Bringing Human Development to the United States

July 9, 2019

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by Kristen Lewis, Director, Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council

To coincide with the 10 year anniversary of the publication of the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, the Carnegie UK Trust is publishing a series of blogs which outline the approach taken to measuring and improving wellbeing by different governments, organisations and initiatives around the world.

Let’s go back in time, back to long-ago 2007. Rihanna was singing “Umbrella” on the radio. In June, an intoxicating new gadget called the iPhone hit the market. And outside of academia and other expert circles, there was little talk of rising inequality. The one percent was already peeling off from the rest of us, but Occupy Wall Street was still four years away, and we were blissfully unaware that the bottom was about to fall out of the economy in December. This was the context in which a former colleague from the United Nations, Sarah Burd-Sharps, approached me with an exciting prospect: to work with her to introduce to the United States an idea—human development—that had broadened the way we understand, measure, and track people’s well-being around the world—from strictly economic metrics like GDP to a measure that captures some of the other things, besides money, that expand our choices, opportunities, and freedoms.

With this project, we hoped to explore inequality in the US in a new way, one that included but went beyond money to bring in inequalities in health outcomes, access to quality education, voice and agency, life chances, and more. We were eager to bring good practices and new perspectives from other countries to bear on US problems. We also wanted to contribute to a more reasoned, well-informed debate about fundamental issues by making objective data and social science research more accessible and digestible; at that point, the idea that facts mattered was utterly uncontroversial.

We established a nonprofit organization and were fortunate enough to receive a founding grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. We modified the global Human Development Index to meet the needs of an affluent democracy like the US, crunched the numbers to present this new American Human Development Index by state and congressional district as well as by race and ethnicity and by gender, and produced a first-ever American Human Development Report in 2008. Since that first report, we have released national reports every other year, developed a series of state and county reports, and created a host of online tools for exploring inequality—some thirty projects in all.

In the dozen years since MOA first decided to adapt the UN’s Human Development Index to an American context, other indices and data dashboards have sprouted up everywhere like mushrooms after a rainstorm, and many of them are great. But if the goal is to establish an alternative to the GDP as the measure of social and economic progress for the American people, we believe the American Human Development Index is the best contender.

What sets the American HDI apart? First, it directly measures well-being in a way that is non-controversial and easy to understand, and it does so using indicators that most people can agree are central to a good life and which are easy to measure—health, education, and earnings. In America, an Asian baby girl born today can expect to live nearly 18 years longer than a black baby boy born today. In Los Angeles County, 72% of adults in the Westwood neighborhood have a bachelor’s degree, some twenty-three times the rate in East Rancho Dominguez. In the New York metro area, median earnings for Indian men are three and a half times those of Bangladeshi women. These objective, hard numbers are not only easy to grasp; what they mean for people’s lives is also easy to understand.

Second, the Index is comparable over time and from place to place. Because the data used to build the Index is regularly and reliably collected year after year across the entire country, we are able to calculate scores across places and racial and ethnic groups in the same way every year. This allows us to track change over time using consistent metrics in a single place (for example., Minnesota in 2005 compared to Minnesota in 2016), to compare well-being levels in different locales (for example, Missouri versus. Montana), and to gauge the well-being of specific groups living in different places (Latinos in Los Angeles compared to Latinos in Chicago, for instance).

Third, it focuses on outcomes. While many data points help us understand specific problems related to people’s lives (like unemployment rates) or quantify efforts to address these problems (for example, funding for job training or minimum-wage policies), we often stop short of measuring the impact of these efforts: Are programs and investments making a difference? Are people’s living standards rising? The Index focuses on the end result of efforts to bring about change.

Fourth, it counts everyone. The Index moves away from the binary us–them view of advantage and disadvantage of today’s poverty measure to one in which everyone can see him- or herself along the same continuum. This more inclusive analysis can stimulate a less polarized, partisan conversation and build common cause among groups that share the same struggles.

And last but not least, it is a road-tested methodology that rests on a rigorous conceptual framework. The American HD Index builds on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, the global gold standard for assessing progress and gauging well-being for nearly thirty years. It was a measure designed specifically to be alternative to GDP. The American Index, like the global index, rests on a robust conceptual framework, the capabilities approach of Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, and was the brainchild of some of the world’s most gifted economists. The American HDI is a proven product; Measure of America has been calculating it for over a decade, using it to produce scores of tools, created in partnership with dozens of organizations, that are used by tens of thousands of people across the country.

Though many interesting alternatives have appeared on the scene in recent years, none offers the conceptual clarity, theoretical rigor, advocacy power, or wide applicability necessary to change how Americans view development like the American Human Development Index does. It shines a spotlight on who in our society has the chance to live a freely chosen, rewarding life—and who doesn’t.