With the Index of Leading Economic Indicators, a Social Report Card

Marc L. Miringoff, the director of the Fordham University Institute for Innovation in Social Policy and a longtime champion of social reform, had been hoping to fly below the radar of national politics by producing a report called ”The Social Health of the States.” But when the results of the research came back, the map of the United States that it produced looked almost exactly like the electoral map most Americans stared at on election night in November 2000.

Eighteen of the 20 states with the worst records on social health, as measured by standards like infant mortality and high school completion rates, were in the South, West and Southwest and had cast their electoral votes for President Bush. Eighteen of the 20 states with the best scores on social health, most in the Northeast and the Midwest, had voted for Al Gore.

Mr. Miringoff does not mention this in the report but acknowledges that the pattern is ”pretty distinctive” and should interest politicians and political scientists.

”In some ways, it’s counterintuitive,” he said. ”You might think that the Democrats represent those who are worse off, but the states that were doing most poorly voted for Bush.” The pattern could also be explained, he said, by the more positive experiences these states might have had with activist governments, making them more receptive to the Democratic agenda.

For Mr. Miringoff, the report on the states is a step toward his ultimate goal: a Social Index of Leading Indicators that commands as much attention as the Economic Index of Leading Indicators. ”It’s a way of taking social issues away from a more shrill, adversarial contest and changing the discourse, making it more pragmatic, more objective,” he said.

In the meantime, what he has done with the Fordham survey is to create a report card for the states that combines 16 measures of social health, from child poverty and teenage suicide rates to average weekly wages, homicide rates, health insurance coverage and alcohol-related traffic deaths.

Out of a possible perfect score of 100, Iowa is at the top with 73; New Mexico is dead last at 21.4. Because most states face economic shortfalls and are now required to balance their budgets, more and more social scientists are arguing that the most important policy battles to come will be fought at a state level.

Among Mr. Miringoff’s findings:

* In New Mexico, 29.4 percent of the population has no health insurance; in Rhode Island, the uninsured percentage is only 8.1.

* The child abuse rate in Montana is more than 10 times that of Pennsylvania.

* Teenage suicide is nine times more common in Alaska than in New Jersey.

* The murder rate in Louisiana is seven times that of Iowa.

* Elderly people are more than three times as likely to commit suicide in Nevada as in Massachusetts or Connecticut.

In his state-by-state analysis, Mr. Miringoff found that three indicators in particular — child poverty, high school completion and health insurance — were bellwethers of overall social health.

”A state does not do well without doing well in these three indicators, and a state doesn’t do badly without performing poorly in these areas,” he said. ”This really has implications in terms of policy: if you want to get more bang for your buck, or you don’t want to monitor all 16 indicators, concentrate on these things to improve life in your state.”

Brian Mattiello, the undersecretary of the office of policy and management for the State of Connecticut, the first state to require an annual social index, said such a measure ”allows us to monitor our public human services the way we monitor our financial markets.”

One advantage to concentrating on the states, Mr. Miringoff said, was the possibility of steering clear of the national political debate on social health. ”Looking at the states may be the thing to do at a moment when there are unlikely to be sweeping new national social programs,” he said. ”It’s objective, it’s nonpartisan and it gets politics out of the picture.”

Perhaps because of its political potential, the idea of a national index of social health has run afoul of partisan politics. Walter F. Mondale, first as a senator from Minnesota and later as vice president, pushed legislation to create an annual index of social health, but the proposal died with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

As a creation of Mr. Mondale, the idea of a social index may have suffered by being associated with the Great Society programs of the 1960’s, but, Mr. Miringoff points out, the first efforts to create a national report on social well-being were actually undertaken by a Republican president, Herbert Hoover.

Before being appointed to the Office of Policy and Management, Mr. Mattiello was a Republican member of the Connecticut Assembly. He co-sponsored the 1994 bill that mandated the creation of an annual report on the social health of the state; the bill had wide bipartisan support and was signed into law by a Republican governor, John G. Rowland.

”What I like is that there’s no policy recommendations,” Mr. Mattiello said. ”It’s trying to inform policy makers and not direct them. No one is for having more high school drop-outs or child abuse.”

Mr. Miringoff hopes that these measurements can be used to spur government action when certain indices drop to alarmingly low levels. States in which several critical indicators have fallen into the danger zone, he said, can be characterized as being in a ”social recession” — the social equivalent of economic recession. If a national report could be produced that received as much attention on the nightly news as the Dow Jones industrial average, Mr. Miringoff added, discussion of social issues might be very different.

In 1999 the Fordham institute published its own version of a national index, ”The Social Health of the Nation: How America Is Really Doing” (Oxford University Press). It showed that although the gross domestic product had continued to grow over the last 30 years, Americans’ social health had actually gone down rather drastically, as problems like child poverty, decreased average wages, the youth suicide rate and lack of health insurance coverage had all worsened.

All of which brings Mr. Miringoff back to a political point. ”I’m convinced that one of the reasons why more and more people are dropping out of the political process,” he said, ”is that the political discussion rarely addresses the problems that actually affect the way people live.”

– April 27, 2012

Published at The New York Times


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