- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

NEW YORK The United States ranked sixth in a U.N. quality-of-life survey released today, falling behind a handful of northern European countries, and Canada and Australia for the third year in a row.

The relatively large gap between the richest and poorest Americans dragged down the U.S. ranking, analysts said.

Norway topped the Human Development Index for the second year running, followed by Sweden, Canada, Belgium and Australia.

The report is based on a variety of statistics dealing with health care, education and the economy in each of 173 nations. It uses the countries' own statistics.

As usual, European nations dominated the top of the list, while African countries brought up the bottom.

The report was conceived a decade ago as an alternative to simple economic rankings, which cannot fully evaluate the quality of real life for typical citizens.

Economists and experts were at a loss yesterday to explain why Norway is a better place to live than the United States.

Statistically, Norwegians live a little longer and have slightly higher school enrollment. But Americans are wealthier, and have more telephones and Internet portals per capita than anyone else.

"The difference between No. 1 and No. 6 is almost negligible," said David Stewart, a statistical economist at the U.N. Development Program,which compiles the annual report. "If you were to compare the United States to Sierra Leone, you'd really see it."

A major factor affecting rankings in the most developed nations, he said, is the size of the gap between a country's richest and its poorest citizens.

"The United States is a richer country" than any other, Mr. Stewart said. "But it's not balanced the way we like to see it."

He said 17 percent of Americans are living in poverty, commonly defined for the most developed countries as those living below one-half of the median household income.

The United States also suffered because it spends only 5.7 percent of its public budget on health care, the lowest among the top 20 countries except for Ireland, Italy and Finland.

The United States also comes up short on education. Ninety percent of school-age children are enrolled in secondary school, compared with 100 percent of Swedish teenagers and 95 percent of Belgian teenagers, according to the report.

The report said 20.7 percent of Americans are functionally illiterate, meaning that one adult in five cannot read a bus map or the back of a medicine bottle.

U.S. officials are well-acquainted with the Human Development Index and tend to accept the findings.

"We don't have any comment," said an official at the U.S. Mission here. "I guess there's someone at the State Department or [the U.S. Agency for International Development] who's reading these things, but we really don't have time here."

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