The Human Development Index--A Better Measure Of Where We Stand

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 11:00


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.

Paul Rosenberg :: The Human Development Index--A Better Measure Of Where We Stand
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.


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A picture worth 300 million words (4.00 / 2)
Look at the clustering in urban areas. No wonder people in Austin feel like they're living in a spaceship on the Arcadia Planitia. The map pretty much explains, or at least demonstrates, most of the recurring political conflicts since the founding of the country.

Sadly, until the Reverend Moon arrived in the country, it was also all we needed to explain Mark Matson's observation that most people in America can't tell the functional difference between the Pope and Einstein.


The Pope And Einstein (4.00 / 1)
Both are funny.  But in different ways.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Why, then, (0.00 / 0)
are we not laughing as unself-consciously as merry old Falstaff?  When most people I know hear our Christian Dominionists in full cry, the best they can seem to manage is something midway between a giggle and a wince.

[ Parent ]
This statement however doesn't fit the facts listed... (0.00 / 0)
The erosion of America since the advent of Reagan is clearly visible through the lens of this measure.

Since we only started descending in 1995 how is this correlated with Reagan? He was out of office for a long time before we even began to decline. The rest of the article seems pretty accurate.


Two Things (4.00 / 1)
(1) Time Lag. The indices measure things that take time to change. While something precipitous, like a financial crisis, can sharply cut median income, these are relatively rare, and only affect one of the three indices.  (Though the post-Soviet Union era saw life expectancy plummet drastically in Russia, but this was notable precisely because it was so unique.) Thus, it's generally the case that changes take some time to show up.

(1) Persistence. Due to the influence of Robert Rubin, Clinton's policy mix was not all that different from Reagan's, except for a greater expansion of the EITC, and significant cuts in defense, which was sort of a no-brainer, what with no nuclear superpower confronting us as the leader of a large block of nations.  The former helped more with human maintenance than human development.  The latter helped balance the budget, so that Bush II could come along and raid it.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Iceland (0.00 / 0)
Unfortunately, Iceland has fallen like a rock in the economic meltdown.  Their prosperity was based on being everyone's aggressive offshore bank, and now the country's flat broke (and not in a position to print money that anyone will accept).

me (0.00 / 0)
I did a series of blog posts about the Human Development index, if anyone's interested. (Actually, one of them is what eventually led to the AHDP post in the Economix blog, which Paul cites.)

I'm planning another blog post based on correspondence with a reader, who calculated the HDIs of states and compared them to foreign countries. The top states - CT, NY, MA, HI, etc. - are comparable to the wealthiest countries in the world. At the bottom of the scale, Mississippi and West Virginia are between Portugal and the Czech Republic, and below Slovenia and South Korea.


Interesting (0.00 / 0)
I just glanced through it quickly, 'll have to read your stuff more carefully when I'm not working on future diaries under the gun.

Two questions right off the top, though:

(1) How are you handling making US data and UN data comparable?

(2) What about congressional districts?


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
data (0.00 / 0)
Well, the UN HDI is a simple mean of three measures: life expectancy, income, and education, and apparently it's pretty easy to get life expectancy and income measures for states. Education is harder, and I'm not sure exactly how you get that; but I'll have an explanation on it when I write the post. I don't know if that data is available for congressional districts, but the AHDP seemed to do a pretty good job with that data. The director of the AHDP also told me they were working on putting together data and maps at the county level, too, so that should be interesting.

[ Parent ]
Migration (0.00 / 0)
I think it would be interesting to fold in some data about internal migration.

We always hear stories about people picking up from the South and moving to NY or LA to make their fortunes. I'm not aware of any such stories about migration in the other direction.

What this means is that in addition to whatever factors are holding back development in the poorer regions we also need to include the brain drain effect. Those with the most drive, desire to innovate or desire to be in a stimulating intellectual atmosphere leave.

This brain drain means that efforts to improve the opportunities in the poorer regions are made even more difficult.

There is a fairly brisk argument going on in the international development area of the blogosphere about how to stimulate growth in the poorest countries (William Easterly's blog is a good place to start), but we don't see many of the ideas being suggested by the various factions being applied to the US.  

Policies not Politics


No one's moving to the South? Raleigh-Cary is the fastest growing region in (0.00 / 0)
the US. I'm from LA and now live in NC. There are many CA migrants here- you're wrong on that much.

[ Parent ]
Deep South vs. Outer South (0.00 / 0)
North Carolina has been investing in education and research even since before the end of segregation, so naturally the dynamics are different there.  Robert's referring to the more impoverished parts of the South, particularly the Deep South, but the same would even apply to some more rural and remote parts of North Carolina as well.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
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