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Hope for American well-being in the next century

The co-founder of a project measuring American well-being sees hope for the next century in spite of poor results

Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-founder and co-director of The Human Development Project (HDP), an initiative measuring human well-being in the U.S., is optimistic about the future of this country. Her optimism is not grounded in Americans’ current state of well being – according to the HDP, residents of 29 countries live longer lives, on average, than Americans, but spend up to eight times less on their health – but from the possibility of what it could be.

Need to Know spoke with Burd-Sharps about the HDP’s most recent report, “A Century Apart: New Measures of Well-being for U.S. Racial and Ethnic Groups.”

How does your study measure Americans’ well-being?

The index itself measures three basic building blocks of a decent life. It measures how long you’re living as a proxy for health, the highest degree you’ve [received] to talk about education and your earnings from your labor to talk about income issues. [Using] official government statistics, we ranked every state in the U.S., every congressional district and each of the five major ethnic groups to just get a sense of what the distribution of opportunity is in our country.

Why is the HDP important?

I was working with [other] countries to look at the [human development] index within their own country and seeing what an incredible tool it was in talking about really difficult issues: issues of uneven progress among tribes, language groups, races, etc. I thought I would really love to see what this looks like in my own country so I raised funding, quit my job at the U.N. and started on this work.

What in your findings surprised you?

Lots of things. Just take two states that aren’t even very far away. A baby born in one congressional district in rural Kentucky today can expect to live 10 years on average less than a baby born today in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. That’s an incredible [discrepancy] within one country.

One of the biggest gaps we found was between Asian-Americans in New Jersey and Native Americans in South Dakota; huge, huge differences in terms of well-being. We project that in 50 years, if current trends continue, the country as a whole will reach the levels of well-being that Asian-Americans in New Jersey have now. Whereas Native Americans in South Dakota are about 50 years behind where the country as a whole is today. If you add those statistics together, you get a century.

“A Century Apart” was cited in a recent New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks, which used the report to argue that policy had limited success in contributing to the success of a group, and that factors like culture, work ethic and behavior, on average, had more of an impact. What do you think of the media’s coverage of your report?

A lot of people were really concerned about the way that Brooks interpreted the report. [People who posted comments] refuted to a certain extent the notion that policy doesn’t matter.

People see what they want to see. Part of the report also showed huge differences within races from one state to another.

Our goal is really to generate a debate, and I think the report really has done that. We like to say the American dream means that everybody [who] works hard and plays by the rules can move up in their lives and have a better life for their children, but unfortunately the truth is, we have really stalled in terms of social mobility and these huge gaps get passed on generation after generation. The sooner we admit and reckon with these gaps, the more we can stop perpetuating the transition of disadvantage from one generation to the next.

The HDP’s website has a whole section about optimism. Why are you optimistic about some groups being a century apart on the index?

Not all the findings are optimistic. Our optimism is founded on two things: that things can be different [and] that we’re a really affluent country and when we care about an issue and take leadership on it it’s amazing what changes we can make. It’s incredible [that] in 10 years, largely [due to] Medicaid, we halved the rate of poverty in the elderly. [The] Native American community [has] tremendous wealth from oil and energy and from casinos. So the optimism is wealth in that community. There’s huge potential there. Of course, the flip side of that is a certain level of frustration that it’s not happening.

Right, in your conclusions you state that an abundance of natural resources like oil and minerals had a negative impact on governance and democratic participation. What do you mean by that?

We commissioned a paper to look at a couple of states that have tremendous natural resource abundance. And interestingly enough, a couple of them, like Louisiana, were nearly at the bottom of our index of states. What tends to happen is that after the moment when that natural resource is discovered, governance gets frozen. The party in leadership at that time is harder to change over because they hold the keys to that wealth.

You say policy makes a large difference to human well-being. How should we be spending our tax dollars?

The biggest investment we can make in this country today is in education, not only for health but for our future competitiveness as a nation. In America, 40 percent of local school expenditures come from property taxes, so if you live in a wealthy neighborhood, you have safer, cleaner, higher quality education. That’s extremely problematic because it means that the children who perhaps are entering school with the highest mountain to climb have the fewest resources to climb that mountain. And it’s not in anybody’s interest.

You’re coming out with a book at the end of the year, “The Measure of America:  2010-2011,” the first human development report for a wealthy, developed nation. What will it tell us?

We’ve ranked again every state, we’ve ranked every congressional district and we’re looking at one state against the next trying to figure out what makes the difference [to move up on this human development index].

We’re also looking at where is the U.S. in terms of life expectancy as compared to our peer nations. Where are we in terms of achievement in school testing? How are we doing on infant mortality? How about earnings?

I [already] did a little look at Louisiana [the state with the lowest human index score for African-Americans] and Maryland [the state with the highest human index score] to try to figure out what’s contributing to a huge gap between African-Americans. Louisiana has no state minimum wage [while] Maryland’s is above the federal one. Louisiana has a state-earned income tax credit that’s four percent of the federal; Maryland’s is 25 percent of the federal. Union rates, half in Louisiana of what they are in Maryland and that particularly affects African-American population. Incarceration rates are double in Louisiana what they are in Maryland, leaving huge numbers of African-American families without a breadwinner.

What do people ultimately need to know about this study?

If they want to hold an elected official accountable for longer, healthier lives or better schools for their kids, this is a tool to enable them to look at what’s happening over time. To say to their elected officials: We care about this issue. What are you doing to make it so that next time around we’re not number 24, but we move up [in] the ranking?

A Century Apart

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