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The US leads the world in exactly one of 50 social progress indicators

Homeless men in San FRancisco. The US trails in many social progress metrics.
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
A man sleeps on the sidewalk amid an outbreak of Covid-19 in San Francisco, California.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City


There is a reason for US exceptionalism. That is, the US’s belief it is exceptional is justified for exactly one reason, according to the latest report from the Social Progress Index, which measures a nation’s standing on the parameters of international development and wellbeing set out by the UN.

The US ranks 28 out of 163 countries included in the index, trailing most other high-income nations in terms of wellbeing, basic needs, and opportunities for its citizens. There is one exception: access to advanced education, where it ranks first in the world.

Where the US really stands out, however, is in underperformance: Out of 50 indicators assessed in the index, America severely underperforms in 19, including maternal health, political rights, discrimination against minorities, greenhouse gas emissions, and early marriage. In order to evaluate the performance of a country, all nations are divided in six tiers, from the most developed to the least. Outcomes are compared to other 15 countries of similar GDP to determine a country’s performance in each parameter.

The index is produced by the Social Progress Imperative, a nonprofit organization baed in Washington, DC.

There are entire areas of development where the US is far from where it should be. All of the indicators of personal safety (including traffic deaths and homicide rates), and of health and wellness (such as life expectancy, access to health care, premature deaths) are severely below expectations. Even when it comes to education, quality of universities is the only area where the US is outperforming, while it seriously underperforms in overall access to quality education.

A special mention should go to environmental quality: The US ranks 119 out of 163 world countries observed.

Overall, the US isn’t only doing poorly—it’s doing worse than it did in 2011, and is one of only three countries (the others are Hungary and Brazil) where social progress has declined. It’s also the only G7 country to decline in the past nine years.

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