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Social progress index beats out GDP

The United States has the 38th lowest child mortality rate, 55th lowest maternal mortality rate, 41st lowest number of homicides and ranks 80th in political terror. According to lists by CIA World Factbook, International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations, the United States has the highest Gross Domestic Product GDP in the world.

For years, we have been measuring a country’s growth and potential for growth using economic indicators such as GDP. However, economic standing is a limiting form of measurement. The old cliché rings true: money doesn’t buy happiness. Economic measurements don’t include social and political conditions and fail to take into account the history of each country. These measurements also fail to define exactly what each country is spending its money on.

However, according to the newly-created Social Progress Index, the United States ranks 16th, falling behind fifteen other countries in a variety of social and political measurements. Clearly, whatever factors are placing the U.S. behind Norway, Sweden, Canada and Japan are not reflected in our economic standing.

The Social Progress Index, developed in 2014, aims to measure a variety of social and political data using only social and environmental indicators. This means that all economic indicators – like GDP and median income – are excluded from the calculations. The idea is that by excluding these indicators, the Social Progress Index can systematically analyze the relationships between social and economic progress. This analysis will help to highlight flaws in economically successful countries and strengths in economically stagnant countries.

An interesting aspect of this index is its holistic focus on all countries. Many previous social measurements are designed for and focus on the poorest nations. The Social Progress Index can point out stark inequalities and social problems throughout the world. The index emphasizes quality of life, citizen health, political advancement and types of spending as marks of progress within a country. The data also pinpoint a variety of areas in which specific countries are doing well, have room for growth or are scoring poorly.

I believe that this index will help us redefine what we consider development. Many of the wealthiest countries, including the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, have staggering wealth inequalities and stagnant political processes. States such as the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Japan and Canada have all made great strides in healthcare, reduction of crime rates and overall happiness of citizens. These are things I think we should care about. The goal of government is to protect and provide for its citizens, and by focusing on outside definitions of wealth, we ignore the hindering social problems that cause countries to deteriorate.

The Social Progress Index highlights flaws and allows us to look around the world at what is working. For example, if the United States wants to reduce homicide and the number of incarcerated citizens, it might take a closer look at Social Progress Index data and analyze the more-effective justice systems of Norway and the Netherlands. The index is cohesive and globally-focused. It presents the condition of the world as an intricate web, and not a ladder with 196 rungs for each country.

On top of all of that, the Social Progress Index also has a pretty spiffy website. Check it out at

Emma Whitford ’18 is from Middleton, Wis. She majors in political science.