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Social Progress by the Numbers

On the scale of social progress, the United States ranks 27th among the world's nations -- right between Bulgaria and Estonia, and well behind Denmark, Ireland, and Poland. That, at least, is the conclusion of Dr. Richard Estes, chairman of the Program in Social and Economic Development in the School of Social Work. Using Estes' criteria -- which measure the ability of nations to provide for the basic social and material needs of their citizens -- Denmark and Norway were the best places to live, while Angola and Afghanistan were the worst. Older countries with "established social welfare programs," he says, "perform especially well" on his index of 160 nations.
Illustration by Sam Day

   The United States dropped from 18th in 1990 to 27th in the current survey, which Estes attributes in part to the persistence of poverty for some 37 million Americans, 40 percent of whom are children under the age of 18.
   "The United States is an example of a country where fabulous wealth can coexist with equally overwhelming poverty," he says. And until it makes a "sustained commitment to solving problems that are deeply rooted in the country's history of social inequality," he adds, it will "not be regarded as a world social leader."
   Estes has been computing his Weighted Index of Social Progress, which uses a 100-point scale, every five years since 1970. It measures each nation's performance on 45 social, political, and economic indicators.

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/26/97