Richard Estes says the United States might be the richest country in world history—the kind of place where a lucky, motivated person can amass an enormous fortune in a matter of years.
It’s also the kind of place where children go to bed hungry and the elderly struggle to pay for their medicine.
The reason for the contradiction, says Estes, a professor in Penn’s School of Social Work and president of the International Society for Life Quality Studies, is that the ultra-wealthy U.S. is also quite stingy—at least when it comes to funding the kind of social programs that ensure residents of other countries free health care, free education and other perks.
That’s a big reason why the U.S. ranked 27th among world governments—tied with Poland and Slovenia—in Estes’ 2004 Report Card of World Social Progress. The report card, released every five years, ranks nations on their ability to provide such basic needs as health care, education, political rights and freedom from social chaos. At the top of the rankings were such traditional social progress powerhouses as Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark; at the bottom were troubled Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and others.
While Estes says the worldwide view is actually quite promising, he’s not as hopeful for the U.S. Despite its great wealth, the U.S. continues to be indifferent to the struggles of its poor.
“We only see the short-term costs of entitlement programs,” Estes says. “We say, ‘No, no. We’re not going to spend money on that.’ But we forget to connect the dots and what it means to tell a child they’re not important enough to not go to bed hungry, or live in a rat-infested house or in a house with holes in the floor.”
Q. How did the report card come to be?
A. I became very interested in using research as a way of trying to understand the structures of society and their impact on people, and how that changes over time. The basic question I ask in every report is a very simple question: To what extent societies have or have not organized themselves to meet the basic needs of their people?
Q. Since you launched the report in 1990, have there been consistent performers that always seem to be doing a good job of meeting those needs?
A. The usual suspects, such as the Scandinavian countries, stay up high. The social democratic states of Europe—Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France—consistently have done very, very well. Having said that, a lot of these countries were desperately poor. Norway and Sweden—why in the heck should they be ranking in the top 10? They were farmers. They were very poor people. But they made a commitment after the Second World War, after experiencing those horrors, that it would not happen again. They would organize themselves and do what was necessary to make sure everyone in their society would enjoy some acceptable level of well being. It’s done, of course, through a lot of social programs, which are financed through heavy taxes.
Q. How does our tax rate compare to those in the countries at the top of your rankings?
A. We pay about 30 percent. In the Scandinavian countries, they pay probably about 40 to 45 percent. On the other hand, when [their] children are ready for college, they’re not going to pay anything for college. One of my daughters is a graduate of law school, another of veterinary school, another of social work school. They all have ‘mortgages’ because of their education. They’ll be paying for that for years to come. That would not be the case in any of the European countries. … By and large, education and its role in advancing the quality of a society is considered too important. In fact, they’re going to give your kids money for college. They’ll give them free tuition, probably give them free housing and even a monthly stipend.
Q. How do you explain that cultural gulf between the U.S. and Europe?
A. The commitment is there to more equity in society. There is the idea that if you have the intellectual ability, there should be nothing of a financial or structural nature that would prevent you from going [to college]. The second thing is making it possible. So it’s not only that they are just not preventing you from going, but that they believe they should encourage you to go.
Q. When you look at the countries that rank very high, and compare them to the U.S., are there programs they have that we don’t?
A. I would say the issue is comprehensiveness. If you look at all the programs we have, we have everything. But what we also have are exclusions, eligibility criteria and other things that prevent people from participating. A case in point is health care. Forty-eight million people are without insurance in the U.S. How do you explain that? …. [Other countries] have complete access. So if you’re a citizen of the country, you just show up at the doctor. They don’t ask you for your insurance card. They just assume you’re a member of the system.
Q. What is the biggest reason for the fall of the U.S. from 18th to 27th over the past decade and a half?
A. Our failure to solve poverty. It is poverty that leads to lousy schools, that leads to higher levels of juvenile and adult delinquency, higher crime rates, higher rates of imprisonment and incarceration. … We don’t do it intentionally. It’s not neglect. It’s indifference—the idea that it’s not our responsibility.
Q. Can the poverty problem be solved?
A. Absolutely. We’re spending a lot of money on a lot of things. … You have this tremendous bleed on the national treasury in terms of other activities, and one of them is war. You can’t pump $100 billion into Iraq and at the same time pump $100 billion into America’s schools.
Q. You have traveled a lot and work a lot with people from other countries. Are they perplexed by the way the U.S. structures its social programs?
A. When they visit the U.S., they just look around and can’t believe what they see. They can’t believe it. We have the No. 1 economy in the world. We have more wealth than any nation has ever been able to amass in the history of humanity, and people are totally perplexed by having to walk over people sleeping on the street, the ghettos and the urban decay—‘How can this be?’ And yet there it is.
Q. Do you get much feedback from outside academia? Is there any political response?
A. I get a lot of calls that are very angry—‘How can you say this about your own society? How can you be so critical when we are so obviously No. 1?’ But the only thing we’re No. 1 on is wealth. There’s no question about its capacity to produce wealth. Just look around at what happens to people within a single generation of moving here, if they are highly motivated, their skin color is right, they have the right contacts. … Bill Gates, a middle class kid from Seattle, in less than 20 years becomes the richest man in the world. The politicians will say, ‘Well, if you look at that, how can we not be in the top 10?’ I usually get that and then I share with them the rate of infant mortality here as compared to other economically advanced countries, and the child mortality rate. We’re in the low teens in those. We’re among the bottom performers of all the economically advanced countries.
Q. One of the factors considered in your report card is the extent of social chaos. How exactly do you define that?
A. Social chaos would have to do with a broad variety of social, political and economic forces that make countries ungovernable. Every society has its own mission—in our case, democratic participation within a context of freedom and liberty. And we do very well in that. We are exemplars. But there are 10 different sectors that are looked at. In some we do very well, in others we do very badly, and in some that we think we would do well, we don’t do as well as we think.
Q. Such as?
A. In health care, we don’t do as well as we think. If you need a heart transplant, the U.S. is the place to be. But if you want treatment for routine, chronic illness, you’re probably better off going somewhere else.
Q. Looking at the world today, and comparing it to years past, how would you describe the state of humanity in general? Is the world doing better?
A. I am a tremendous optimist, and I would say as a planet we are doing better today than we’ve probably done at any time in history. The basic needs of more people are being met today than at any other time in history. The level of social chaos is probably lower than it’s ever been. There’s more peace than there’s ever been. There are more people living under peaceful democratic systems than ever before. The Soviet Union is no more. There are 27 new independent states struggling to find their own identity and find the resources to create what they want for themselves. We have a new European Union … this is a tremendous accomplishment. On the other hand, we still have wars going on between 20 countries. Tens of thousands of people are dying or being maimed because of those wars.
Q. What about the U.S.? Do you think changes will be made in the years to come?
A. I see no reason for optimism on this front. There’s a process going on in the U.S. that is really working against the feeling of shared responsibility for each other. There’s much more emphasis on the individual, on privatization, on less collective or shared responsibility for the limited well being of others. The whole push is for something that existed prior to the 1960s … or prior to the Second World War. And that’s to our detriment.
Originally published on December 9, 2004