The United States may be a land of opportunity no more. The "American dream"— consisting of the traditional ideals of freedom, equality and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work — turns out to be a myth, according to Howard Friedman, a statistician and health economist at the United Nations.
Friedman, a New York-born adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, drew this conclusion after systematically comparing the United States to 13 other wealthy countries in five key areas: health, education, safety, democracy and equality.
Friedman's comparisons are presented in his book, The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing. His analysis shows that the US, once a world leader, is now lagging behind in many areas.
The countries he used for comparison were all wealthy, with GDP per capita exceeding $20,000, and have populations of more than 10 million. They are: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, The Netherlands, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The biggest challenge facing the US is its rising income inequality, said Friedman. In the last 30 years, the gap between rich and poor has widened. The top 1 percent of US citizens saw their incomes grow by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office. At the same time, the bottom one-fifth of US citizens only experienced income growth of 18 percent.
"The amount of support poor people get in the US is much less than in any other country in terms of social benefits. There's not much of a safety net to help you out. On the other hand, if you do well, you can do very well in the US," said Friedman.
But what concerns Friedman more is the "inequality of opportunity". The US has very little socioeconomic mobility compared to other wealthy nations. Canada has nearly twice the level of socioeconomic mobility as the US.
"In America, if your parents were poor, you were more likely to be poor compared to other countries. The top student from a poor neighborhood has roughly the same chance of graduating from college as the worst student from a wealthy neighborhood," said Friedman.
Through his findings, what surprised Friedman most is the "disconnect between America's self-perception of excellence and the reality of the objective data".
"Few politicians were wiling to acknowledge the fact that Americans spend on average nearly two to four times more on healthcare than any other wealthy country, yet have lower life expectancies," said Friedman.
"Many Americans are confident that the US' education system is one of the best in the world, but again, the data indicates that this perception is not supported by facts."
Friedman said that if the US were a corporation, it would today be the equivalent of IBM in the early 1990s. IBM had been a technology leader for decades, but it lost its place in the 1980s after outsourcing key elements to competitors.
In his book, Friedman backs up assertions with facts: in 1960, the US had the 12th-lowest infant mortality rate in the world, but it sank to 34th by 2008; the US used to have the highest rate of college education and now it barely makes it into the top 15.
While most of the information he used is easily obtained from public websites, Friedman found that there wasn't a lot of work that "systematically identifies where the US is succeeding or lacking or what it can learn from others".
On the other hand, a Beijing report on the US "echoes many of my criticisms", said Friedman. On May 25, China released a report on human rights practices in the US, following a 2011 report by the US State Department on human rights practices in China and about 200 other countries. The US has been releasing this annual report for 40 years now.
Beijing's own report on the US, which is in its 13th year, criticized the US for its huge wealth gap, high incarceration and homicide rates, inadequate insurance coverage and education budget cuts, among many others.
Beijing said that in the last 20 years, incomes of 90 percent of US citizens have stagnated, while incomes of the richest 1 percent have grown by 33 percent.
According to the Beijing report, the US has the largest prison population in the world per capita and the highest rate of incarceration. One out of every 132 Americans is behind bars.
In his book, Friedman notes that US incarceration and homicide rates are 10 times higher than Japan's.
"There's an interesting financial incentive. Not all prisons are run by the state. Those privately run prisons make profits when people are put into jail, so they support laws that improve incarceration," he said.
Some experts referred to The Measure of a Nation as a "wake-up call" and "must-read" for anyone interested in seeing their country achieve greatness.
"Friedman presents a thorough, unbiased analysis of how America compares with the rest of the developed world in health, safety, education, democracy and other quality-of-life indicators," said Steven Hill, a political writer and columnist.
Richard Butler, distinguished scholar of International Peace and Security at Pennsylvania State University, said Friedman's book is a "persuasive and pointed analysis that holds up a mirror to America's entrenched interests and capacity for self-deception".
"It exposes directly how much error and plain falsehood is found in current political and media discourse on matters of fundamental importance."