Better Living is Possible: How Other Countries Put The US to Shame

A better way is possible.

We spend more than $110 billion fighting wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but are plagued with a poverty rate of more than 17 percent. At 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, the U.S. had the highest infant mortality rate among the high-income nations in 2006. We buy millions of $3.50 lattes, but leave more than 25 million of our children homeless.

America has violated the social contract with its own citizens as is allows big business and wealthy individuals to take much more than their share and then look the other way as the U.S. has become the most unequal society (in terms of distribution of wealth) among all wealthy countries – less equal than even Turkey, Mexico and Chile.

Joshua Holland, an editor and senior writer at AlterNet, recently documented “9 Countries That Do It Better: Why Does Europe Take Better Care of Its People Than America?” Below I’ve quoted extensively from Holland’s excellent research and outstanding article.

Health Care: France does it better

“In 2008, the U.S. spent 16 percent of its economic output on health-care and covered 85 percent of its citizens. It was the only OECD country other than Mexico and Turkey to cover less than 90 percent of its people. We have the 37th longest average life expectancy…France, which has a health-care system ranked number one in the world by the WHO, spent 11.2 percent of its economy to cover everyone.”

Poverty: It’s better to live in Denmark

“The OECD uses a different standard of poverty than does the U.S. government. It counts anyone making less than half of the median income as living in poverty. By that standard, we are plagued with a poverty rate of more than 17 percent, higher than all the OECD countries other than Mexico, Israel and Chile. (The average among OECD countries in general is 11.1 percent.) Denmark, at 5.4 percent, has the lowest poverty rate among the European-style countries.”

Child Poverty: Again, Denmark leads the way

“One of the most tragic comparisons for America, among the richest countries in the world, is that more than one in five children live in poverty, as measured by the OECD. The OECD average is under 13 percent, and Denmark again comes in last, with childhood poverty at around 4 percent (Following it are Finland, Norway, Austria and Sweden.)”

The Gender Gap: Italy is the better place to be

“Italy has the second highest union rate outside of Scandinavia, and also boasts the smallest gender gap. A female worker in the middle of the pack makes just 1.3 percent less than her male counterpart in Italy. Compare that with American women, who earn more than 20 percent less than American men. (The OECD average is 16 percent).”

Taking Care of the Young

“The U.S. is also the only advanced country that doesn’t offer paid maternity and/or paternity leave. Sweden offers the longest paid leave at 16 months. Denmark allows the parents to divide a year off, with full pay.” Furthermore, at 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, the U.S. had the highest infant mortality rate among the high-income nations in 2006. Iceland, with 1.4 deaths/ 1,000 live births, had the lowest.

Taking Care of the Elderly

“We work our elderly a lot harder than most European countries do. Among those aged 55-64, more than 60 percent of Americans work, compared with just 35.3 percent in Belgium.” We also give back less: the US Social Security system replaces 42 percent of the median salary while Iceland replaces 109 percent of the earnings. The OECD average is 60 percent.

Taxing Corporations Versus Individuals: Luxembourg

“The U.S. government collects less in taxes than the other rich countries, on average, but that doesn’t tell us who pays what…The U.S. is tied for the OECD country that collects the lowest share of the economy in corporate taxes, at 1.8 percent of GDP (in 2008), or about half the group’s average.” Where does the burden fall? On individuals and households. Americans pay more in personal income taxes than the OECD average as a result – 9.9 percent, while the OECD as a whole pays 9 percent.

The myth of high European tax rates

“What about the “economy-killing” taxes under which those sad European socialists suffer? Well, in 2007 we paid 7.5 percent of our economic output less in taxes than the average of OECD countries, but citizens of the other wealthy countries got a lot more for their tax dollars than we did – free or very low-cost health care, college educations, better unemployment benefits, job training and the list goes on.”

What About the Debt?

“Perhaps these countries just ran up piles of debt in the course of taking better care of their people? That’s simply not the case; among the world’s wealthy democracies only six – Japan, Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Belgium and Italy – had a higher ratio of debt to GDP than the United States last year. Denmark’s debt level was less than half of our own.”

Compelling data and stories. Let’s use this information as a jumping off point to do better by Americans.

Check out Joshua online at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate AmericaDrop him an email or follow him on Twitter.



  1. Allan Kunigis /

    This country’s performance on these critical quality-of-life issues is truly shameful, particularly given our vast resources and capabilities. It’s never to late to shift our priorities, but the entrenched self-interest of various special interests will always make this challenging.

    Thank you for raising these issues, Jeffrey.

  2. Similar stories could be told about the quality of life in Great Britain during the height of their colonial empire. In fact, in order to maintain a colonial empire you need a standing army which normally means you have to have enough pressure at the economic bottom to push people into a military career. There is ample evidence to suggest that as the economy has deteriorated in the US, the military has once again been able to meet recruiting goals that seemed harder to reach in the mid-decade. Chalmers Johnson has written a series of fine books on the cost of empire which should be required reading. We live in one of the most spiritually corrupt nations in the world because of our tolerance of poverty, hunger and inadequate education for so many of our fellow citizens. It speaks volumes to the two-faced nature of our “religious” culture.

  3. Jeff, thanks for writing such an important and powerful piece. It seems that too many of us, especially in positions of power, are operating out of old models and self-images.
    We talk leadership and bemoan the loss of it, but we are all part of the social contract that keeps this system going. The facts, like those brillantly illustrated in this post, are there. But we choose to ignore the obvious. That is why posts like this one are so important.
    We talk about organizational culture, sustainability, engagement and leadership in a bubble. “Our” kids aren’t well schooled, millions go hungry and homeless. Our health care system is increasingly slipping away from the middle class and is on its way to being a two, even three tiered system. Yet, we expect growth and innovation.
    Until we begin to see ourselves as a WE vs ME culture, I fear our situation will continue to degrade even as we expect restoration.

  4. Nothing will be done until everyone has lost something. Everyone is complaining about how bad it is, but hardly anyone sees it since you can still walk into Starbucks and pay $3.50 for a fancied up cup of coffee. We’re in a police state, but many people are ok with it because it hasn’t yet directly affected them. We all know that people are losing their homes, but that doesn’t affect those who still have work and a place to live.

    If I may indulge in a suggestion; We should spend our efforts on making this country sustainable and resourced based. We don’t need money anymore and our motives should not be about profit or personal gain. Call me a socialist commie, but there are ways that individual communities have proven effective where all contribute to the greater good, and it benefits everyone equally.
    A capitalist society promotes consumerism which lowers the value people place on their belongings and each other. If it breaks you can just throw it away and get a new one rather than repair it; if there’s no benefit to you, why should you concern yourself with anyone else? That’s all the profit motive is good for. There is no long term functionality, sustainability or community.

    When we are at our lowest point, we are ready to accept the greatest change. Nothing will change until EVERYONE is feeling the full effect of the direction this country is headed in.

  5. too true. I get so angry over people who continue to kid themselves about this reality.when i type things up like that, things pop up on yahoo, like “why france is better, or ammsterdam, etc”. you get these stupid american sheep giving these stupid ra,harah im an american speeches and tell foreigners that they are the ones who are ignorant. haha, they are so brainwashed. The last time america was good was the early 1800′s. When the people were able to get what they want because the government was scared, and corporations were heavily regulated by the government. These capitalist loving cows can’t really be suprised that people want socialism when they have let the corporate masters and rich ruling familys get so far ahead of everyone else.Hey america! listen, there is a reason we are the laughing stock of the world. really! european and asian countries laugh at the stupidity of americans. “AMERICAN DREAM” ya, if your dream was to let big business corrupt every type of institution that exists in the country, and let the corporate masters enslave people with homelessness and crappy dead end jobs while they make billions and eat unhealthy crap then die of heart disease because of the myth of fats, then ya, stay in america, YOU ARE FREE TO DO AS WE TELL YOU

Leave a Reply