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Sunday, June 30, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Jon Talton
Willingness to invest improved quality of life but for how long?

By Jon Talton
Special to The Seattle Times

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the revision the federal government intends to make in late July to gross domestic product. The new GDP measure will change the way artistic works and research and development are counted — as a result this prime measure of the American output may grow by 3 percent without any change to the real economy.

Even then, GDP doesn’t tell us much about the overall well-being of people. For that, there’s the Measure of America, produced by the Social Science Research Council, a scholarly, independent nonprofit formed in 1923.

The council recently updated the index, which examines earnings, education and health for all 50 states and 25 major metropolitan areas.

Our information avalanche is leavened with lists: The top this and the 10 best or worst that using as its model the U.N. Human Development Index. All data come from official U.S. government sources, from the Census Bureau to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This American human development index is as close to a gold standard as we’re likely to find. Seattle performs quite well, while the state attains a decent showing, too. There are, of course, important asterisks attached.

Because of the deep dive into American Community Survey data, the index is benchmarked to 2010. It won’t be released quarterly like GDP.

On the other hand, it can be compared to a previous report that looked at 2000. The data have also been tracked back to 1960. One thing they show is that overall the United States has shown steady improvement in such areas as people living a long and healthy life and getting access to education.

Standards of living have improved, although earnings struggled in the 2000s even before the recession. The typical American earned $2,200 less in 2010 than 10 years before, adjusted for inflation. Whites saw the greatest earnings decline, $2,300.

Using a scale of 1 to 10, the U.S. turned in an overall measure of 5.03. (On the U.N. Human Development Index, we rank third behind Norway and Australia.) In 2000, our score was 4.76. Over the decade, life expectancy and education both improved.

One striking aspect is the divergence between GDP and this wider social-prosperity measure. For example, Louisiana, with its oil wealth, ranked 17th in per-capita GDP in 2010, while Vermont ranked 34th. But the Measure of America index reverses things: Louisiana is 46th and Vermont 15th.

Washington’s GDP and Human Development Index were closer in line, and the state ranked 13th nationally in Measure of America. Health and earnings were above the national average. It also received a good grade for the proportion of adults who completed college.

Even so, Measure for America co-director Sarah Burd-Sharps said, “Washington made slower progress in educational attainment and enrollment over the past decade than every U.S. state, save Vermont, Wyoming, and Alaska. A priority for the future is a reinvestment in education, critical both to building a workforce that can thrive in our knowledge-based economy and to the ability of Washington’s residents to reach their full potential.”

Washington also ranked 5th best for Native Americans. Even so, that score of 3.06 is well below the national score for all ethnic groups.

Among the states, Connecticut ranked first, with West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi at the bottom. Michigan, hard hit by the decline in the auto industry, was the only state with a lower human development index than in 2000.

Seattle held its spot as the sixth best metro area, with a highly educated, high-earning population. Life expectancy is nearly two years higher than for the average American.

“Looking beneath the overall metro area score, however, we see significant variation among Seattle’s racial and ethnic groups,” said Kristen Lewis, co-director of the organization.

Like the rest of America, Asian Americans enjoy the highest level of well-being here, followed by whites. African Americans scored better than the national average but still came in last among ethnic groups.

“Some good news is that Seattle’s Latino population is doing better than Latinos in other big cities; Seattle ranks fourth for Latinos among the 25 largest U.S. metro areas,” Lewis said.

At the bottom list of metros are Detroit, Houston, Tampa-St. Petersburg, San Antonio and Riverside/San Bernardino, Calif.

So is there a secret sauce to well-being?

Two things are clear from the report. First, places rich in natural resources and extraction industries don’t do particularly well in wider measures of social health. Second, the raw GDP number doesn’t tell the whole story.

True, the leaders tend to be rich states and metro areas. But they also excel at what the report calls “the process of improving people’s well-being and expanding their freedoms and opportunities.”

That implies a willingness to invest in people, education and infrastructure. It’s a description that fits Washington and Seattle. At least that’s our history.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com


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