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Health, education, earnings
Components of Human Development

Graphic: American Human Development Project

It’s the economy, Waldo.

“¦but not only the economy. Well-being is truly the “it” most of us strive for, and that’s lots more complex than dollars and dimes.

To grasp this bigger goal and see how successfully Americans have been at attaining “it,” the non-partisan American Human Development Project has been gathering information on health and education, as well as money, and just made public an index of human capacity in the U.S. Such models and measures have been applied through organizations like the United Nations for nearly twenty years to examine conditions in the Third World. But the new report “is the first to use this well-honed international approach to assess living standards in a wealthy, developed nation.”

Taking measures of “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” the Human Development Index then combines these scores; it assumes that these three elements, health, education, and income, comprise the “building blocks of a good life.”

The project has mapped its findings by state and Congressional district, and for rural America, the findings are bleak.

While as a whole the U.S. has advanced ““ people are living longer, earning more, and completing more years of school ““ the disparities between rich and poor, healthy and infirm, educated and uneducated are widening. The American HD Index found “a thirty year gap in human development” between Connecticut (one of the most urban states in the nation) and Mississippi (one of the most rural).

human DEvelopment Cong map
The American Human Development Index/Congressional Districts, based on 2005 data
The palest districts (much of the South) are in the lowest 20% on the HD scale; darkest areas scored highest on the index of income, life expectancy, and education
Source: American Human Development Project

Daily Yonder looked at the nation’s 25 most rural Congressional Districts on the new Human Development Index. All were below the national average on the HD Index except for Vermont (a Congressional district unto itself). Thirteen of the 25 most rural districts were in the very lowest tier (bottom fifth).

Kentucky’s Fifth District, the most rural in the nation, was at the absolute bottom of the national ranking in life expectancy. “Residents of Kentucky’s Fifth District have an average life expectancy equal to that of the average American three decades ago,”

The purpose of the new report, published July 16, is to measure human capacity, chart its progress (or decline) and point toward the improvements that individuals, social organizations and governments most need to pursue.

There’s a wealth of information to be gleaned and lots of fine, fancy interactive maps to click across. But we at the Daily Yonder found most significant the project’s conclusion: that while the overall capacity of Americans has been increasing, inequalities in health, education, and income have been dramatically increasing also.

“African American babies are two and a half times more likely to die before age one than white babies; Latinos are twice as likely to drop out of high school as African Americans and almost four times more likely to drop out than whites; and the earnings of American women are about two-thirds of men’s earnings.”

Meanwhile, potential for social mobility (a.k.a. The American Dream) has dwindled, even reversed for some groups. Citing another new research study, the project reports, “Nearly half of African-Americans born to middle-class parents in the 1960s ended up among the bottom 20 percent of earners as adults.”

us v the world on human development index

Further, when compared with our “peer” nations, the U.S. is falling behind. From 1980, when such indexes were first applied, through 1990, the U.S. ranked second among nations (behind Switzerland or Canada) on the HD Index. As of 2005, the U.S. had slipped to 12th.

Find the American Human Development Project’s interactive maps here , and see their main website for much more on the organization, its research effort, and rationale.

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