International Opinion

Quality of life in U.S. in freefall, China's rising

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Poverty in the U.S. is sharply increasing (image via pxfuel)

China is rising. America is in decline. It is a statement of fact.

Those who cling to the fading notion of American supremacy, shout back that China will not overtake the U.S. or rather will not be permitted to assume global leadership.

Economic data and statistics are used to show the rise of China and the fall of America. It makes sense to do so. It immediately shows that one economy is clearly in the ascendency. Economics matter. It is a fact that economic structures determine political factors. It is also a fact that an economy and political structures exist because people exist.

People are important. Their social interactions, health and well-being are important. All of this must be considered when determining who is rising and who is falling. Social factors and data are inextricably linked. This is never more obvious than when considering who occupies anything like the high moral ground. How children are treated is a starting point. How social aspirations are met is another.

The USA, as the leading capitalist economy for decades, recorded a steady rise in life expectancy, positive health outcomes, a decline in infant mortality and maternal mortality rates. Other countries tended to follow. This upward trajectory in the United States has not simply slowed, or even stalled, but is in serious decline.

An appalling statistic was recently published in the Financial Times. One in 25 American children are not expected to live to see their 40th birthday. Former U.S. Secretary to the Treasury, Larry Summers, could only remark that the figures are ‘the most disturbing set of data that I have encountered in a long time'

There are many factors that make up this despairing analysis. Thousands of children die each year in America from gun violence, but growing poverty remains at the very heart of the crisis. 15.3% of all American children live in poverty. There are 38 million officially poor Americans, or nearly 12% of the total population. There has never been a richer nation on earth. Its GDP per person is more than $70,000. Something is fundamentally wrong.

Life expectancy has now been falling in the USA for several years. In 1968 it was 68. By 2019 it had risen to 79. Since then, it has fallen to 76 years. This is the biggest drop since the 1920s. The crisis of opioid use, COVID and injury is said to be among the primary causes but poverty remains a strong underlying factor.

Maternal mortality rates, as another indicator of a country in crisis do not look all that impressive. In 2000, the rate of maternal deaths stood at 12 for every 100,000 live births. In 2017 the figure had risen to 19 and in 2020 the World Health Organisation showed a further rise to 21 per 100,000 live births.

Health outcomes are declining, suicide rates are growing and a general sense of despair haunts American society. And while the crisis is simply ignored, American military spending continues to balloon. 12% of the country’s entire budget goes to the military. 3.7% of the US GDP is spent on the military. It spends more than the next nine countries combined to maintain an ascendency, but ultimately at the expense of its own people. How a nation treats its people must be considered when determining who is rising and who is falling and, importantly, who has failed.

Comparisons are unavoidable. Is it reasonable to compare China and the United States? One has been "independent" only since 1949. The U.S. began its climb to the top a long time ago and has been the leading force in the world for decades. China’s GDP per person is $12,000. The U.S. figure is $70,000. The United Nations Human Development Index still regards China as a "developing nation". Even so, comparisons are made. It is almost impossible not to compare the two nations. How, then does China fare in relation to those important social indicators?

In 1949, when China declared itself to be a newly independent nation, life expectancy was just 35. By 1978 it had risen to 65. Today people live longer in China than they do in the USA. There are many reasons why. The capacity of the country to provide health care is one consideration. In the USA there are 2.9 hospital beds for every 1,000 people. China, still technically a developing nation, by comparison, has 4.95 beds per 1,000 people.

Suicide rates are another strong indicator of the health of a state. 14.5 Americans in every 100,000 commit suicide in any given year. The figure for China is just 6.7. Statistics can be treacherous and can be manipulated, but there is something rather telling in the figures around maternal mortality. In 2000 there were 59 deaths per 100,000 live births in China. That figure is now 23 in every 100,000. The trajectory in the USA is heading in the opposite direction. Today the two countries have relative parity.

Obviously, there are areas where the U.S. still leads China. The fact remains, however, that on so many key indicators, the greatest economic political and military power the world has seen is lagging behind an officially designated developing economy points to a decline with no sign of reversal.

A strong economy should reflect a healthy, stable and relatively contented population. One startling statistic was recently revealed. The Harvard Gazette reported that the Ash Center, in conjunction with Gallup, conducted a long-term survey, independent of Chinese government influence, over 15 years. It found that the great majority of Chinese were "relatively" satisfied with how things were faring. By contrast only 38 per cent of Americans expressed satisfaction with their federal government. The Ash Center and Gallup have no political axe to grind and are adamant that their research was fairly arrived at.

Whether China is operating better capitalism or whether it is in a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism is a topic for others to determine. What is in less doubt is that America remains in decline, economically, politically and socially.

Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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