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The United States performs very well in overall measures of well-being, as shown by the fact that it ranks among the top countries in a large number of topics in the Better Life Index.
Money, while it cannot buy happiness, is an important means to achieving higher living standards. In the United States, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is 38 001 USD a year, more than the OECD average of 23 047 USD a year. But there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn approximately eight times as much as the bottom 20%.
In terms of employment, 67% of people aged 15 to 64 in the United States have a paid job, slightly above the OECD employment average of 66%. Some 71% of men are in paid work, compared with 62% of women. People in the United States work 1 787 hours a year, more than the OECD average of 1 776 hours. Around 11% of employees work very long hours, higher than the OECD average of 9%, with 16% of men working very long hours compared with 6% for women.
Having a good education is an important requisite for finding a job. In the United States, 89% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, higher than the OECD average of 74%. This is slightly truer of women than men, as 88% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 90% of women. In terms of the quality of the educational system, the average student scored 496 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), close to the OECD average of 497. On average in the United States, girls outperformed boys by 3 points, less than the average OECD gap of 9 points.
In terms of health, life expectancy at birth in the United States is almost 79 years, one year lower than the OECD average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 81 years, compared with 76 for men. The level of atmospheric PM10 – tiny air pollutant particles small enough to enter and cause damage to the lungs – is 18 micrograms per cubic meter, lower than the OECD average of 21 micrograms per cubic meter. The United States also does well in terms of water quality, as 87% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, slightly higher than the OECD average of 84%.
Concerning the public sphere, there is a strong sense of community and moderate levels of civic participation in the United States, where 90% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, in line with the OECD average. Voter turnout, a measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process, was 70% during recent elections; this figure is slightly lower than the OECD average of 72%. Social and economic status can affect voting rates; voter turnout for the top 20% of the population is close to 79% and for the bottom 20% it is 56%, broader than the OECD average gap of 12 percentage points and suggesting there is room for broader social inclusion in the United States’ democratic institutions.
In general, Americans are more satisfied with their lives than the OECD average, with 83% of people saying they have more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc). This figure is higher than the OECD average of 80%.
OECD in Action
Lessons from PISA 2012 for the United States
This report compares the performance of 15-year-olds in the United States in PISA against the global patterns and trends.Download this report
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United States in Detail
Housing – United States expand
Living in satisfactory housing conditions is one of the most important aspects of people’s lives. Housing is essential to meet basic needs, such as shelter, but it is not just a question of four walls and a roof. Housing should offer a place to sleep and rest where people feel safe and have privacy and personal space; somewhere they can raise a family. All of these elements help make a house a home. And of course there is the question whether people can afford adequate housing.
Housing costs take up a large share of the household budget and represent the largest single expenditure for many individuals and families, by the time you add up elements such as rent, gas, electricity, water, furniture or repairs. In the United States, households on average spend 19% of their gross adjusteddisposable income on keeping a roof over their heads, below the OECD average of 21%.
In addition to housing costs it is also important to examine living conditions, such as the average number of rooms shared per person and whether households have access to basic facilities. In the United States, 86% of people say they are satisfied with their current housing situation, slightly less than the OECD average of 87%.
The number of rooms in a dwelling, divided by the number of persons living there, indicates whether residents are living in crowded conditions. Overcrowded housing may have a negative impact on physical and mental health, relations with others and children’s development. In addition, dense living conditions are often a sign of inadequate water and sewage supply. In terms of basic facilities, nearly every dwelling in the United States contains private access to an indoor flushing toilet, more than the OECD average of 97.8%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Income – United States expand
While money may not buy happiness, it is an important means to achieving higher living standards and thus greater well-being. Higher economic wealth may also improve access to quality education, healthcare and housing.
Household net-adjusted disposable income is the amount of money that a household earns each year after tax. It represents the money available to a household for spending on goods or services. In United States, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is 38 001 USD a year, much higher than the OECD average of 23 047 USD.
Household financial wealth is the total value of a household’s financial worth. In the United States, the average household net financial wealth is estimated at 115 918 USD, much higher than the OECD average of 40 516 USD and the highest figure in the OECD. While the ideal measure of household wealth should include real assets (e.g. land and dwellings), such information is currently available for only a small number of OECD countries.
Despite a general increase in living standards across OECD countries over the past fifteen years, not all people have benefited from this to the same extent. In the United States, the average net adjusted disposable income of the top 20% of the population is an estimated 82 666 USD a year, whereas the bottom 20% live on an estimated 10 434 USD a year .
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Jobs – United States expand
Having a job brings many important benefits, including: providing a source of income, improving social inclusion, fulfilling one’s own aspirations, building self-esteem and developing skills and competencies. In the United States, nearly 67% of the working-age population aged 15 to 64 has a paid job. This figure is close to the OECD employment average of 66%. Employment rates are generally higher for individuals with a higher level of education; in the United States an estimated 80% of individuals with at least a tertiary education have a paid job, compared with an estimated 35% for those without an upper secondary education. This 45 percentage point difference is higher than the OECD average of 37 percentage points and suggests the job market in the United States is relatively restrictive.
Women are still less likely than men to participate in the labour market. In the United States, 62% of women have jobs. This is more than the OECD average of 60% but less than the 71% employment rate of men in the United States. This 9 percentage point gender difference is slightly lower than the OECD average of 12 percentage points and suggests the United States could further improve employment opportunities for women but have generally been successful in addressing the constraints and barriers women face accessing work.
Young Americans, aged 15-24, face difficulties however, with an unemployment rate of 17.3%, slightly higher than the OECD average of 16.2%.
Unemployed persons are defined as those who are not currently working but are willing to do so and actively searching for work. Long-term unemployment can have a large negative effect on feelings of well-being and self-worth and result in a loss of skills, further reducing employability. In the United States, the percentage of the labour force that has been unemployed for a year or longer is currently at 2.8%, slightly lower than the OECD average of 3.1%. There is little difference on average between men and women in the OECD area when it comes to long-term unemployment. In the United States, the long-term unemployment rate for men is slightly higher than for women, with respectively 3.0% and 2.6%.
The wages and other monetary benefits that come with employment are an important aspect of job quality. In the United States, people earn 54 450 US dollars per year on average, much more than the OECD average of 34 466 USD and the highest rate across the OECD. Not everyone earns that amount however. Whereas the top 20% of the population earn 70 927 USD per year, the bottom 20% live on 24 080 USD per year.
Another essential factor of employment quality is job security. Employees working on temporary contracts are more vulnerable than workers with an open-ended contract. In the United States, around 11% of total employees have a contract of 6 months or less, slightly more than the average of 10% for 30 OECD countries. This figure suggests greater stabilisation of working contracts could be encouraged for US employees.
More ResourcesWell‑being in the workplace: Measuring job quality
Community – United States expand
Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. Helping others can also make you happier. People who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Time spent volunteering also contributes to a healthy civil society. On average, people in United States spend 8 minutes per day in volunteering activities, one of the highest in the OECD where the average is 4 minutes per day. Around 77% reported having helped a stranger in the last month, the highest rate in the OECD where the average is of 48%. These high scores suggest there is a strong sense of community in the United States.
A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as provide access to jobs, services and other material opportunities. In the United States, 90% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, in line with OECD average. There is a 4 percentage point difference between men and women, as 88% of men believe they have this kind of social support, compared with 92% of women. While gender has little impact on social network support, there is a relationship between the availability of social support on the one hand, and people’s education level on the other. In the United States, 84% of people who have completed primary education report having someone to count on for help in times of need, compared to 96% for people who attained tertiary education.
A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation. Socially isolated individuals face difficulties integrating into society as a contributing member and fulfilling personal aspirations.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Innovative housing solutions to foster intergenerational solidarity
Housing policies can encourage communal forms of living such as shared housing, or multi-generational housing. This in turn, can foster family interaction and intergenerational solidarity in the community.
MEDcottage is an innovative modular housing solution that enables older people to stay in the community or near family members. The cottage can be placed temporarily on the property of home-owners, connected to its electricity and water supply, and is equipped with the latest monitoring and ICT technologies. For example, sensors can detect falls and alert caregivers. This solution can facilitate family care and is intended to be an affordable alternative to care homes.
The state of Virginia has passed a bill to allow families to place mobile-care units on their property without requiring special permission. Encouraging this kind of private arrangement can take pressure off public care systems and nursing homes. It also matches the preference of many elderly people to age in their own homes or stay close to family without moving into their homes.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance OECD Insights: Human Capital
Education – United States expand
A well-educated and well-trained population is essential for a country’s social and economic well-being. Education plays a key role in providing individuals with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy. Most concretely, having a good education greatly improves the likelihood of finding a job and earning enough money. Across OECD countries, 83% of people with university-level degrees have a job, compared with just below 56% for those with only a secondary school diploma. Lifetime earnings also increase with each level of education.
Following a decline in manual labour over previous decades, employers now favour a more educated labour force. High-school graduation rates therefore provide a good indication of whether a country is preparing its students to meet the minimum requirements of the job market. In the United States, 89% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, higher than the OECD average of 74%. Across the OECD, slightly more men aged 25-64 have the equivalent of a high-school degree compared with women from that same age group.In the United States however, 88% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 90% of women. Among younger people – a better indicator of the United States’ future – 88% of 25-34 year-olds have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, also higher than the OECD average of 82%.
Americans can expect to go through 17.1 years of education between the ages of 5 and 39, more than the OECD average of 16.5 years. This level of education expectancy echoes the United States’ good performance in the educational attainment of its 25-34 year-old population.
But graduation rates, while important, speak little to the quality of education received. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews the extent to which students have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. In 2009, PISA focused on examining students’ reading ability, skills in maths and level in sciences, as research shows that these skills are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than the number of years spent in school.
The average student in the United States scored 496 in reading literacy, maths and sciences, close to the OECD average of 497. Boys and girls performed equally.
The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. In the United States, the average difference in results, between the 20% with the highest socio-economic background and the 20% with the lowest socio-economic background is 112 points, higher than the OECD average of 99 points. This suggests the school system in the United States tends to provide higher quality education for the better off.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Innovative teacher-preparation program in Boston
The Boston Teacher Residency (BTR), established in 2003, is a teacher-preparation program that recruits high-performing college graduates and professionals and prepares them to teach in Boston schools. The program focuses on mastering the skills that teachers will need to be effective in the public schools in which teachers will work, emphasizing clinical training and pairing residents with experienced classroom teachers.
Residents begin the program with a two-month summer institute, and then spend their first year in a classroom four days a week, spending the fifth day attending courses and seminars. This approach allows residents to simultaneously master both the theory and practice of teaching. After their first year, residents receive an initial teacher license and a master’s degree in education, and continue to receive support from BTR in the form of induction coaching, courses and seminars, and placement in collaborative clusters within schools.
A study of the program’s impact on student achievement is underway, but early indicators of success include a rigorous recruitment and selection process in which only 13% of applicants are admitted, three-year retention rates of 85% (far above the U.S. average for urban schools), growth of the program’s outputs to fill 60% of Boston’s annual need for math and science teachers, and highly favourable reviews from school principals, with 96% of principals saying they would recommend hiring a BTR graduate to another principal. BTR recently received a USD 5 million “development” grant under the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Fund, which seeks to identify and scale up promising and proven practices in teacher education and other priority areas.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Environment – United States expand
The quality of our local living environment has a direct impact on our health. Outdoor air pollution is one important environmental issue that directly affects the quality of peoples’ lives. Despite national and international interventions and decreases in major pollutant emissions, the health impacts of urban air pollution continue to worsen, with air pollution set to become the top environmental cause of premature mortality globally by 2050. Air pollution in urban centres, often caused by transport and the use of small-scale burning of wood or coal, is linked to a range of health problems, from minor eye irritation to upper respiratory symptoms in the short-term and chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer in the long-term. Children and the elderly may be particularly vulnerable.
PM10 – tiny particulate matter small enough to be inhaled into the deepest part of the lung – is monitored in OECD countries because it can harm human health and reduce life expectancy. In the United States, PM10 levels are 18.0 micrograms per cubic meter, lower than the OECD average of 20.9 micrograms per cubic meter and the annual guideline limit of 20 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization. On the whole, air quality has improved since the mid-1990s.
Access to clean water is fundamental to human well-being. Despite significant progress in OECD countries in reducing water pollution, improvements in freshwater quality are not always easy to discern. In the United States, 87% of people say they are satisfied with water quality. This figure is slightly higher than the OECD average of 84% and suggests the United States has been successful in providing good quality water to its inhabitants.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030
Governance – United States expand
A cohesive society is one where citizens have a high degree of confidence in their governmental institutions and public administration. In the United States, 58% of people say they trust their political institutions, slightly more than the OECD average of 56%. High voter turnout is another measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process. In the most recent elections for which data is available, voter turnout in the United States was 70% of those registered. This figure is slightly lower than the OECD average of 72%.
Even if the right to vote is universal in all OECD countries, not everyone exercises this right. There is little difference in the voting rates of men and women in most OECD countries. In the United States, however, women outvote men by nearly 5 percentage points. Income can also have a strong influence on voter turnout. In the United States, voter turnout for the top 20% of the population is an estimated 79%, whereas the participation rate of the bottom 20% is an estimated 56%. This 23 percentage point difference is much higher than the OECD average difference of 12 percentage points and points to shortcomings in the political mobilisation of the worst-off.
Ensuring that government decision making is not compromised by conflicts of interest is key to maintaining trust in government. Transparency is therefore essential to hold government to account and to maintain confidence in public institutions.
Freedom of information laws (FOI) allow the possibility for individuals to access undisclosed information. For such policies to be successful, the public should have a clear understanding of their rights under the law, should be able to file requests with ease and should be protected against any possible retaliation. People in the United States can file a request for information either in writing or online – thus greatly facilitating the FOI process. There is even built-in protection from retaliation – an important protection that few OECD countries have adopted. There is not yet, however, a provision for anonymity.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Health – United States expand
Most OECD countries have enjoyed large gains in life expectancy over the past decades, thanks to improvements in living conditions, public health interventions and progress in medical care. While life expectancy in the United States used to be 1 ½ year above the OECD average in 1960, it is now, at almost 79 years, slightly below the average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 81 years, compared with 76 for men, a slightly smaller gender difference than the OECD average gap of six years, with a life expectancy of 83 years for women and 77 for men.
Higher life expectancy is generally associated with higher healthcare spending per person, although many other factors have an impact on life expectancy (such as living standards, lifestyles, education and environmental factors). Health spending accounts for 17.6% of GDP in the United States, by far the highest share in the OECD, and more than eight percentage points higher than the OECD average of 9.5%. The United States spent 8233 USD per person on health in 2010, two-and-a-half times the OECD average of 3268 USD, and the highest rate in the OECD. Between 2000 and 2009, total health spending in the United States increased in real terms by 4.3% per year on average, a slightly slower growth rate than the OECD average of 4.7%. This rate slowed down significantly to 2.7% in 2010.
Throughout the OECD, tobacco consumption and excessive weight gain remain two important risk factors for many chronic diseases. In the United States, the proportion of adults who smoke daily has been cut by more than half over the past thirty years, falling from 33.5% in 1980 to 15.1%, one of the lowest rates among OECD countries. Much of this decline can be attributed to policies aimed at reducing tobacco consumption through public awareness campaigns, advertising bans and increased taxation. In many OECD countries, large proportions of the population are overweight or obese. Soaring obesity rates make the US the fattest country in the OECD with 35.9% of adults found to be obese, more than double the OECD average rate of 17.8%. Overweight and obesity rates have increased steadily since the 1980s for both men and women. Furthermore, some 35% of US children are currently overweight or obese. Obesity’s prevalence foreshadows increases in the occurrence of health problems (such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and asthma), and higher health care costs in the future.
When asked, “How is your health in general?” 90% of people in the United States reported to be in good health, much higher than the OECD average of 69%. Despite the subjective nature of this question, answers have been found to be a good predictor of people’s future health care use. Gender, age and social status may affect answers to this question. On average in OECD countries, men are more likely to report good health than women, with an average of 71% for men and 66% for women. In the United States, the average is 90% for men and 89% for women. Not surprisingly, older people report poorer health, as do those who are unemployed, or who have less education or income. About 96% of the top 20% of the adult population in the United States rate their health as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, compared to about 74% for the bottom 20%.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Reduce inefficiencies in healthcare to reduce spending
In most countries, health spending is largely financed out of taxes or social security contributions, with private insurance or ‘out-of-pocket’ payments playing a significant but secondary role. This is not the case in the United States where the government plays the smallest role in financing health spending. The public share of health expenditure in the United States was 46.5% in 2008, much lower than the OECD average of 72.8%.
However, the level of health spending in the United States is so high that public (i.e. government) spending on health per person is greater than in all other OECD countries, excepting only Norway and Luxembourg. For this amount of public expenditure in the United States, government provides insurance coverage only for the elderly and disabled people (through Medicare) and some of the poor (through Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, SCHIP), whereas in most other OECD countries this is enough for government to provide universal primary health insurance. Public spending on health in the United States has been growing more rapidly than private spending since 1990, largely due to expansions in coverage.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Life Satisfaction – United States expand
Happiness or subjective well-being can be measured in terms of life satisfaction, the presence of positive experiences and feelings, and the absence of negative experiences and feelings. Such measures, while subjective, are a useful complement to objective data to compare the quality of life across countries.
Life satisfaction measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings. It captures a reflective assessment of which life circumstances and conditions are important for subjective well-being. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, people in the United States gave it a 7.0 grade, higher than the OECD average of 6.6.
There is little difference in life satisfaction levels between men and women across OECD countries. Women reported being somewhat happier than men in the United States, however, giving their life a 7.2 grade, against 6.9 for men. Education levels also strongly influence subjective well-being. Whereas people who have only completed primary education in the USA have a life satisfaction level of 6.1, this score reaches 7.4 for people with tertiary education.
Happiness, or subjective well-being, is also measured by the presence of positive experiences and feelings, and/or the absence of negative experiences and feelings. In the United States 83% of people reported having more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc). This figure is higher than the OECD average of 80%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Safety – United States expand
Personal security is a core element for the well-being of individuals, and largely reflects the risks of people being physically assaulted or falling victim to other types of crime. Across the OECD, assault rates have generally declined in the past five years. In the United States, 1.5% of people reported falling victim to assault over the previous 12 months, less than the OECD average of 4.0%. There is little difference between men and women in assault rates, at respectively 1.7% and 1.3%.
The homicide rate (the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants) is a more reliable measure of a country’s safety level because, unlike other crimes, murders are usually always reported to the police. According to the latest OECD data, the United States’ homicide rate is 4.8, much higher than the OECD average of 2.2. In the United States, men are far more likely to be murdered than women, as the homicide rate for men is 7.5 compared with 2.1 for women
Fear of crime is another important indicator as it can constrain behaviour, restrict freedom and threaten the foundation of communities. Despite a general reduction in assault rates in the past five years, in many OECD countries feelings of security have declined. In the United States, 77% of people feel safe walking alone at night, higher than the OECD average of 67%. While men are at a greater risk of being victims of assaults and violent crimes, women report lower feelings of security than men. This has been explained by a greater fear of sexual attacks, the feeling they must also protect their children and their concern that they may be seen as partially responsible.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Work-Life Balance – United States expand
Finding a suitable balance between work and life is a challenge for all workers, especially working parents. Some couples would like to have (more) children, but do not see how they could afford to stop working. Other parents are happy with the number of children in their family, but would like to work more. This is a challenge to governments because if parents cannot achieve their desired work/life balance, not only is their welfare lowered but so is development in the country.
People spend one-tenth to one-fifth of their time on unpaid work. The distribution of tasks within the family is still influenced by gender roles: men are more likely to spend more hours in paid work, while women spend longer on unpaid domestic work. Men in the United States, spend 154 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, more than the OECD average of 131 minutes but still less than American women who spend 258 minutes per day on average on domestic work.
Another important aspect of work-life balance is the amount of time a person spends at work. Evidence suggests that long work hours may impair personal health, jeopardize safety and increase stress. People in the United States work 1 787 hours a year, slightly more than the OECD average of 1 776 hours. The share of employees working more than 50 hours per week is not very large across OECD countries. In the United States, about 11% of employees work very long hours, more than the OECD average of 9%. Overall, men spend more hours in paid work: in the United States 16% of men work very long hours, compared with 6% for women.
The more people work, the less time they have to spend on other activities, such as time with others or leisure. The amount and quality of leisure time is important for people’s overall well-being, and can bring additional physical and mental health benefits. People in the United States devote 66% of their day, or 14.3 hours, to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socializing with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.) – less than the OECD average of 14.9 hours. Fewer hours in paid work for women do not necessarily result in greater leisure time. In the United States, both men and women devote approximately 14 hours per day to personal care and leisure.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Reducing poverty among working families
OECD analysis suggests that the US could help working families to reduce poverty rates by strengthening services and benefits for children in their early years, including legislating for paid parental leave, and building on the successes of child education and care services, such as the Headstart programme.
Families in the US understand the value of a good head start. In the US, total public spending on child welfare and education is USD 160 000 up to the age of 18, above the OECD average of USD 149 000. But the US leaves it late, spending the most money on public compulsory education. This means early investment – including childcare and support for families around the time of birth – could be strengthened.
The US, for example, is the only OECD country without a national paid parental leave policy, although some states do provide leave payments. Available parental leave is short (12 weeks), and only covers some employees (those in companies with 50+ workers). While making changes will involve a cost to employers, there will be benefits not only to child well-being but also the labour market, as evidence suggests that when US mothers take their full leave entitlement, they are more likely to return to work than mothers who do not.
Leave is short for a reason: US family well-being is strongly linked to employment because a significant proportion of public family support is delivered via tax breaks and credits (45% of total compared to 10% on average in the OECD). Nevertheless female employment in the US has been falling for the last decade, albeit from high levels. This fall is happening despite US women having better career prospects compared to most other OECD countries (35% of management jobs occupied by women) and lower career costs associated with child-rearing (where mothers earn over 80% of non-mothers’ earnings over a working life).