DON'T DESPAIR

The many measures of human progress that will keep improving no matter what Donald Trump does

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

The US presidential election has left the country divided: one half excited at the prospect that an anti-establishment leader will move the country in a new direction, the other worried that he will undo a lot of the advances of recent decades.

Trump’s appointments so far aren’t encouraging, with a team made up of far-right ideologues and national security hardliners. But there’s some comfort to be taken from looking at data. While presidents can and do have an effect on the country, many of the key indicators of progress in the US have been improving regardless of who is in the White House.

Life expectancy

Despite both good and bad Democrat and Republican presidents in the last six decades, the life expectancy of Americans has increased by 10 years. Though it remains different for people of different races, there has been progress for all.

Child mortality

Small but consistent developments in healthcare and research have ensured a continued decline in child mortality.

Women at work

Though the US didn’t elect its first female president this year, and though there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender equality, the share of women in the workplace has been going up steadily.

Crime

Trump claimed that “crime is rising,” but while some types of crime have increased in recent years, crime on the whole has been falling steadily. Take homicides, for example:

Suicide rate

The suicide rate, like the crime rate, has been falling after going through an increase in the 1960s and 1970s.

Air pollution

Globally, air pollution kills millions every year. But pollution levels have been falling in the US (as they should, in a developed country).

Smoking

In the light of all the disregard for scientific facts in this election, it’s heartening that at least one hasn’t been challenged. Since the tobacco lobby’s false claim that smoking doesn’t cause cancer was exposed, cigarette sales have fallen steadily.

Natural disasters

Though climate change is making extreme-weather events, such as floods and hurricanes, more frequent, they kill far fewer people than they used to. The development of vaccines and the ability to grow more food have cut back the millions of deaths once caused by infectious diseases and droughts.

Of course, not everything has been rosy. In some crucial areas, the US hasn’t been making much progress.

Poverty

After an initial decline in the proportion of families below the US poverty threshold, helped partly by the introduction of stronger social welfare through the Social Security Act of 1962, not much has changed.

Vaccinations

After some bumps, vaccination coverage has remained steady. With Trump and his vice-president Mike Pence’s view on vaccines, that might not last.

And then there are data that show a regress. If Donald Trump wants to make America great, these are the trends he should focus on reversing.

Literacy rate

Surprisingly for a developed country, literacy rate in the US fell (very) slightly between the mid-1970s and the mid-2000s. However, there is some controversy about what the actual literacy rate is, because it depends on the definition of literacy. What we can be sure about is that, if literacy has indeed fallen, then low school-enrollment rate and rising high-school dropout rate are to be blamed.

Education spending

What’s odd is that the literacy rate are falling at the same time as public expenditure on education has risen. This may be because of a greater proportion of the money is being spent on higher education than basic education.

Health-care spending

Americans spend a lot more money than people in other developed countries for the same or worse quality of health care. That left millions unable to afford health coverage, which Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) was developed to address. Trump would like to replace ACA, but he hasn’t explained what with. Such a move could jeopardize the health of millions who were able to have health insurance for the first time in their lives.

Inequality

In times of both economic growth and recession, income inequality has been rising in the US for a long time. In part, Trump won because he said he’d reduce it. But seeing how happy banks are about a Trump presidency, it seems likely that at least some of the rich are going to get even richer.

Human rights

Human-rights protection in the US has been declining according to a score developed by US researchers Christopher Fariss and Keith Schnakenberg. It measures protection from political repression as well as from physical threats. A positive value on the scale indicates a country is doing better than the global average; negative indicates it’s doing worse. The US’s score fell below zero after the start of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.”

Global warming

This year has been the hottest year on record. Fortunately, both government policies and businesses in the US are moving towards greener policies. The US has ratified the Paris agreement, along with the biggest polluters, and committed to reducing emissions to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. Additionally, in 2014 and 2015, global GDP increased without an increase in carbon emissions.

Trump could reverse some of this progress. He has threatened to pull the US out of the Paris agreement, and bring back coal. However, it may not be that bad. With Trump’s unscientific stance on climate change, China is showing signs of taking the lead.

In effect, the data show that whatever Donald Trump does, his influence is likely to be limited. Even Barack Obama, the outgoing president, who considered Trump “temperamentally unfit” and “uniquely unqualified,” says so.

“The federal government is an aircraft carrier, it’s not a speedboat,” he told the New Yorker. “And, if you need any evidence of that, think about how hard we worked over the last eight years with a very clear progressive agenda, with a majority in the House and in the Senate, and we accomplished as much domestically as any president since Lyndon Johnson in those first two years. But it was really hard.”

With additional reporting from Elijah Wolfson and Katherine Ellen Foley.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search