U.S. Smarter, But Losing Ground in One Crucial Area

U.S. Smarter, But Losing Ground in One Crucial Area

This post originally appeared on MainStreet

The smartest, wealthiest and healthiest Americans live in Washington, D.C. That's the conclusion drawn by a unique quality-of-life research report called "Measure of America," a project of the non-profit Social Science Research Council.

The study also revealed that the typical American earned $2,200 less in 2010 than in 2000.


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Since 1990 the researchers have issued reports detailing the Human Development (HD) Index, an alternative to prosperity measured strictly by Gross Domestic Product statistics.

"GDP is a useful economic indicator, but it can provide misleading signals when used as a measure of human progress; GDP has tripled over the last 35 years, but the earnings of the typical worker have barely budged," says Kristen Lewis, co-director of Measure of America. "The American Human Development Index measures areas vital to all of us – health, education, and earnings – and moves away from a binary us/them way of looking at advantage and disadvantage, as today's poverty measure does, toward an approach that allows everyone to see themselves along the same continuum."

The research says that while the Great Recession certainly had a negative impact on wages, the trend in declining earnings started well before the financial collapse. From 2000 to 2005, wages stalled or declined in thirty-nine states after four decades of slow but continuous growth.

Asian Americans scored the highest in each of the three components measured by the "Human Development" index: when considered nationally, they live the longest, have the most education, and earn the most.

According to the study, Latinos have the second-longest life span, outliving whites, on average, by nearly four years. African Americans have the shortest lives, but their educational attainment and earnings exceed those of both Latinos and Native Americans.

Other key findings of the research:

  • Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and Maryland rank among the top five states on the American HD Index, while Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Mississippi hold the bottom rankings
  • Michigan, the only state with a 2010 HD Index score lower than its 2000 score, saw the greatest decline in human development over the past decade.
  • Residents of Mississippi have life spans and earnings on par with those of the typical American in the late 1980s.
  • The metro areas that perform best on the HD Index are: Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis–St. Paul, and New York. Workers in the top-ranked Washington, D.C. metro area make over $14,000 more than the typical American wage-earner, are more than twice as likely to have a graduate degree as other Americans, and live 2.2 years longer.
  • The metro areas with the lowest levels of well-being are Detroit, Houston, Tampa, San Antonio, and Riverside–San Bernardino, where one in five adults over age 25 did not graduate high school and earnings are about $2,000 less per year than the national median.
  • The only five metro areas whose Index scores declined from 2008 to 2010 were Detroit, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and Tampa—the same cities that lost the most ground in terms of earnings over that period.

"The American Human Development Index reveals vast differences across racial and ethnic groups, states, and major metropolitan areas," said Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-director of Measure of America. "What we are seeing is that some groups of Americans are surging ahead, enjoying longer lives, and reaching higher levels of educational attainment. However, other groups are being left behind in terms of their health and education, and, across the board, earnings are stagnating for ordinary Americans. Leaving people behind hinders our competitiveness and is costly for society as a whole."

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