Human well-being improving

Posted June 24, 2009, at 5:49 p.m.

This may surprise you: human well-being, according to many social indicators, is steadily improving. True, headlines announce war, poverty, and global warming, and they aren’t trumpeting false news — they are just overlooking important good news.

Let’s begin with key trends in the developing world. For starters, peoples life spans are increasing all around the globe. In India, a baby born in 1900 had an average life expectancy of only 25 years, but now the average life span is 63 years.

Child mortality in the developing world has dropped by 22 percent since 1990.

Since the 1960s, the world population growth rate has fallen from 2 percent a year to slightly over 1 percent. This is a big accomplishment, because many analysts believed that developing countries were trapped in poverty because of rapid population growth. And the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the growth rate will be only one-half of 1 percent by 2050.

Most important of all, the proportion of poor people is falling in almost every region of the world. In China, 60 percent of the people were poor in 1990, but now the figure is down to 16 percent. Other big countries, including India, Indonesia and Brazil, have recorded impressive declines in their poverty rates.

These four developments are connected. Many analysts believe that rapid population growth is due to simple family economics. Because child mortality has been very high, parents had many children, hoping that at least a few would survive to take care of them in their old age. When child mortality dropped and longevity rose, parents could expect almost all to survive, so they could safely have fewer children. With fewer births, of course, population growth rates started to decline. Parents, with fewer small mouths to feed, could afford to feed — and clothe — their children better. So poverty rates fell.

With lower poverty, child mortality is likely to fall further, leading to a virtuous cycle.

Let’s turn to the U.S. In important ways, we, too have enjoyed steady progress. Standards of living rose dramatically in the last century, though the rate of improvement slowed after 1970. In Maine, since 1985, average household incomes in real terms have increased 23 percent, from $38,000 to $47,000.

In recent decades, and despite the current deep recession, our overall economy has performed well. Since 1991, real GDP has increased every year, as has the productivity of U.S. workers. Meanwhile, annual consumer price inflation has been under 3 percent — an important fact because rapid inflation undermines the purchasing power of our incomes.

On the health front, too, we’ve made progress. For example, American babies born in 1900 could expect to live only 48 years; today life expectancy is 78 years. Powerful new drugs become available every year, and thanks partly to these new drugs death rates from cancer are declining.

I don’t deny that you or I could match each positive development with a disaster. Wars, global warming, tsunamis, the continuation of widespread poverty, and mass killings in Cambodia, the Sudan and Rwanda all come readily to mind.

So I am not claiming that everything is improving everywhere; far from it. Instead, I’m insisting that alongside the very real disasters are very real accomplishments. And further, that many people focus on the disasters, overlooking the abundant evidence of progress.

Why do we focus on the disasters?

First, disasters arouse intense emotions; gradual progress does not. Our feelings are intense partly because of fear that we, too, will eventually suffer one of these disasters. Further, disasters arouse strong sympathy for the victims. And of course disasters are hugely more dramatic than gradual improvement.

Also, because newspaper editors know that disasters arouse strong emotions, they put them in the headlines. The old saying that “good news does not sell newspapers” is as true as ever, and good news also doesn’t attract big TV audiences or sell space on the Web. You’ve probably never seen a headline proclaiming that life spans have increased or child mortality has dropped. The good news appears, belatedly, in history books.

By all means, let’s pay close attention to the disasters. But let’s be just as aware of the widespread and important, but poorly publicized, evidence of progress.

Edwin Dean, an economist and seasonal resident of Vinalhaven, writes monthly about economic issues.

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