December 23, 2013

We’re Number One!

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

Let’s face it: Americans love being number one. It seems that wherever we turn, we are reminded of whom or what is the best. In sports, we have fans touting foam #1 fingers, fervent chants of “we’re number one,” and a barrage of statistics telling us who outshines everyone else. In schools, we have honor rolls, valedictorians, and distinctions such as best dressed, best looking, and best musician. And in politics, it is seemingly impossible to run for office without regularly invoking the phrase, “America is the greatest country in the world.”

Given our collective infatuation with greatness, it is fair to say that we are number one in proclaiming we are number one.

Unfortunately, not all things that Americans excel at are cause for celebration. For all of the presumed accomplishments that put us at the top of the list, there are also many dubious distinctions on our “better-than” list. Here then, is a list of seven categories in which the United States leads the industrialized world.

Income Inequality. The rich are getting richer. Anyone who studies sociology, or just follows the news, knows that income inequality in the United States is growing each year. In fact, it has been growing so much that the U.S. can now lay claim to having the largest income gap in the developed world. Income inequality is often measured using a statistic known as the Gini coefficient. Lower numbers suggest greater equality and higher numbers suggest greater inequality. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the Gini coefficient for the United States is 45 whereas most other developed countries have numbers in the twenties and thirties.

Child Poverty. Following on the heels of income disparities, it should be no surprise that we lead in other forms of inequality. But don’t celebrate just yet. The United States is actually number two in this category (according to a report by UNICEF). The childhood poverty rate in the U.S. is 23.1%, slightly below Romania at 25.5%, but higher than all other developed countries. Among the 35 richest countries in the world, 30 million children live in poverty with over 16 million of them living in the United States. Poverty in the U.S. is undoubtedly a “kids issue” given that those under 18 years of age make up 24% of the total U.S. population but 36% of the poor population.

Teenage pregnancy. The rate of young girls getting pregnant in the United States has dropped in recent years but the numbers are still much higher than in other developed nations. For girls between the ages of 15-19, the pregnancy rate is 42.5—nearly twice as high as most other countries (England 26.7; Canada 13.3; Germany 9.9; Japan 4.9). 

Prison population. In terms of the number of people behind bars, the United States outpaces all nations of the world. Even though the United States comprises less than 5% of the world’s population, nearly 25% of the world's prisoners are locked up here. Our rate of incarceration is 716 per 100,000 residents. For comparison, the rate of incarceration in Russia is 475, in China it is 121, in England it is 148, and in Canada it is 118.

Gun Homicides (and Gun Ownership). The number of fatalities resulting from firearms is another category in which America is far ahead of the pack. This fact should not be too surprising given that we also far outpace our industrialized peers in terms of gun ownership. In fact, we far outpace every country in terms of the number of privately owned guns. According to The Washington Post, Americans own 270 million guns whereas India, the second country on the list with a population three times the size of the U.S., has 46 million guns owned privately.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions. This is another category where we should not celebrate prematurely: we are only second. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), China leads the world in this category being responsible for nearly a quarter of the CO2 emmisions. The United States is not too far behind contributing nearly 20% of the greenhouse gases to the atmosophere. Of course if we measured CO2 emmissions per capita (as a proportion of the population) than the United States (17.6) would be far ahead of China (6.2).  

Waste Production.We are definitely number one in this category. According to Forbes Magazine,The U.S. manages to produce a quarter of the world’s waste despite the fact that its population of 300 million is less than 5% of the world’s population.” In other words, we generate a tremendous amount of the garbage in the world even though we make up a relatively small percentage of the earth’s human population. To learn more about all of the waste that we produce check out the informative video The Story of Stuff.

Leading the world in these seven categories is nothing to rejoice about. And these are certainly not the only categories in which we are number one. We are also first or second in rates of divorce, obesity, and drug use—both illegal and prescription.

The point of this post is not to encourage feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation, or hopelessness. Sociologists do not identify and study social problems in order to make people feel put-off or paralyzed by them. Instead, we strive to understand what’s going on in the world so that we can play an active role in changing it. As I wrote about in a previous post, sociology gives us great insight and awareness into the myriad of problems facing humanity. The challenge, and next step, is to use this knowledge to foster social change. In the case of seven categories discussed here, we should strive to do something that seems wholly un-American: go from first to worst.


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It's true, Americans think highly of this country because, well it's supposed to be. America was made for "freedom," not distinct rules and demands. This article points out to me that America has become not so free; more violent activity, more abuse and neglect has corrupt this country each and every day.

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