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The Age of Vulnerability

NEW YORK – Two new studies show, once again, the magnitude of the inequality problem plaguing the United States. The first, the US Census Bureau’s annual income and poverty report, shows that, despite the economy’s supposed recovery from the Great Recession, ordinary Americans’ incomes continue to stagnate. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, remains below its level a quarter-century ago.

It used to be thought that America’s greatest strength was not its military power, but an economic system that was the envy of the world. But why would others seek to emulate an economic model by which a large proportion – even a majority – of the population has seen their income stagnate while incomes at the top have soared?

A second study, the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report 2014, corroborates these findings. Every year, the UNDP publishes a ranking of countries by their Human Development Index (HDI), which incorporates other dimensions of wellbeing besides income, including health and education.

America ranks fifth according to HDI, below Norway, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. But when its score is adjusted for inequality, it drops 23 spots – among the largest such declines for any highly developed country. Indeed, the US falls below Greece and Slovakia, countries that people do not typically regard as role models or as competitors with the US at the top of the league tables.