The State of America’s Well-Being

This blog post appeared as a commentary in the Stanford Social Innovation Review  on February 28, 2012. You can access the original article here.

As the national debt debate intensifies and public resources become increasingly scarce, determining how best to allocate federal dollars is today’s burning question. So who is making these critical decisions, and how—and how will we know if we’re on the right track? Shaping the path is the 113th Congress, celebrated as the most diverse in history, with more women, people of color, and openly gay or lesbian members than ever before.

Yet our research, which compares Congress to the US population as a whole, shows that members are still disproportionately white and male, and twice as likely to be over age 65 as other Americans. Using as a gauge the American Human Development Index (AHDI)—a composite measure of government health, education, and income data—we find that the divide between representatives and their constituents is vast. Congress as a whole enjoys higher levels of well-being than the highest-ranked state by AHDI: Connecticut.

When it comes to education, more than 95 percent of members of Congress have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. That number for the US population as a whole is 28 percent. Another fun fact: Members of Congress are 68 times as likely as all American adults to have practiced law.

How does Congress compare to the general population in income? Median annual earnings of American workers ages 16 and older are $29,000. Members of Congress earn $174,000. Put another way, members of Congress earn six times what the typical worker earns annually—and this includes only salaries, not outside income, assets, allowances, or benefits.

The only area in which Congress lags behind the country as a whole is health. The average American can expect to outlive the average member of the 113th Congress by more than one and a half years. The disproportionate number of men (the world over, women live longer) and dearth of Asian Americans and Latinos (the US racial and ethnic groups that live the longest) pull down the average Congressional life span.

OK, so what if Congress is dramatically better off than the rest of us? Don’t we want well-educated people making our laws and allocating our resources? Of course. But we want the same for the rest of America. The real question for our representatives is how to raise AHDI scores across the board so that America’s well-being looks more like Congress’s.

AHDI is a valuable tool for understanding which groups are thriving and which are barely surviving, and where to channel our scarce resources. Rooted in the human development approach, AHDI asks how people—the real measure of American strength and prosperity—are doing. GDP, on the other hand, asks how the economy is doing—and the answer can be misleading. GDP has tripled since 1975, but the big productivity gains that fueled GDP growth have not paid off for the vast majority of Americans; median personal earnings have barely budged in four decades. GDP is increasingly irrelevant as a marker of human progress—the focus of the AHDI.

Congress’s disproportionately high level of well-being means that the majority of its members are detached from the reality of average Americans—people concerned with making the rent, paying for health care, hanging on to their jobs, and living in safe neighborhoods with decent schools for their children. A Congress that reflects the full diversity of American society is more likely to be responsive to its needs. New people bring new ideas, new perspectives, and new information, which spur new solutions. Plus, research shows that diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous groups. So just as we want an America that looks more like Congress in terms of well-being indicators, we also want a Congress that looks more like America in terms of demographics.

So, as they consider budget cuts, what should our representatives do to increase people’s well-being? It’s critical that Congress is not penny smart and pound foolish. It must take a long-term view and understand that there are proven investments we can make now to increase our well-being and global economic competitiveness, save taxpayers money, and reduce our debt.

Congress should invest in fostering the conditions that allowed its members to succeed in their own lives, starting with education. Our representatives, nearly all of who possess at least bachelor’s degrees, have demonstrated the importance of education. Quality preschool has been shown to be the single most cost-effective educational intervention. Congress should start there.

Furthermore, we all know that education leads to better jobs and bigger paychecks. But research increasingly shows that more education also correlates to better, happier, and longer lives for individuals. It also pays big dividends for all of us in the form of increased civic engagement, greater neighborhood safety, more tolerance, and a more globally competitive workforce.

To stay true to our national value of equal opportunity for all, we need forward-looking policies and investments that improve human development outcomes across the board. We need a Congress that represents the people and a tool that can measure real progress in what matters to average Americans: health, education, and economic security. We need to show leadership as a nation in advancing human development, starting by investing in our own citizens’ well-being.

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