April 28, 2010— -- A new study of America's haves and have nots found that the least fortunate U.S. citizens are an entire century behind their most well-off neighbors in terms of health, education and income.
The study measures quality of life based on three factors -- health, education and income. Called the Human Development Index (HD Index), scores range from 0 to 10, and the higher the number, the greater the level of well-being.
"We're looking at well-being because in the United States, we know all the time how the economy is doing," said Kristen Lewis, the co-director of the American Human Development Project and co-author of the study. "But what we don't know so well is how people are doing."
The highest level of well-being of any group in the United States -- a 9.26 out of 10 on the HD Index -- was claimed by Asian Americans in New Jersey. With a life expectancy of nearly 91 years and high levels of education, New Jersey's Asian American population is 50 years ahead of most of the country, the study said.
The lowest score of any group -- just 0.92 on the HD Index -- went to South Dakota's Native American population. That number is lower than the U.S. average in 1960.
Nationwide, Asian Americans scored the highest on the index, with a score of 7.54. Whites ranked second at 5.51, followed by Latinos at 4.08, African Americans at 3.77 and Native Americans at 3.21. Asians Americans scored the highest in all three areas -- health, education, and income. In terms of life expectancy, the study found that Latinos ranked ahead of whites with an average life expectancy of 82.8 years. African Americans had the lowest life expectancy, at 73.4 years.
Regional and Racial Differences in Well-Being in America
Regional differences within ethnic groups were also underscored by the report.
"Among Latinos, one in five has a graduate degree in Florida," said Lewis. "Whereas in Arkansas, which is the state in which Latinos are doing the worst in education, over half of adults over 25 don't have a high school diploma."
Among white Americans, those in Washington, D.C., experienced the nation's highest levels of well-being. Those in nearby West Virginia scored the lowest.
"Whites in D.C. live about 7 years longer, earn more than twice the annual wages, and are five times more likely to have completed college than their West Virginia counterparts," the study found.
"As a country as a whole, we've progressed, but income inequality is growing a tremendous amount," said Lewis. "The lion's share of the economic gains of the last 30 years have gone to the top 1 or 5 percent of American households."
The study's authors hope that by developing a measure of well-being, they can encourage policymakers and the public to find ways to close the gaps between America's haves and have nots.
"It's very important when you're trying to fix something to first really understand the problem," said Lewis. "What we're hoping is that by creating this index that allows for apples-to-apples comparisons, people can really have a better understanding of what's actually going on."