As foes and allies rise, America’s downward spiral accelerates

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Across fundamental dimensions of societal wellbeing, and despite many Americans’ strong belief in U.S. exceptionalism, America is regrettably falling behind.

In terms of life and death, America is falling behind many other developed societies. U.S. life expectancy at birth is no longer among the top 20 countries. The difference between America’s life expectancy at birth and those of countries such as Italy, Japan, Spain and Switzerland is five years of additional life. 

Similarly, for the first year of life of American babies, the U.S. infant mortality rate is nearly the highest among more developed countries, not even in the top 40 countries. Moreover, for all age groups below age 25, America has the highest mortality rates compared to other wealthy nations. 

Also, America has performed poorly against the coronavirus pandemic. With 4 percent of the world’s population, America accounts for 16 percent of coronavirus deaths. America’s pandemic death rate is markedly higher than the rates of most developed countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

Turning to births, America’s maternal leave is god-awful. Almost all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries provide mothers with at least 14 weeks leave around childbirth. The U.S. has the unfortunate distinction to be the only OECD country to offer no statutory entitlement to paid maternity leave on a national basis. 

Regarding childcare, America performs poorly compared to other developed countries. Out of 31 OECD countries, the U.S. ranks 20th in the percentage of children aged 0 to 2 years enrolled in formal childcare and 29th in the percentage of children aged 3 to 5 years enrolled. 

While most developed countries offer affordable access to a comprehensive package of health services, America does not. The costs for drugs, medical procedures and physician visits are all substantially higher in America than in other countries. Consequently, Americans pay almost twice as much on average for medical care as those living in other wealthy developed countries.

In terms of public education, the U.S. lags behind many other nations. Internationally, America stands in the middle of the pack on science, math and reading scores among 15-year-old students. Also, several years ago before the pandemic, only 38 percent of fourth-graders, 34 percent of eighth-graders and 22 percent of 12th-graders were rated proficient or better in science. 

Concerning immigration, America’s control of its borders is faltering, with unauthorized migrants more than tripling over the past 40 years, from 3 million to approximately 11 million. In addition to the increased numbers of migrants entering illegally, many visitors simply overstay their visas. 

America’s lifestyles have become increasingly unhealthy and worse than many developed countries. Americans are first in the level of obesity among OECD countries at 42 percent. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths with nearly 500,000 deaths per year.  

Americans are increasing their alcohol consumption with more binge drinking each week and the sales of opioids almost quadrupled from 1999 to 2010. Also, America’s traffic fatality rates are comparatively high, about 50 percent higher than similar countries in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan. 

Deaths due to violence are a serious problem. The U.S. homicide rate is higher than in most OECD countries and its gun homicide rate is even higher. America’s mass shootings are also exceptional, with more than 300 from 1999 to 2013.  For the period 2000 to 2014, America had more mass shootings and more people killed in those shootings than 10 other developed nations combined. 

America is also the world leader in incarceration, both in terms of the total number in prisons and jails and the rate of prisoners per capita. With 4 percent of the world’s population, America has 20 percent of the world’s prison population. Fifty years ago the number of U.S. prisoners was 200,000, or 2 million less than today. 

With respect to economic well-being, America has the highest income inequality in the Western world and the middle class has been losing ground. This inequality has been made worse by recent tax cuts which have overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy. Also, since the start of the 21st century, the ratio of national debt to GDP has more than doubled, from 55 to 122 percent, or in U.S. dollars from $6 trillion to $28 trillion.  

While the wealth of America’s top 1 percent has steadily grown, the income and share of the wealth of the bottom 90 percent have declined in most of the past 25 years. Moreover, wealthy U.S. billionaires typically have lower federal individual income tax rates than most ordinary Americans.  

On the legislative front, confidence in Congress has declined. Whereas 50 years ago 42 percent of Americans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress, that proportion was 12 percent in 2021. 

Regarding the executive branch, ever since 1797 when Washington stepped down, presidential succession proceeded peacefully — until 2020, when the former president refused to accept the legitimate outcome of his defeat. 

Despite court decisions and the conclusions of congressional leaders, the attorney general and independent observers, the former president continues to propagate the falsehood of election fraud. As a result of his efforts to overturn the election outcome, the former president is being investigated for his role in the insurrection against Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Regarding the future, a large majority of Americans are pessimistic about the state of the nation. A 2022 national survey found that 70 percent of Americans feel that the country is in crisis and at risk of failing. 

Some may object or reject the above observations about America falling behind. Objections and rejections, however, do not change realities nor do they improve America’s relative standing.  

As it has strived to achieve throughout its 246-year history, America should continue to ensure the freedoms, rights, and social, economic and political wellbeing of all its people. To do so involves a straightforward acknowledgment that across many societal dimensions, America is regrettably falling behind.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”

Tags Demography Fiscal policy Government debt Gross domestic product life expectancy Obesity

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