CHART: In Terms of Social Progress, America is Not #1 -- It's #16

As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as a world leader. After all, the United States has the largest economy in the world and is near the very top in GDP per capita. We are used to thinking that we lead on social issues like education, access to information, personal rights, and that we have been a model for the world in terms of creating opportunity for our fellow citizens. Yet the new Social Progress Index, a comprehensive framework measuring numerous important social outcomes, paints a very different picture - the U.S. ranks only 16th of 132 countries measured, behind other large countries such as Germany, the UK, Japan and Canada.

The Social Progress Index, a multi-year effort that I lead with Professor Scott Stern of MIT and a team of other colleagues and advisors, has for the first time set out to measure the success of a society in comprehensive terms, and independently of economic measures. We define social progress according to three broad dimensions: Does a country have the capacity to satisfy the basic human needs of its people? Does a country have the institutions and conditions in place to allow its citizens and communities to improve their quality of life? And does a country offer an environment in which each citizen has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential? We capture these in a rigorous measurement framework involving more than 50 specific outcomes using the best and most objective data available covering 132 countries.

On objective measures of many important social outcomes, the U.S. is just not delivering. On Health and Wellness, for example, we spend more on health care than any country in the world but in terms of the outcomes achieved--such as obesity and life expectancy--we are number 70 in the world, way below our advanced economy peers.

On Access to Basic Knowledge, the U.S. ranks just 39th, just below Brazil (38th) and just above China (44th). Most Americans attend school, but other countries do even better in participation by all citizens and educational attainment. Dropout rates for secondary school, for example, are very high in the U.S. - here we do about as well as Chile and Uruguay.

On Personal Safety, we come in 31st, behind not just peers such as Canada and the UK, but South Korea and Poland. This is due in part to the high number of traffic deaths--11.4 per 100,000--compared to 3.7 in the UK. Overall, personal safety in the U.S. is on par with Hungary and Romania.

Even where Americans might expect to be at the top internationally, some of the results are disappointing. On Access to Information and Communications, for example, the U.S. ranks only 23rd. We do have extraordinary access to information and communications in this country, but come up short in the degree to which this is broadly available to all our citizens. On mobile telephone access, for example, the US ranks 83rd.

The Social Progress Index measures a comprehensive set of social outcomes directly, and separately from economic indicators. This allows us, for the first time, to examine the relationship between GDP per capita and social progress. Previously, the assumption has been that economic growth is sufficient to improve societal well-being. We find that rising GDP per capita is indeed correlated with improving social progress, but the connection is far from linear or automatic. For example, New Zealand tops the Social Progress Index with a GDP per capita barely two thirds of that of the United States.

Our findings make it clear that a model of development based solely on economic growth is incomplete. Driving social progress requires its own strategy, and the Social Progress Index allows countries to identify their priorities for action. Even countries such as New Zealand or Switzerland, that are on the top of our list, still have red marks on their report cards. Opportunities to advance social progress are present everywhere.

In the U.S., we can be proud that we pioneered many important social advancements like universal education and a free Internet. But the fact is that a lot of countries have caught up, and some have even passed us. To keep up and to widen social progress to more and more citizens takes a determined effort and U.S. progress has slowed.

As the U.S. score on Health and Wellness illustrates, advancing social progress is not about how much money government spends. We need smarter government spending, based on best practices drawn from around the world. There is growing understanding that business can be a key driver in addressing many social needs and challenges through market based solutions - as my colleague Mark Kramer and I have emphasized in our work on Creating Shared Value. If all the stakeholders can work together, focused on outcomes, I am confident that the U.S. can regain its leadership in social performance. But, the starting point in doing this is realism about where we stand, and where we must get better.