A deep-seated sense of exceptionalism remains a fundamental part of America’s collective psyche.
And in some ways, such as Americans’ access to higher education, the country remains an undeniably exceptional nation when compared with its global counterparts, according to the latest edition of the Social Progress Imperative, a U.S.-based nonprofit that produces an annual index ranking 128 countries by their social and environmental standing.
But in other ways the United States is not only unexceptional, but it also lags behind similar countries around the globe and shows ominous signs of further slippage, according to the latest index.
Most notably, the index reveals, the United States is trailing other developed countries in “Tolerance and Inclusion,” a category that includes religious tolerance, discrimination and violence against minorities, and the existence of communal safety nets.
With an overall score of 86.4/100, the United States ranks 18th out of the 180 countries measured, a slot that makes the United States a “second-tier” country, according to the index.
“The U.S. has been pretty consistently underperforming given its GDP relative to other developed nations,” Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, told The Washington Post. “The U.S. has been underperforming for some time now, but what we see now is that the U.S. has basically flatlined on social progress since 2014.
“The fact that the U.S. is in the second tier is not the product of one or two administrations, but decades of underinvestment and failure to address the problems people face,” he added.
Green noted that hidden in the data are massive fluctuations between states and cities in the United States, one reason, he said, that the organization plans to partner with states and cities to better understand the challenges they face.
And yet, he added, “There seems to be a real disconnect between what people expect the quality of life to be in the U.S. and their real, lived experience.”
Whether the United States improves its quality of life depends on whether its citizens can summon the political will to confront challenges, Green said.
The index measures the quality of life for 98 percent of the world’s population. The top of this year’s index — a section labeled “Very High Social Progress” — is dominated by northern European nations, such as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, all of which score at least 90. In the second tier, which begins with Belgium at 15, the United States is sandwiched between Japan at 17 and France at 19. Argentina rounds out the section — labeled “High Social Progress” — at 38.
The index ranks nations on the basis of 50 major measures as varied as “freedom of expression” and “wastewater treatment.” While second-tier countries generally offer their citizens access to nutrition, sanitation and electricity, they lag behind in measurements for civic engagement, communal cohesion and safety nets.
The United States is a world leader in some categories, such as “basic nutrition and medical care” and “water and sanitation,” where the country scores highly for providing its citizens access to piped water and improved sanitation facilities.
Another strong suit for the United States: “Access to basic knowledge,” according to the index, which gives the nation high marks for primary and secondary school enrollment.
The nation’s lowest scoring stems from the “Health and Wellness” and the “Tolerance and Inclusion” categories. The report states that its goal is to measure the actual health and wellness achieved, not the effort expended or the amount of money doled out for health care.
At the moment, the report found, the United States is seriously underperforming given its wealth and the size of its economy.
“The United States is 34 in the world in ‘Health and wellness,’ a category that covers life expectancy, premature deaths and suicide rates as a proxy for mental health,” Green said. “That’s about the same as Turkey.”
In the “Tolerance and Inclusion” category, the nation’s score has dropped since 2014 to 68.3 this year. Green said the score was based on data from the Pew Research Center’s Social Hostilities Index, as well as several World Gallup Polls that asked people questions including:
“Is the city or area where you live a good place or not a good place to live for gay or lesbian people?”
“If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”
On the basis of the data obtained, the index ranked the United States 19th in the world for “Tolerance for homosexuals” and 39th for “Discrimination and violence against minorities,” a number that places the country on a par with Belarus.
The rest of the world is far from perfect, according to the index. The lowest performing regions on “Tolerance and Inclusion “are South Asia and Eastern Africa. In Europe, the index reports, tolerance for immigrants is declining in countries such as the Czech Republic and Estonia and is beginning to show signs of deteriorating in Denmark, Spain, France, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, Macedonia and Russia “after showing improvement in the years prior.”
The index attributes that decline, in part, to the refugee crisis and the pressure it has placed on resources.
“The United States and Canada have both experienced declines in Tolerance and Inclusion due to decreasing religious tolerance and increasing discrimination against minorities,” the index says, noting that the United States has fallen behind countries Argentina, Chile and Uruguay in this measurement. “But whereas tolerance for immigrants has also declined in the United States, it has slightly improved in Canada.”
Green said the tolerance and inclusion component of the index “says something” about the rise of intolerance and hateful behaviors in the United States. The low score in the “community safety net” category speaks to a “fraying of civic fabric,” he said.
What remains, he said, is a chicken-or-egg question:
“Is that a product of people’s frustration because the country is not working for them or is it a feeling that is being drawn from the politics of the moment?” Green said. “The real lived experience of Americans is much worse than it should be for a country of its wealth. A lot of people have a feeling right now that they’re getting a raw deal.”