Two Americas: A Better Way To Measure How We Are Really Doing

This blog post originally appeared on Cognoscenti, a blog of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station on June 4, 2015. You can access the original article here.

There’s a problem with our conception of progress in America: It’s based on money and not much else. We hear a lot about economic indicators like the trade deficit, or the price of oil, or stock-trading volumes, but relatively few people know that young adults in Abington, Brockton and Avon are six times as likely to be disconnected—neither working nor in school—as their counterparts in Allston or Brighton, or that an African-American baby born today can expect to live, on average, 11 fewer years than an Asian-American baby born today.

Economic indicators like gross domestic product (GDP) provide important information, but using them as proxies for societal progress paints an incomplete and often misleading picture. For instance, from 1974 to 2013, America’s GDP grew by more than 200 percent—but during that same time, the relative child poverty rate also grew, from 20 percent to 30 percent. So while we should celebrate New England’s post-recession economic growth, we also must look beyond the marquee numbers to see how this growth is, or isn’t, translating into better lives for people.

The American Human Development Index (HDI) is a better way to think about and measure progress. It combines indicators on three basic building blocks of a good life: health, education and income. And it expresses the result on a zero-to-10 scale. Based on a conceptual framework developed by Harvard’s Amartya Sen and adopted by the United Nations, the HDI enables communities to understand where they stand relative to others, shines a spotlight on opportunity gaps, and helps identify solutions.

Using the American HDI, we ranked the 435 congressional districts and Washington, D.C. Our analysis revealed astonishing inequalities within regions and states, even in parts of the country that are doing well overall—like New England, which ranks first in terms of well-being among nine Census Bureau-defined regions in the U.S.

What do these rankings mean on the ground, and why do they matter? Compare, for example, New England’s top- and bottom-scoring districts: District 5 in Massachusetts, containing the suburbs north and west of Boston, and District 2 in Maine, a largely rural area covering a majority of the state’s land, and the only one in the region that scored below the national average.

A baby born today in Massachusetts’ District 5 can expect to live, on average, 81.6 years—more than three years longer than a baby born today in Maine’s District 2. The Massachusetts baby—let’s call her Emma, the state’s most popular name for girls in 2014—will grow up in a region in which more than half of all adults have completed bachelor’s degrees, more than one in four hold graduate degrees, and median personal earnings are about $42,000 (about $12,000 more than the national median).

Our Maine baby, little Olivia (Maine’s second-most popular name for girls in 2014), will grow up in a place where far fewer adults, about one in five, have bachelor’s degrees, and where median personal earnings are about $25,000, roughly $5,000 less than the national median.

Higher shares of college graduates in a place are associated with better educational outcomes for children, more economic growth and higher wages, even for those without college degrees. In addition, children whose early years are spent in economically stressed households tend to have worse health as adults than children who grow up in more affluent families. In other words, Emma is likelier to enter adulthood with a good education, find a job, earn higher wages, and even enjoy better health than Olivia.

The HDI shows how disinvestment and neglect have left whole communities behind, especially when it comes to education, health, civic engagement and real opportunities open to young people. For example, compared to children in the suburbs, children living in urban neighborhoods are much more likely to live in poverty, be exposed to safety and health risks, and attend overcrowded, underfunded schools where they feel unsafe, where teachers have high rates of absenteeism, where behavioral problems disrupt learning, and where achievement levels and graduation rates lag.

Though recent national dialogue around income inequality is a step in the right direction, we also need to examine the other ways in which people in America experience opportunity — or the lack of it. Why are young adults in one area six times as likely to be disconnected from both school and work as those just across town? Why should people in one district outlive their neighbors in the adjacent district by six or seven years?

To answer these questions, we need to take an honest look at how and where we are allocating public resources. We also need to rely on indicators that focus directly on people and the real opportunities they have to live rewarding, productive, freely chosen lives. Just some of the ways we can begin to address these inequalities include creating programs that fight the biggest contributors to preventable death in the United States: smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive drinking; supporting high-quality universal preschool programs; providing more young people access to higher education; helping students complete their degrees; and ensuring that all jobs offer decent wages, economic security and dignity. By including health, education and income in defining a good life, we can more accurately measure progress, and we can begin to drive real change, in New England and across the country.