Where the US Stands: A Sampling of Comparative Quality-of-Life Statistics

| Present

It is advisable and instructive to periodically take stock of where we as a nation stand when it comes to quality-of-life issues. We have done this off and on over the past five years. Comparing ourselves and how we are doing to our sister nations can and should prompt us to do some self-reflection, to take heart as to what is possible, and to “steal” good ideas on the path to a better society for all.

The World Happiness Report 2021

We have looked previously at the World Happiness Reports, released for the past nine years; the current Report is published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, using data from the Gallup World Poll and Lloyd’s Register Foundation. In the 2021 edition, the US stands at 19th in the world, one position lower than in the 2020 version. Since 2012, the US has ranked between 11th and 17th.

Should we be content with this level? In past years the US has ranked about 12th or 13th. Would it behoove us to look at this year’s top three countries – Finland, Denmark and Switzerland – to see “how they do it,” especially since they have been at or near the top for all nine years?

Life Expectancy

Americans may have been alarmed several months ago to learn that our average life expectancy had gone down by a full year during the first half of 2020.

What Americans may not know or may ignore is that we have had consistently lower life expectancy rates than our sister nations for decades. According to an October 2020 article by Max Roser, the answer to the question of “why” speaks volumes: “Americans suffer higher death rates from smoking, obesity, homicides, opioid overdoses, suicides, road accidents, and infant deaths. In addition to this, deeper poverty and less access to healthcare mean Americans at lower incomes die at a younger age than poor people in other rich countries.”

Roser’s observations and his detailed analyses of each of the causes he lists require close attention – and action – by all sectors of our nation: citizens, elected officials, law enforcement, medical and public health officials, parents, faith communities, nonprofit organizations, etc. What will it take to address mortality by smoking, obesity, homicides, opioid overdoses, suicides, road accidents, and infant deaths? What can we learn from the practices and policies of the other rich democracies whose life expectancy rates are so much higher than ours?

Incarceration Rates, Violence and the Criminal Justice System

Criminal justice reform has become a vital issue recently. While some of this has been driven by the death of George Floyd and other high-profile killings of African Americans by (mainly white) police officers, some activists (and even law enforcement professionals themselves) have known for decades that the US has a big problem in this area. The data has been available for a long time:

  • The gun-related murder rate in the US is 25 times higher than 22 other high-income nations.
  • “Americans are seven times more likely to die from violence and six times more likely to be accidentally killed with a gun.”
  • The US has one of the largest incarceration rates in the world and is certainly the leader among our sister nations, with 655 inmates per 100,000 of population.
  • Drug-related offenses, such as trafficking and possession, were the most common cause of imprisonment in state prisons.”

More recent reports have highlighted the egregious legacy of people jailed for long periods of time solely or primarily because they could not afford bail. This has enormous negative effects not only on the individual but on his/her family, community and our society as a whole.

Paid Time Off

US workers who have so-called “benefits” through their jobs often take paid sick, vacation and personal time for granted. (Many of those same workers often do not take all the vacation time they have coming to them, thus denying themselves recuperative time and wasting benefits that they have “earned.”) US workers who have paid time off are often ignorant of the fact that millions of their fellow workers do not have paid leave; as has become more apparent during the pandemic, however, that means that people in low-wage jobs go to work when they are sick, thus infecting their colleagues, because they will lose pay (and perhaps even their jobs) if they call in sick.

As we have noted before, we are the only nation among the advanced democracies that do not federally require businesses to offer paid leave. How much suffering has this caused over many decades that could have been prevented or alleviated by the US having federal paid leave policies?…

Minimum Wage

Recently the Biden-Harris Administration proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. This was defeated in the debate over the bill. Significantly, $15 per hour does still not amount to a “living wage” in any state in the US.

The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 was passed in mid-2009. According to Forbes, “That $7.25 rate in mid-2009 would be the equivalent of $8.81 per hour in 2021 dollars. For most of the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the federal minimum wage was equal to more than $10 per hour in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation. When the federal minimum was raised from $1.40 to $1.60 per hour in February 1968, it reached the equivalent of $12.24 per hour in 2021 dollars.” As the Forbes article also notes, the US lags behind other wealthy nations, even though some states have higher minimum wages than the federal rate.

Ways Forward

Many of the initiatives that President Biden is proposing constitute enormous steps forward toward addressing challenging issues in this country. Contrary to what right-wing politicians and commentators want us to believe, these initiatives are not socialist – at least not any more socialist than policies and programs that have been in place in the European Union and other advanced (capitalist) democracies for three generations.

Progressive federal programs advocated primarily by Democrats cost money, and one of the main ways to fund those programs is to raise taxes on the very wealthy and on corporations. Conservatives routinely argue that raising taxes – even when 64 percent of Americans favor higher taxes on the very wealthy – is too expensive and not the way to solve our problems. However, if we look at progressive policies as long-term investments in our people’s futures – and which have been shown to work phenomenally well around the world – the right-wing argument flies in the face of the evidence. Yet that argument has generally won the day, resulting in untold negative repercussions over the decades – even in the area of economics, which conservatives are trying to boost. How much productivity has been lost when citizens are victims of gun violence, when workers lose their jobs because they had to make a decision between going to work and taking care of their sick child, when workers go to work ill and pass their illness onto their fellow employees? How many billions of dollars have been wasted by this lost productivity? And, even more tragically, how many lives have been lost by gun homicides and leaving health care up to the markets instead of instituting a workable universal health care system?

Incarceration rates, violence and the criminal justice system. How many times has the agonizing cry gone up in our country when there is a mass shooting? Or when a synagogue is attacked? Or when a white supremacist goes into a church and kills nine innocent parishioners? How many gun reform bills have been introduced in Congress – and even passed at times by a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives – only to be shelved or defeated in the Republican-controlled Senate? How long has the cry gone up by activists that reform is sorely needed to stop the killing of innocent black and brown people at the hands of police (acknowledging as well that many if not most law enforcement officers across this country go into that occupation for the right reasons and often give their lives in service to others)?

To some extent, when it comes to gun violence, the ways forward have often been proposed – and even enacted legislatively at the state level. We know what we have to do. For more intractable challenges – such as prison reform – other countries have found ways to reduce violent crime and hence incarceration rates, and we would do well to learn from them. Some communities even in the US, for instance, have realized, as other countries have for decades, that it serves the community much more effectively to treat addiction and drug issues as a public health rather than a law enforcement concern.

Paid Time Off. Some states are now considering or have instituted paid time off. The Biden-Harris Administration is proposing legislation to “bring the US into line with global peers,” in the language of the Guardian, by proposing the American Families Plan, “a $225bn investment to provide 12 weeks of paid parental, family and sick leave to virtually all American workers in the next 10 years.”

In addition, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) has reintroduced the Healthy Families Act, which would “allow workers at businesses with at least 15 employees to earn up to 56 hours, or seven days, of paid sick leave each year.” With 80 percent of Americans in favor of this type of legislation, it is incredible that so many Republicans in Congress use the usual well-worn arguments against it.

Minimum Wage. Why does an American tourist in Europe have to pay so much more for a McDonald’s hamburger than s/he has to pay at home? Why does a restaurant customer in Europe not generally have to leave a tip when that same customer might leave a tip between 15 and 20 percent at home? In many of our sister nations, a waiter or waitress can actually make a fairly good living – without having to rely on tips. This is because their wages are “baked into” the cost of a restaurant experience.

In addition to wealthier nations paying their workers more than we do in the US, those workers are unionized at a much higher level. Unions in the US helped create the middle class after World War II, but the conservative backlash against unions (and the related rise in the wealth of the top 10 percent of our population) has greatly eroded the influence and prevalence of unions, and thus deflated wages. In other countries, unions work closely with management to create workplace environments that are fair to everyone – and productive. We would do well to emulate their practices.

Life Expectancy and World Happiness. If the US were to address many of the problems we have discussed here – in a holistic way at the national level, as our sister nations have done – we would ultimately see a rise in life expectancy – and we might even earn a higher slot on the World Happiness Report! Progressive initiatives such as those proposed by the Biden-Harris Administration and Democrats in Congress would produce better health care; there would be less illness spreading throughout the workplace; fewer Americans would have to work several jobs to barely get by; income inequality, violence, crime and incarceration rates would decrease.

If it is Republicans in elected positions – at all levels – who oppose progressive initiatives, and it is mainly Democrats who are proposing and enacting programs and policies that actually help Americans and better our society, then it stands to reason that it is those Republicans who should be challenged and voted out of office. A two-party system leaves much to be desired, as we have noted before, but it is the one that we have. Let us make that system work for us and ensure through activism and the vote that those we elect to represent us truly have our best interests at heart.