Five Subway Stops, A Half-Century Difference
New Yorkers do not need a starship to travel back in time. Instead we can board the #6 subway train at 96th St. on the Upper East Side and travel five stops uptown into the Bronx. Emerging at the Third Ave. station, we enter a world that, in terms of well being, is more than half a century behind the one we just left.
Ninety-sixth St. is in New York State's 14th congressional district, which, according to the findings of a new study, ranks number one in the nation on the human development index, a measure of human welfare that takes into account data not just on earnings but also on life expectancy and education. The Third Ave. station is in the state's 16th congressional district, which ranks in the bottom 20 congressional districts for the whole of the country.
Though separated by little more than two miles, the two districts show a 56-year gap in human development, reports The Measure of America, which brings the human development index—used internationally by the United Nations for 18 years—to bear on the United States for the first time. While data are plentiful on the extremes of poverty and affluence in the United States, the report provides a single measure of well being for all Americans, disaggregated by state and congressional district, as well as by gender, race and ethnicity.
In the United States, the state of the nation is often assessed through Gross Domestic Product, daily stock market results, consumer spending levels, national debt, and related measures. But these numbers provide only a partial view of how we are faring. The human development model emphasizes the broader, everyday experience of ordinary people. On the assumption that people everywhere value longevity, knowledge and income as the building blocks of a good life, the Human Development Index measures just three factors:
- life expectancy, as a key indicator of health;
- school enrollment and educational attainment, as a measure of access to knowledge; and
- earned income, as a measure of material well-being.
All three factors are weighted equally. While the index has its limitations (it does not measure, for instance, living in physical security and enjoying a healthy natural environment), it has gained support the world over as a useful tool for analyzing the well-being of large populations.
Returning to the example of New York’s 14th district, which includes Manhattan’s East Side, Roosevelt Island, and part of Queens: here, residents earn $51,139 on average; and 62.6 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. Poverty and unemployment are low: 10.3 and 5.4 percent respectively. By contrast, average income for residents of the District 16 (South Bronx) is $19,113. Only 8.7 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. Poverty is at 41.6 percent, and unemployment is running at 13.9 percent. The report also shows that the 14th and 16th districts have distinct ethnic profiles: the 14th is overwhelmingly white, whereas Latinos and African Americans constitute more than 93 percent of the 16th district's population.
Such disparities in human development levels are replicated in several other large states—most notably, in California, which contains three of the top five congressional districts but also the district (#20, Kings County, near Fresno) that comes in dead last on the index, with median earnings in 2005 at $16,767 (the level of the country in the early 1960s). Only 6.5 percent of residents of California’s District 20 have a bachelor’s degree.
Likewise, the index shows considerable variation among racial and ethnic groups, and between men and women. By gender and ethnicity, Asian males have the highest human development score; African American males the lowest. The human development gap between the two groups is as much as 50 years.
American women have a higher education index and live, on average, about five years longer than men. But women’s lower earnings wipe out these advantages. Indeed, although women’s earnings have steadily risen since the 1960s, American women still take home 78 percent, on average, of what American men earn. And when benefits are factored in, the disparity is even more noticeable.
In addition to the human development index data, the report includes a wealth of data distilled from primary sources that is not found together anywhere else, which is handy for making cross-national comparisons. According to the last annual human development report issued by the UN in 2007, the U.S. was the 12th most livable country on the planet. But with the statistics collected in this new report, we learn that:
- Our infant mortality rate is on a par with that of Croatia.
- Only 53 percent of our three-and four-year-old children are enrolled in pre-school education (versus 75 percent in Canada, Germany, Japan, Russia and the UK, and close to 100 percent in France and Italy).
- American women enjoy no federally mandated paid maternity leave, something that 163 other countries guarantee at some level.
- We have 24 percent of the world's prisoners with only five percent of its population. Our incarceration rate is five to nine times greater than that of our peer nations.
- Only one in six of us has health insurance, whereas every other affluent country in the world provides health coverage to virtually every citizen.
In a number of countries, the Human Development Index is now an official government statistic; its annual publication inaugurates political discussion and renewed efforts, nationally and regionally, to improve lives. It is no coincidence that the first American human development report has been launched at the height of the presidential campaign season, in time to give us a snapshot of America today, and to provide a benchmark by which to evaluate progress in the future. Let the debates begin...