U.S. Lags Behind in Social Progress

In many ways the U.S. economy powers the global economy. The dollar is the global currency and English is the language of global business. Despite three generations of dominance in global trade and breaktaking wealth creation for business elite, social progress has slowed in American. Life, health, and opportunity is better for the average person in many other countries–that’s the tough truth told by the Social Progress Index 2014 Report.

“Economic growth without social progress results in lack of inclusion, discontent, and social unrest,” according to the report co-authored by Harvard economist and business advisor Michael Porter. The report recommends “twin scorecards of success” where “social progress sits alongside economic prosperity.”

The report is project of the Skoll Foundation sponsored Social Progress Imperative which seeks “to improve the quality of lives of people around the world, particularly the least well off, by advancing global social progress.” Social progress is defined as the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.

The Initiative sponsored the development of an index to measure outcomes in social and environmental areas in comparable ways across countries.

  • Basic human needs: nutrition, medical care, shelter, and safety
  • Foundations of wellbeing: access to basic knowledge; access to information and communication, health and wellness, economic sustainability; and
  • Opportunity: personal rights, freedom and choice, tolerance and inclusion, and access to advanced education

The report concludes that “the top three countries in the world in terms of social progress are New Zealand, Switzerland, and Iceland.”

The U.S. ranks second on GDP per capita but is 16th on the list with a score bolstered by access to advanced education but penalized by poor health outcomes (70th place despite spending more than any country) and weak access to basic knowledge (39th place on factors including high school enrollment and adult literacy) and access to information and communication (23rd place on indicators like cell phone subscriptions).

The report underscores the importance of access to quality health care for both social progress and prosperity–as well as how inefficient American health care is (i.e., high cost, terrible outcomes) and how unfortunate it is that U.S. political parties talk past each other rather than dealing with the hard facts laid out in this report (and many others).

Like healthcare, the report points out that access to quality primary and secondary education and access to broadband are essential to economic and social progress.

For those interested in creating smart cities–urban hubs of prosperity and progress–the implications are clear. Cities should make sure that

  • families in every zip code have access to great K-12 schools (and, like New Orleans, failing schools should be eliminated by improving or closing them);
  • all students have access to full and part time online learning, including world languages, college courses, and career and technical education;
  • students receive strong guidance services;
  • a web of youth and family services are available; and
  • broadband is widely and freely available and inexpensive at home (free for low income families with children)

Thanks to Fareed Zakaria GPS for a great interview with Michael Porter on the Social Progress Index.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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