Magazine article Information Today

Social Score Cards Give U.S. Poor Grades

Magazine article Information Today

Social Score Cards Give U.S. Poor Grades

Article excerpt

Countries are continually being ranked, measured, rated, and scored in terms of GDP, national deficit, trade balances, and so on. These metrics are undoubtedly important, but they are also remote and impersonal. What about you and me? How are we doing? What is our quality of life, our standard of living? Are we happy?

Social score card databases chart the well-being of a nation's people. They deal with the personal matters that the macroeconomic metrics obscure, using objective measures such as infant mortality and educational attainment. They also quantify subjective attitudes such as life satisfaction and happiness. It's the man-in-the-street level of country comparisons.

As a group, the social score card databases are large and rigorous social science research projects, carried out by established, authoritative nongovernmental organizations, universities, and government agencies. Each synthesizes great masses of individual data inputs to create its metrics. Each has a large web presence with extensive arrays of rankings, reports, studies, and data sets. Each is accessible by experts and non-specialists alike.

The first thing we do with any rating list is to see where we rank. Some of my earlier Database Review columns covered economic (September 2008) and political (March 2009) score card databases, in both of which the U.S. consistently performed well. The social score cards present a different and more sobering picture. The U.S. is rarely at the top of the list--sometimes it's pretty far down.

Comprehensive Social Score Cards

Human Development Index

The Human Development Index ( is a project of the United Nations Development Programme. It started in 1990 and now covers 179 countries. It defines "human development" as a composite of people's longevity, educational attainment, and standard of living. The site has rankings on these components, as well as the overall index. In the main index, the U.S. ranks 15th after a leader group that includes several Northern and Western European countries, plus Japan and Canada. The overall U.S. score is pulled down by poor performance in a few criteria, especially those relating to gender equality, life expectancy, and school enrollment.

Social Watch

Social Watch ( is the product of an international network of national groups that are concerned with inequality and poverty eradication. It publishes an annual "Social Watch Report," with statistics and analysis. Its principal metric is the Basic Capabilities Index (BCI), which is derived from three indicators: 1) percentage of children who reach fifth grade, 2) survival until the fifth year of age, and 3) percentage of deliveries attended by skilled health personnel. In the world's BCI list, the U.S. is 40th, falling behind the usual Northern and Western European leaders but also behind Malaysia, Bahrain, Oman, and Belarus.

World Values Survey

The World Values Survey ( has been conducted since 1981 by the World Values Survey Association, an international network of social scientists. Its premise is that human values shape nations' economic and political cultures, including their prospects for social and political change. It covers 97 societies that contain nearly 90% of the world's population. Among the social score card databases, the World Values Survey is the most oriented to academic researchers. It does not produce a single ranked country list, but it does have extensive downloadable data.

The 'Happiness' Indexes

Arecently emerged branch of social science attempts to measure human "happiness." The happiness indexes use a variety of inputs including both standard of living data as well as more amorphous metrics of happiness (or "subjective well-being," the term of art preferred by social scientists). The results of the happiness indexes vary greatly with their variations in defining happiness and weighting the importance of data inputs. …

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