A Global Anomaly, the U.S. Declines in Annual Quality of Life Report

Devon Haynie

The world has become a better place in terms of social progress over last decade, according to a report released Thursday. But there's one particularly notable exception: The United States.

The Social Progress Index, which considers itself "the most comprehensive measure of a country's social and environmental performance independent of economic factors," determined that out of 163 countries, only the United States, Brazil and Hungary had slid backward over the past decade. And though the declines were small, the U.S. saw the largest reduction in terms of overall score.

The United States declined "both in absolute terms and relative to its wealthy, world-power peers," ranking just 28th in social progress, according to the index, which measures quality of life in areas such as personal safety; health and wellness; environmental quality; personal freedom and choice; and inclusiveness. That's a 12-spot drop from when the full index was first published in 2014, when the U.S. came in at No. 16.

The United States now ranks behind countries with far less wealth, including Estonia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.

"Most countries tend to move forward," says Michael Green, chief executive officer of the Social Progress Imperative, which puts out the index. "To move backwards is a remarkably bad thing to do. ... The fact that the U.S. is in the negative space is deeply worrying."

The U.S.'s fall in the index can be attributed to declining scores in rights and inclusiveness -- trends that accelerated in 2016, Green says, as well as small but steady declines in personal safety; health; and access to quality K-12 education.

"The decline of the United States over the last decade in this index -- more than any country in the world -- is a reminder that we Americans face structural problems that predate President (Donald) Trump and that festered under leaders of both parties," opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote for The New York Times. "Trump is a symptom of this larger malaise, and also a cause of its acceleration."

Seven of the top 10 performing countries are in Europe. Norway takes the top spot, followed by Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Iceland and the Netherlands. South Sudan fared the worst on the list, with Chad, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Somalia rounding out the bottom five.

Overall, researchers found, the world has been heading in the right direction since 2014, with the world average score increasing from 60.63 to 64.24. Developing countries made the fastest progress over the past decade, with The Gambia, Ethiopia and Tunisia demonstrating notable gains.

Despite that progress, the index found that if current trends continue, the world will not meet all 17 Sustainable Development Goals until 2082. The goals, adopted by all 193 U.N. member countries in 2015, focus on improving the environment, health, sustainability, equality and prosperity by 2030.

If countries don't take urgent steps, the COVID-19 pandemic could push back achievement by another 10 years, to 2092 -- more than 60 years after the target date, the index found.

"Broadly, we have seen developing countries catching up with richer countries," Green says. "It's converging, but not anywhere near the pace we need to get to meet those goals."

Devon Haynie is the assistant managing editor for Cities at U.S. News & World Report. She joined the company in 2013 as a higher education reporter, tracking innovations in the online higher education space and documenting the challenges faced by international students. She joined the Best Countries team as an editor in 2015, writing and editing international news features, before taking on the Cities initiative in 2018. Before joining U.S. News, Haynie worked as an enterprise reporter for The Journal Gazette in Indiana, and has written for the Associated Press, The Washingtonian, CityLab, Indianapolis Monthly and other news organizations. She was a 2008 Associated Press Overseas Press Club Fellow in South Africa and Zimbabwe, a 2016 International Reporting Project Fellow covering health and the environment in South Africa and Lesotho, and a 2017 International Reporting Fellow covering post-war tensions in Sri Lanka. She graduated from Colgate University with a degree in peace studies and earned her masters in journalism at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, or email her at dhaynie@usnews.com.