The U.S. Doesn’t Even Crack the Top 10 on a Ranking of Social Progess

The ‘Social Progress Index’ shows global prosperity isn’t only about GDP.
Thousands of pedestrians at the famous Marienplatz in Munich, Germany. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jul 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jillian Frankel is an editorial intern for TakePart. She is the features and student life editor at the UCLA campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin.

“We swimmin’ in money, we drownin’ in hundreds.”

That’s a line Rihanna croons on the song “Nothing Is Promised,” an ode to the financial payoff of hard work and capitalism. Given its sizable gross domestic product, the United States is, like RiRi, swimming in money. But when it comes to the overall well-being of American citizens, too many seem to be drowning.

That a nation’s economic wealth doesn’t guarantee a high quality of life is the main finding of the 2016 Social Progress Index, a ranking of 133 countries representing 99 percent of the world’s population. Instead of only analyzing GDP, the index, which is produced by the Social Progress Imperative, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit, measures 53 indicators—such as education, health and wellness, and tolerance—that fall into three broad categories: Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity.

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Along with evaluating individual nations on a scale of zero to 100, the index takes into account how a country is performing in comparison with 15 other nations with similar GDP. After all, it’s easy for most nations to look good when compared with an impoverished, war-torn nation with a decimated infrastructure—to that point, researchers chose not to include a score for Syria. Certain components of 27 countries could not be measured, so their overall scores were not included, although subscores were listed where applicable.

Overall, Finland, known for its education system and social safety nets, has the highest score. Proving that Nordic countries don’t always dominate global prosperity rankings, Canada comes in second, thanks to its high levels of tolerance and access to advanced education, while Denmark is ranked third. Chad, Afghanistan, and the Central African Republic were ranked worst off. The United States, despite its GDP per capita of $52,118, ranks 19th. The U.S. results were particularly dismal in the areas of health and wellness, tolerance and inclusion, and environmental quality.

(Data: Social Progress Imperative)

“It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this is yet another disappointing result for the U.S. and that citizens are getting a pretty raw deal when it comes to translating the country’s wealth into social progress,” Michael Green, the executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, said in a statement.

That GDP can’t guarantee improved rights and living conditions can also be seen in Saudi Arabia’s results. The Middle Eastern nation ranks 65th despite having a robust national GDP of about $50,000 per capita. Its low levels of personal rights and freedoms and the lack of educational opportunity for women keep it from ranking higher. Meanwhile, Costa Rica, which has high levels of education and excellent access to medical care, ranked 28th overall, although its national GDP per capita is only $14,232.

Even an individual examination of the three broad categories included in the index can’t help the U.S. break into the top 10. In the Basic Human Needs category, which includes nutrition and basic medical care, water and sanitation, shelter, and personal safety, Denmark received top marks, the U.S. ranked 21st, and the Central African Republic ranked last.

The Foundations of Wellbeing category incorporates issues such as access to basic knowledge, information, and communication, as well as health and wellness and environmental quality. In this category, Norway topped the list, the U.S. ranked 32nd, and the Central African Republic ranked last.

In the Opportunity category, which looks at personal rights, personal freedom and choice, tolerance and inclusion, and access to advanced education, Canada received the highest score, and Sudan finished last.

Explore the interactive graphic below to learn the ranking—and the strengths and weaknesses—of each nation in the index.