Americans Healthier, More Educated -- and Poorer

Students celebrate during their college graduation in Utah. Elder D. Todd Christofferson was commencement speaker. Photograph by Patrick Smith/Daily Herald/AP Photo Close

Students celebrate during their college graduation in Utah. Elder D. Todd... Read More


Students celebrate during their college graduation in Utah. Elder D. Todd Christofferson was commencement speaker. Photograph by Patrick Smith/Daily Herald/AP Photo

After a decade of shrinking incomes, here’s a consoling thought: Doing better means more than just bringing home a bigger paycheck.

A study released today shows that while Americans have been earning less they’ve also been living longer and learning more. With its new report Measure of America 2013-2014, the Social Science Research Council tries to capture these broader measures of U.S. well-being in a “human development index.”

The idea for such an index was developed in 1990 by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq as an alternative to the much-cited gross domestic product. Conventional measures are “not paying enough attention to data about ordinary people,” says study co-author Sarah Burd-Sharps. The project, begun in 2007, calculates a human development index score based on three factors -- wealth, health and education.

Healthy, Less Wealthy & Wise

Wealth is measured by looking at median earnings, which fell $2,185 per person over the last decade, adjusting for inflation, to $28,899. Health, as measured by longevity, improved quite a bit. U.S. life expectancy at birth rose 1.9 years to 78.9 years from 2000 to 2010 -- an extra 2.3 months in lifespan for every year that passed. The final factor, education, looks at school enrollment and how many people earned educational degrees. Both rose; the proportion of Americans with a high school diploma jumping 5.2 percentage points to 85.6 percent.

The combination of falling earnings, longer lives and more education means the human development index for the U.S. inched up to 5.03, from 4.76 in 2000. The real value of the study is the way the data can be sorted by ethnic group, geographic region or other factors.

Here are some other findings:

  • The drop in earnings was widespread and can only partly be blamed on the 2007 to 2009 recession. By 2005, 30 states had already registered a drop in median earnings.
  • All ethnic groups except Asian-Americans saw wages fall. Whites were hit the hardest, suffering a median $2,300 drop in annual pay.
  • Latinos must save for longer-than-average retirements out of wages that are lower than any other group. Latinos’ life expectancy at birth, at 82.8, makes them the second longest-living group other than Asian-Americans, who live to be 86.5 on average. Their median earnings of $20,956 were $7,943 below average.
  • Geographic differences can be starker than gender or racial divisions. Whites in Washington, D.C., can expect to live nine years longer than whites 95 miles away in West Virginia. Plus, white Washington residents earn more than double those in West Virginia, $57,000 vs. $26,000.
  • Michigan is the only state that saw its human development score fall over the last decade. Among the states’ woes was a $7,000-per-person drop in typical earnings.

New Questions

The study’s authors admit many of the trends found in the data raise more questions than answers. It’s clear that lower smoking rates and greater seatbelt use are improving longevity, but why did African-Americans see life expectancy improve more than any other ethnic group? They lived three years longer in 2010 than in 2000, though they still live 4.3 years less than average. Native Americans were the only group whose lifespans didn’t increase.

These data give policymakers and philanthropists an idea of where to direct resources, revealing where people are falling behind and which groups are doing better, at least in theory. Says study co-author Kristen Lewis: “You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know you have it.”

An interactive map on the Measure of America website allows users to crunch the data themselves.

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