The American dream over the past few decades, in 6 maps and charts


Access to opportunity by state and over time, on a 100-point scale. (Niraj Chokshi, using Opportunity Nation data)

A Mississippian today lives about as long and earns about as much as the typical American in the late 1980s, according to a new report.

The state ranked dead last in a measure of well-being by state, presented in one of two recent reports that seek to better quantify the broad and abstract promises of life in America. The reports — conducted by Measure of America, a seven-year-old nonpartisan project of the Social Science Research Council, and Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit that promotes policies to expand social mobility — attempt to measure prosperity and opportunity in America today and over the past few decades. Both have found significant gains overall, but reversals when it comes to economic issues.

The Mississippi findings come from an MoA report released last week that applies a Human Development Index, like the one used by the United Nations, to every state to measure access to knowledge, a long and healthy life and a decent standard of living. Overall, it found that the nation’s well-being as measured by the HDI has virtually tripled over the half-century that ended in 2010. Michigan was the only state to have seen its progress backtrack over the first decade of the 2000′s.

Why devise a new measure

Human Development Index. (Measure of America)
Human Development Index. (Measure of America)

The authors of the Measure of America report argue that a new measure is needed because economic indicators, such as Gross Domestic Product, fall short.

The HDI relies on a handful of indicators — life expectancy at birth, education attainment, school enrollment, median earnings — to measure well-being and access to opportunity. GDP, meanwhile, simply tracks economic output. GDP tracks the health of the economy, the HDI purports to track the health of the people. As the chart above shows, one can draw very different conclusions about a state’s relative success depending on which measure they look at.

The two reflect different historical patterns, too. Both have grown since 1960, but GDP has far outpaced the HDI, especially recently, as shown in the graph below. Economic development is necessary, but not sufficient for improved well-being, they write.


Human Development Index. (Measure of America)

The good news: The nation’s well-being is improving…


The Human Development Index measures well-being by state on a 10-point scale. (Measure of America)

The nation’s HDI score, Measure of America’s attempt to track well-being, has more than tripled since 1960 thanks to increases in life expectancy and access to better education and health care. Yet, as the map above shows, there’s wide variation by state.

Connecticut led the nation, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland. The states lagging furthest behind are Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi, where residents have life spans and earnings that the typical American had in the late 1980s. Mississippi’s HDI score is just three fifths that of Connecticut.

Only a handful of states finished the decade with higher median earnings than they started with. They were Montana, New Mexico, the Dakotas, West Virginia and Wyoming. (D.C. did, too.)

More good news: Access to opportunity has increased


Access to opportunity by state and over time, on a 100-point scale. (Niraj Chokshi, using Opportunity Nation data)

The nation enjoys more opportunity today than it did 40 years ago, according to Opportunity Nation’s Tuesday report.

That measure is a conglomerate of indicators in three broad categories: community, education and economy. The individual indicators that comprise those three measures include violent crime statistics, youth employment data, access to doctors, school attendance, graduation rates and degree attainment, income inequality, poverty rates, household income and unemployment.

Virginia saw the greatest overall gain in opportunity from 1970 to 2010, while New Hampshire and Connecticut consistently scored highly on the measure. Alabama, Lousiana, Mississippi and New Mexico saw particularly slow progress, while Michigan and Nevada were the only two states to see access to opportunity backtrack over that period.

The bad news: Economic opportunity has contracted


(Opportunity Nation)

While access to opportunity has expanded, that was driven in large part by big gains in social and educational opportunity. Access to economic opportunity has actually contracted since 1970, according to Opportunity Nation. Earnings growth has been slow, too, according to the Measure of America report. The typical American in 2010 was earning $2,200 less than a decade earlier, that report finds.

Part of the decline in economic opportunity and well-being can be attributed to what our Wonkblog colleague Jim Tankersley described as “a bruising recession and the alarming economic trends that preceded it.” But that doesn’t tell the full story, both reports find. The Measure of America report included the map below, which shows that earnings had started to retreat even before the Great Recession.

In nearly half the states, earnings declined during the first half of the 2000′s, well before the recession hit. Just 11 states saw earnings increase, while 17 states saw stagnation.


(Measure of America)
Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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