US Is Becoming a ‘Developing Country’ on Global Rankings that Measure Democracy, Inequality

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Yves here. The US is on track to South Africa levels of inequality. Not a happy prospect.

By Kathleen Frydl, Sachs Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University. Originally published at The Conversation

The United States may regard itself as a “leader of the free world,” but an index of development released in July 2022 places the country much farther down the list.

In its global rankings, the United Nations Office of Sustainable Development dropped the U.S. to 41st worldwide, down from its previous ranking of 32nd. Under this methodology – an expansive model of 17 categories, or “goals,” many of them focused on the environment and equity – the U.S. ranks between Cuba and Bulgaria. Both are widely regarded as developing countries.

The U.S. is also now considered a “flawed democracy,” according to The Economist’s democracy index.

As a political historian who studies U.S. institutional development, I recognize these dismal ratings as the inevitable result of two problems. Racism has cheated many Americans out of the health care, education, economic security and environment they deserve. At the same time, as threats to democracy become more serious, a devotion to “American exceptionalism” keeps the country from candid appraisals and course corrections.

‘The Other America’

The Office of Sustainable Development’s rankings differ from more traditional development measures in that they are more focused on the experiences of ordinary people, including their ability to enjoy clean air and water, than the creation of wealth.

So while the gigantic size of the American economy counts in its scoring, so too does unequal access to the wealth it produces. When judged by accepted measures like the Gini coefficient, income inequality in the U.S. has risen markedly over the past 30 years. By the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s measurement, the U.S. has the biggest wealth gap among G-7 nations.

These results reflect structural disparities in the United States, which are most pronounced for African Americans. Such differences have persisted well beyond the demise of chattel slavery and the repeal of Jim Crow laws.

Scholar W.E.B. Du Bois first exposed this kind of structural inequality in his 1899 analysis of Black life in the urban north, “The Philadelphia Negro.” Though he noted distinctions of affluence and status within Black society, Du Bois found the lives of African Americans to be a world apart from white residents: a “city within a city.” Du Bois traced the high rates of poverty, crime and illiteracy prevalent in Philadelphia’s Black community to discrimination, divestment and residential segregation – not to Black people’s degree of ambition or talent.

More than a half-century later, with characteristic eloquence, Martin Luther King Jr. similarly decried the persistence of the “other America,” one where “the buoyancy of hope” was transformed into “the fatigue of despair.”

To illustrate his point, King referred to many of the same factors studied by Du Bois: the condition of housing and household wealth, education, social mobility and literacy rates, health outcomes and employment. On all of these metrics, Black Americans fared worse than whites. But as King noted, “Many people of various backgrounds live in this other America.”

The benchmarks of development invoked by these men also featured prominently in the 1962 book “The Other America,” by political scientist Michael Harrington, founder of a group that eventually became the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington’s work so unsettled President John F. Kennedy that it reportedly galvanized him into formulating a “war on poverty.”

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, waged this metaphorical war. But poverty bound to discrete places. Rural areas and segregated neighborhoods stayed poor well beyond mid-20th-century federal efforts.

In large part that is because federal efforts during that critical time accommodated rather than confronted the forces of racism, according to my research.

Across a number of policy domains, the sustained efforts of segregationist Democrats in Congress resulted in an incomplete and patchwork system of social policy. Democrats from the South cooperated with Republicans to doom to failure efforts to achieve universal health care or unionized workforces. Rejecting proposals for strong federal intervention, they left a checkered legacy of local funding for education and public health.

Today, many years later, the effects of a welfare state tailored to racism is evident — though perhaps less visibly so — in the inadequate health policies driving a shocking decline in average American life expectancy.

Declining Democracy

There are other ways to measure a country’s level of development, and on some of them the U.S. fares better.

The U.S. currently ranks 21st on the United Nations Development Program’s index, which measures fewer factors than the sustainable development index. Good results in average income per person – $64,765 – and an average 13.7 years of schooling situate the United States squarely in the developed world.

Its ranking suffers, however, on appraisals that place greater weight on political systems.

The Economist’s democracy index now groups the U.S. among “flawed democracies,” with an overall score that ranks between Estonia and Chile. It falls short of being a top-rated “full democracy” in large part because of a fractured political culture. This growing divide is most apparent in the divergent paths between “red” and “blue” states.

Although the analysts from The Economist applaud the peaceful transfer of power in the face of an insurrection intended to disrupt it, their report laments that, according to a January 2022 poll, “only 55% of Americans believe that Mr. Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.”

Election denialism carries with it the threat that election officials in Republican-controlled jurisdictions will reject or alter vote tallies that do not favor the Republican Party in upcoming elections, further jeopardizing the score of the U.S. on the democracy index.

Red and blue America also differ on access to modern reproductive care for women. This hurts the U.S. gender equality rating, one aspect of the United Nations’ sustainable development index.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republican-controlled states have enacted or proposed grossly restrictive abortion laws, to the point of endangering a woman’s health.

I believe that, when paired with structural inequalities and fractured social policy, the dwindling Republican commitment to democracy lends weight to the classification of the U.S. as a developing country.

American Exceptionalism

To address the poor showing of the United States on a variety of global surveys, one must also contend with the idea of American exceptionalism, a belief in American superiority over the rest of the world.

Both political parties have long promoted this belief, at home and abroad, but “exceptionalism” receives a more formal treatment from Republicans. It was the first line of the Republican Party’s national platform of 2016 and 2020 (“we believe in American exceptionalism”). And it served as the organizing principle behind Donald Trump’s vow to restore “patriotic education” to America’s schools.

In Florida, after lobbying by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state board of education in July 2022 approved standards rooted in American exceptionalism while barring instruction in critical race theory, an academic framework teaching the kind of structural racism Du Bois exposed long ago.

With a tendency to proclaim excellence rather than pursue it, the peddling of American exceptionalism encourages Americans to maintain a robust sense of national achievement – despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    I find the Gini coefficient particularly telling: According to World Population Review, here is the United States along with some other countries with economic problems (2020 figures):

    Peru 41.5
    Ivory Coast 41.5
    United States 41.4
    Bulgaria 41.3
    Malaysia 41.1
    Haiti 41.1

    The post also brings up a theme of U.S. politics, in which feudalism is retained rather than allowing any progress for black people. Yet white America is so terrified of being treated like black America–because,, let’s be frank–there is no way that white Americans somehow do not know what happens to their black fellow citizens–that even basics like unionization have been destroyed by “right to work” laws, outsourcing, American management practices that are remnants of plantations, and sheer neglect. And white America still hasn’t gotten the message.

    1. JGarbo

      That’s why “white” Americans are frightened, frustrated and angry: They’re descending to “black” levels of living and feel betrayed. Of course, the obvious answer (which is impossible) is to join with fellow peons, black, brown and white – there are millions of you – and demand change. Oh there I go, dreaming again…

  2. Cat Burglar

    The only explanation of inequality suggested in this article is racism against black people. If that is what the author has the research credentials to opine upon, shouldn’t the article have had a much narrower title relating to racism as the central structural cause of the US’s developing nation status? In such a case her role would have been an expert informing public discourse.

    But the broader title of the article suggests this is an all-cause accounting — something outside her specialty as a professional. She should have written it as an educated citizen able to directly address the forbidden subject of the central motor of wealth inequality. Instead, the article comes off as a piece of meliorism feeding directly into Democratic Party-managed particularism, not a solidarity politics of many groups suffering under the same structure.

    Like Doktor Winkel in The Third Man, the writer can say, “My opinion is limited.”

    1. Dave in Austin

      This reads like a report by the far left end of the Democratic party ranking states by “development” and “progress” as defined by that wing of the party while dodging the obvious question; “Why are people moving from the progressive developed states to the non-progressive less developed states?”

      If racism is the cause then may I ask why the the US was so highly rated in the past? And is the sense of American exceptionalism more or less than it was 50 years ago?

      1. Acacia

        I had the same sense reading this article. Good point about the US of 50 years ago.

        And even more recently, the Democrat party would have us believe the story that the US made great progress in electing Obama, the first black president, but then just four years later suddenly a majority of the electorate took a crazy sharp turn into racist, xenophobic hate. It wasn’t that the Democrats or Obama failed the electorate and nine million Obama voters chose Trump… no, obviously it was the fault of the electorate.

        That seems to be the subtext of the emphasis on “racism” in this article, and in much recent political discourse. It’s a way for the Democrat party and those adjacent to blame shift and to evade taking responsibility for their refusal to govern on behalf of non-PMC USians.

  3. shinola

    U.S. …average income per person – $64,765… ???

    Per person, really? I would have thought that figure would be more like “per household”. Although I do understand how inordinately large incomes of a relatively few ultra-wealthy could distort that figure, it still seems high.

    1. Polar Socialist

      The are statistics that say the median income in USA is $44,225. So that’s about the size of the distortion from filthy-high income.

      1. Randall Flagg

        Well, 20 average regular people are sitting around in a bar, Elon Musk walks in and now the whole group of 21 when averaged out are worth billions…
        I forgot to include the bartender too. Who’s buying the next round?

    2. jsn

      The median is $44,225, averaging skews this up by a third.

      I expect these values both depend on employment outside the Walmart/McDonalds corporate sector and the Gig Economy, that is to say residual, small independent businesses.

      Of course, these are exactly what the Fed has set out to kill. By next year we can probably look forward to a significant drop in the median, but if they do it how they want, an improvement in the average.

    3. Amfortas the Hippie

      That leapt at me, too lol.
      Teacher wife pulled in less than half that…and lil ol disabled pensioner me now commands a kingly 12k per annum.
      For 5 years….after which its bootstrap soup, baby!
      For many of the people ive known, usa has been third world for decades…were just not allowed to say it out loud, lest our betters have a sad.

  4. Anthony G Stegman

    All one needs to do is spend a few months traveling across the US to see that much of it is very deserving of “sh*thole” status. This has been true for so long few people give it a second thought. The shlock is everywhere – urban, suburban, and rural. There is very little that is aesthetically pleasing across these United States. Soul-less suburban wastelands, shanty towns, sterile gated communities, strip malls, bland corporate campuses, junk yards, warehouses, the list is long. What is left of the natural wonders is being chewed up and desecrated by mineral extraction, commercial activities, over use, along with disasters natural and man made. I shudder to think about what the next century will bring.

  5. JBird4049

    >>> This growing divide is most apparent in the divergent paths between “red” and “blue” states.

    What divide?

    Yes, Mississippi and Alabama have been hellholes for the two centuries since the white proto-plantation class slaughtered whatever natives that they did not drive into the then Oklahoma Territory; the same families that ran the Southern slavocracy in those two states (and to a lesser degree, the rest of the South) still control those states.

    What does this have to do with the increasing governmental incompetence and corruption in the state of California? A state with its increasing bifurcation into a small class of haves and a growing class of increasingly desperate have-nots all ruled over by a extremely small group of wealthy and corrupt families? Or where most homeless communities have a disproportionate number of blacks still lost in a sea composed of mostly whites? I have seen this with my own eyes and even a modestly deep reading of history and statistics would so this.

    I despise the increasingly fascistic Republican Party, but I loathe, even hate, the Democratic Party especially when I read such propaganda. Framing the increasingly concentrated and shrinking pearls of economic wealth scattered around the coastal enclaves while blaming the growing and now interconnected economic seas of dead zones now becoming a single ocean, onto just the Republicans is quite a bald faced lie. Blaming it mainly on racism is delusional.

    The reason why the decay is so obvious in much of the Red areas is because it either never had it, or as in the Rust Belt, it started decades before the rest of the country. The “prosperous” Blue areas are like the cheeks of a person covered with the old fashioned white lead makeup perhaps dusted with a bit of rouge. It covers all the scars while still destroying the skin and killing the wearer.

  6. Greg

    So close to getting to the truth, and yet unable to get past the academic blinders. Massive inequality is clear in the data, but we can only blame racism and the Trump threat to “our” democracy because we have to continue believing that wealth is caused by virtue.

  7. Art_DogCT


    The lack of class as a factor in our immiseration is a big failure of this article. I distrust the adoption of the whole “insurrection” narrative wrt January 6, and likewise am leery of the approving invocation of critical race theory as being dispositive of virtue. (There are other bases for skepticism of the CRT civic religion other than reactionary white supremacy.) Interesting as a data point for the dispersion of id-pol memes throughout academia, and as such a certain distillation of PMC perception.

    I suppose the essay might persuade some members of The Conversation’s audience of what has been daily, self-evident reality for many of us. “Look Lambert, I’m being optimistic!”

  8. Kouros

    “Flawed democracy”? As Franklin said, this is a republic, if you can keep it. Republic is the noun. The qualifiers are plutocratic, demagogic, and last and least, democratic.

  9. TimD

    I was amazed that Trump pulled off his American Carnage speech where he talked about all the things that were wrong with the country like bad trade deals, bad schools, stupid wars, and crumbling infrastructure. The mainstream politicians that he went against were defenseless because they had been shoving all those problems under the carpets for decades. Of course Trump had no plan to really fix the problems – he just used them as talking points to get power.

    I found it equally amazing that Hillary claimed that “America is Already Great!!” during one of the debates. When what she could have said that America is great for the wealthy but what we need to focus on is making it greater for the average person. But Bernie was saying that, so talking about the actual state of the country was off the table.

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