We're always hearing about how public education in America is going to the dogs. The reality is that we've made remarkable progress--but some have been left decades behind.
Looking at income, our index shows that Latina women earn, on average, about $16,000, compared to white and Asian-American men, who earn about $37,000.
Ummm, what's that again about a wise Latina being a racist?
Taking another look at Mississippi, we see that not everyone in the state is struggling. White men earn about $5,000 more than the typical American worker today - but white women earn the same wage as an average American in 1980, African-American men earn 1970 wages, and African-American women pre-1960 wages
That's quite a difference within just one state--the bottom-ranking one over-all.
As for our original example, that of the East Side versus the Bronx, it seems the East Side is ahead of its time.
Given the historic growth pattern from 1960 to 2005, the United States as a whole won't have levels of well-being typical of the East Side today until 2041, whereas residents of the South Bronx have levels of health, education and income typical of Americans in the mid-1980s. On average, a resident of Manhattan's 14th Congressional District (the East Side) earns two and a half times as much, lives four years longer, and is seven times more likely to have a college degree than a resident of the 16th District (the South Bronx).
This is the kind of discussion we ought to be having about the state our nation, and its direction for the future--one that looks at communities as a whole, and their overall levels of development, and sees their well-being in a holistic fashion. At his best, Obama speaks eloquently in such terms. Unfortunately, his policy proposals tend to lack such overall coherence, and limit themselves by trying to accommodate a discredited economic philosophy. But this kind of measurement points the way to an alternative calculus to the one embraced by the Rubinites who currently rule the roost.
As promised above, he's another look at the politics of human development, the state rankings of the Human Development Index compared to the 2008 presidential voter margin (plus for Democratic, minus for Republican). The overall corellation coefficient between the sets of figures was an astonishing 0.73. The top 16 states in human development all voted for Obama. The bottom 11 states all voted for McCain:
This is yet another indication that the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not simply a matter of different values, take your pick. It's a difference of values, all right: whether or not you value reality.
Yes, we have to be sensitive about how we communicate it. But the facts are starkly undeniable: Where Democratic politics dominate, people have dramatically better lives. It's way past time we stop apologizing for our own good ideas.