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Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Since 1990, the US Has Dropped From 6th to 27th in the World on Education, Healthcare

It’s almost become a tired cliché to hear a politician or demagogue (or, as with President Trump, a little of both) speak of America as being the best in the world. “America is number one!” is still somehow chanted without irony, though by now many of us have become sadly aware that this isn’t true. But, surely, the United States is still in the top five, right? Maybe we’re still in the top ten, at least?

According to an incredibly comprehensive new academic study recently published in the science journal The Lancet, as of 2016, the United States can more accurately claim that “America is number twenty-seventh!” Much of this, sadly, can be directly attributed to relatively stagnant advancements in education and health care in the U.S. at the same time other industrialized nations have continued with forward progress.

This study examined 195 countries and their progress between 1990 and 2016; they tracked progress on such things as education rates and access to health care to cumulatively create a “human capital” metric. The researchers behind the study sought to create this metric in order to track a nation’s productivity and ability to develop and adopt new technologies, among other things. Put simply, the greater the human capital, the greater a nation’s economic capabilities and generally the higher standard of living being enjoyed.

It is important to distinguish between physical capital and human capital. Physical capital, unlike its human counterpart, consists of such things as buildings, factories, proliferation of modern technology and more. Naturally, both types of capital are intertwined.

This study finds that, in 1990, the United States’ overall human capital ranked 6th out of 195 countries examined. While not number one (that distinction goes to Finland), it is nothing to sneeze at. It’s when we look to see how the U.S. progressed (or rather, did not) over the next 26 years that we find something truly alarming.

By 2016, the U.S. had been surpassed by 21 nations, sinking all the way to 27th. In this same period, the top three ranked nations in 1990, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, managed to retain their positions. So what happened?

It would be more accurate to ask “what didn’t happen?” While much of the world was improving its education systems, getting its citizens to achieve greater levels of education and granting them greater access to high quality health care, the United States all but come to a standstill. Though most metrics moved forward, albeit barely, the number of years of education attainment dropped one year — this being one of the most important metrics.

What’s it all mean? The United States, at one point, did attain a place among the other nations of the world that was certainly something to have pride in — but then we as Americans collectively, it seems, agreed that this was enough, that forward movement was neither necessary nor possible.

That it was (and still is) not possible to do so is a common refrain from fiscal conservatives even to this day. As this deeply flawed argument goes, the American taxpayer simply cannot afford to subsidize such things as higher education or universal health care. This is particularly strange, considering we are more than happy and willing to foot the bill for our bloated, unwieldy military which includes the infamous F-35, the product of the most expensive defense project ever undertaken in history — one which is still questionably effective.

If Americans are truly interested in “making America great again” we need fewer tax cuts and greatly reduced military spending which both necessarily deprive health and education programs of resources that absolutely could fund higher quality education, get more people into higher education and ensure our citizens are living longer, healthier lives.

What it boils down to is priorities. If we have the world’s mightiest military, what good is it if we cannot compete scientifically, technologically, socially and continue to live deprived of basic health services?

Originally published at on Oct. 1, 2018.

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Writing about various things (mostly politics & social issues) for more than six years. Freelancer for hire.

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