WASHINGTON – Americans have long been fascinated with global rankings. Where do we stand? How do we compare with other nations? We like to imagine ourselves as No. 1: the national equivalent of the racing halfback who raises his forefinger as he crosses the goal line. Common sense says otherwise. We excel in some things and not in others. The latest evidence of this comes from a massive report that collected indicators on a wide range of well-being — from incomes to leisure time — for most advanced countries.
On some indicators, the United States does rank No. 1. Average after-tax household income (including both cash and noncash government transfers) totals about $40,000; Norway is next highest at nearly $35,000. Among 29 countries of the OECD, the average is $27,630. But the United States is also near the top in income inequality; this means that middle-class Americans don’t do quite as well as the average suggests.
What do Americans get with their extra income? More housing, for starters. In both the U.S. and Canada, the average house has nearly 2.5 rooms per person, substantially higher than the OECD average of about 1.7. Italy, South Korea and Estonia have less than 1.5. Although U.S. homes are larger than their foreign counterparts, Americans spend less of their incomes on housing (about 17 percent) than most other nationalities. The OECD average is about 20 percent.
The global data confirm the American stereotype as workaholics. About 1 in 8 U.S. workers report they regularly spend more than 50 hours a week on the job. In Europe, the ratio is usually less than 1 in 20. In the Netherlands, it plunges to 1 in 250. By the same token, Americans devote less time to “leisure and personal care,” including sleep, than most Europeans. Here, the French are champs. They spend about 16.5 hours per day tending to their personal needs and interests; the comparable U.S. figure is two hours less at 14.5.
The report, called “How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being,” is compiled by the OECD every two years and was first published in 2011. It covers mainly wealthy countries, though a few poorer nations (Mexico and Turkey, for example) are included. Some comparisons are confusing or seemingly contradictory.
Take crime. On murder, the U.S. ranks high at about five murders per 100,000 population; among OECD countries, only Mexico is higher (at nearly 25 per 100,000 people) and most European countries are much lower (at one or two per 100,000 people). But only 2 percent of Americans report being assaulted over a year, among the lowest in the study and about half the OECD average of 4 percent. The contrast is not easily explained.
One area where the U.S. does not do well on the OECD rankings is the welfare of children. About 20 percent of American children live in poverty, which — as defined by the OECD — is to grow up in households with less than half the median income of the total population. By contrast, the average OECD poverty rate for children is 13.7 percent. In neighboring Canada, it’s 14.5 percent. However, when judged simply by the amount of income, American children live in relatively wealthy households.
Still, on many other indicators, American children do poorly. More than one-third of U.S. children aged 11 to 15 are overweight or obese, the highest rate among OECD countries and twice the average. After Mexico and Chile, the U.S. has the highest birth rate among teenage women aged 15 to 19. Reading proficiency among 15-year-olds is stuck at the OECD average. On children, the OECD concludes that “the United States, Poland and Turkey rank among the bottom third performers.”
We’re definitely not No. 1.
Robert J. Samuelson writes a column on economics for The Washington Post. © 2015, The Washington Post Writers Group.
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