Social Progress on an International Scale

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Which nation is the most socially progressive? Denmark, while Angola is the most socially challenged nation. These findings come from the work of Richard Estes, professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, and his Weighted Index of Social Progress (WISP). Estes has monitored worldwide economic and social conditions since 1970.

WISP counts 45 social, political and economic factors, ranging from GDP per capita to the number of violations of political rights. Indicators are collected from 160 nations, covering 98 percent of the world population. Surveys have taken place every five years since 1970. Scores range from a high of 100 to a low of 0, although it is possible for a nation to score below 0 in dire circumstances.

WISP indicates that the most socially progressive areas in the world are Australia/New Zealand (1995 WISP average: 84); Europe (1995 WISP average: 82) and North America (1995 WISP average: 79). All three of these regions, however, have lost ground since 1990. The world's most socially backward regions are Africa (1995 WISP average: 21) and Asia (1995 WISP average: 46). Still, in 1995, Africa reflected positive social changes for the first time. Asia too shows dramatic social gains, but recent economic pangs keep scores low.

Among nations, Denmark ranked highest with a score of 98.4 in 1995. Norway, Austria, Sweden, and France round out the top five. The United States ranked 27th in 1995, down from 18th in 1990. The number of persons in poverty (37 million) and the lopsided distribution of income account for America's rank. Angola is the most socially challenged nation, with a score of -24.7 in 1995. Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Liberia, and Mozambique also scored below 0.

Consumer attitudes slip The WISP Index is similar to our Well-Being Index in that it combines standard economic measures with other indicators to give a snapshot of the quality of life. The most recent figures for the Well-Being Index are for May 1998. Well-being slid to 104.21 from a revised reading of 104.38 in April. The current reading implies that the typical American is 4.21 percent better off than in April 1990, the Index's base month.

The slide in well-being in May is attributable to declines in productivity and technology, leisure time, and consumer attitudes. These three sectors declined by 0.82 percent, 0.10 percent, and 2.38 percent, respectively.

The income and employment sector inched up 0.08 percent while the social and physical environment improved 0.83 percent, but did not offset declining sectors.

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