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.