PHILADELPHIA -- Cuts in social services and chronic poverty in U.S. cities and rural areas during the '90s have caused the U.S. to lag behind nearly all of Europe and several other countries in terms of overall social progress, according to the 2004 "Report Card on World Social Progress" by Richard Estes, a University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work professor.
"The U.S. has gone from 18th in the world to 27th. We're now on the same level as Poland and Slovenia," said Estes, who has researched world social development for 30 years and is president of the International Society for Life Quality Studies.
"Chronic poverty is the greatest threat to social progress in the United States," Estes said. "Today, more than 36 million Americans -- almost 13 million of them children -- are poor. And the total numbers of the nation's poor have increased by nearly 4.3 million since 2000 and by 1.3 million people since just 2002."
Estes argues that, unless the U.S. starts to adopt enhanced education and health systems and employers begin offering living rather than minimum wages, the U.S. will continue to lose ground.
Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Italy and Belgium are the top 10 countries, according to the Report Card.
The bottom 10 in the report are Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, Niger, Guinea, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Using data provided primarily by national governments to the United Nations and the World Bank, the Report Card on World Social Progress measures the ability of nations to meet the needs of their residents for health, education, human rights, political participation, population growth, improved women's status, cultural diversity and freedom from social chaos.
The overall picture for social progress in the world is grim, with 21 African and Asian countries nearing social collapse due to concentrated poverty, weak political institutions, repeated economic failure, disease and cultural isolation, Estes said.
"A handful of nations are doing very well, but many are struggling just to meet basic needs. The last decade has seen a sharp deterioration in overall life quality for vast segments of the world population, especially for people living in the poorest nations of Africa and Asia. Even people in previously well-off countries are not doing as well today," Estes said.
Citing North Korea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq as examples, Estes said that countries on the brink of social collapse create instability not only for themselves and their neighbors but for the world as a whole.
"War and civil unrest are only two of the manifestations of the high levels of social chaos that flows from these countries," Estes said. "Intolerance, hatred, inter-group and intra-regional conflicts also are by-products of failed political and economic systems, and their consequences are felt everywhere in the world.
"These roadblocks to progress," he said, "are contributing to global social unrest, including religious fundamentalism and terrorism. Rich countries ignore the desperate plight of the world poorest nations at our own risk."
The most rapid social-development improvements are taking place in South Central and Western Asia. Estes associated this with the emergence of democratic institutions in the region's newly independent countries as well as the region's vast oil wealth and other natural resources. Also contributing to the improvement in Asia were significant reductions in military spending which allowed higher investments in education and health and advancing the economic status of women.
Estes presented his report at the Sixth International Conference of the International Society for Life Quality Studies.