February 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 2

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The Measure of America: Introducing the American Human Development Project

by Kristen Lewis, Sarah Burd-Sharps, and Patrick Guyer, Social Science Research Council

How can researchers measure well-being, opportunity, and capability, among others, in the United States? Measures of household income have historically dominated discussions of our collective societal and economic progress. Yet, important though it is, income alone fails to capture the wide range of factors that influence our personal and collective well-being. The American Human Development Project (AHDP) of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has brought a new set of tools to the task of studying how well people in the United States live today, tools developed from the perspective of human development. This perspective is concerned first and foremost with maximizing the choices and opportunities that individual men and women have in order to make meaningful decisions to improve their own lives.

The SSRC has adapted the Human Development Index (HDI), an aggregate measure developed by the United Nations Development Program that incorporates indicators of life span, educational attainment and enrollment, and median personal incomes, to help us measure this holistic concept. To capture important disparities that persist in our society, our application of the HDI to the United States uses slightly different indicators than the original index developed by the UN, and our analysis is disaggregated by state, congressional district, gender, and race and ethnic background.

Applications of AHDP Research:

  • Invited to testify before Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, July 2008
  • Licensed index to the Foundation Center for its new "Philanthropy In/Sight" application
  • Columbia University Press has produced a Teachers’ Guide to help teachers introduce our work in classroom settings
  • Attracted significant media attention (www.measureofamerica.org/news)
  • Invited to train journalists in data use for evidence-based reporting (www.fascsnet.org)
  • Invited to present our findings to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
  • Adapting our HD Index to assist Catholic Charities, USA, in monitoring progress with its Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America

This work follows in the tradition of human development reports produced in over 160 other countries, where this conceptual framework and index have been applied, often with powerful results. From the stigma of AIDS to ethnic disparities to gender discrimination, these reports have often played a vital role in stimulating fact-based conversations on controversial topics, fostering accountability on spending and human outcomes, and shaping alternative solutions. It was our hope to contribute to such results in the United States.

The Initial Report

Our initial presentation of the results of this exercise, The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009, was released last year. This report, which featured forewords by Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen and prominent venture capitalist William Draper III, revealed that huge gaps in well-being and access to opportunity separate different groups of Americans. Some groups are living 10, 20, even 50 years behind others in terms of their ability to achieve the American Dream. For example, HD Index scores calculated by state showed that people in last-ranked Mississippi are living three decades behind those in first-ranked Connecticut when it comes to access to healthcare, education, and a decent standard of living. In addition, the report contained key social, economic, political, environmental, housing, transportation, and personal security data not found together anywhere else. Finally, the report described successful policies in America and other wealthy nations, providing policymakers concrete examples of how to improve human development outcomes.

With colorful graphics and accessible language, the report was designed to appeal to a broad audience and to mobilize support for action to address the issues Americans care about. It is accompanied by a website that contains a "Well-o-Meter" enabling people to calculate their own personal HD Index, data charts of over 60 indicators by state and, when available, by congressional district, and the popular interactive program to map all of these indicators. As we continue to update our calculations in biannual revisions, the HD Index and its constituent indicators will provide policymakers, academics, and the general public a set of tools with which to track change over time.

The 2008 report has led to several new opportunities for the AHDP and to partnerships with other organizations for the production of ancillary reports and data tools. The box below mentions some of the ways in which our findings have been used since the first report was released. In addition, in 2009, with the United Way, we developed the "Common Good Forecaster," an online tool that demonstrates the various returns to society as a whole that investments in education can generate, including the obvious economic returns as well as returns to health, neighborhood safety, community involvement, and educational outcomes for the next generation.

The Follow-up Report

The first biennial follow-up to the 2008 Measure of America report is currently being prepared for launch in fall 2010. This report will present an updated disaggregated HD Index for the U.S. states and congressional districts as well as for major metropolitan areas. In addition, it will include HDI calculations for other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the organization of wealthy nations that includes the United States, the nations of the European Union, and other developed economies. This will enable comparisons between individual states and our peer nations to help further place the human development levels of different segments of American society in a broader context.

The next report will feature a thematic focus on human security. A human security approach expands the scope of security to encompass not only nations but also people, moving beyond the protection of national sovereignty and territory to protection of the rights of individuals, families, and communities to physical safety and health, basic freedoms, and economic security. It presents a framework of protection that may be more appropriate for our globalized world and highlights the importance of protecting individuals from chronic threats, such as discrimination or domestic violence, as well as from sudden crises, such as natural disasters or a severe economic downturn. Human security is an innovative way to look at issues of particular relevance to vulnerable populations while also addressing sources of insecurity that affect all Americans, such as our infrastructure and healthcare system. logosmall

For more information on our projects as well as to access datasets and online tools, visit www.measureofamerica.org.

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