There is a common pereception that the quality of life in American society is in decline and has been in decline for some time. Is this perception true and it what ways? If perception doesn't match reality, why? Over the next couple of weeks I am going to write several posts that look at social indicators. After that, I will offer some thoughts I have about what may be happening in our culture. I hope you will offer your insights and possibly suggest indicators you think would help clarify issues.
Here are the first indicators.
Infant Mortality and Life Expectancy
There are a number of factors that contribute to having a high quality of life. These include safe environments, adequate diet, adequate health care, sufficient education, adequate financial resources, nurturing families and communities, to name just a few. It is possible to find measures that tell us about each of the variables but when looking for broad quality of life measure, demographers tend to start with two measures. One is the infant mortality rate and the other is the life expectancy at birth.
The infant mortality rate is the number of children that die from birth to 1 year of age per 1,000 live births. This measure is important because these children are the most vulnerable member of any society. Measuring how well the most vulnerable survive tells us something about the overall quality of life for a population.
A second measure is life expectancy at birth. Everyone dies eventually but a society with a high quality of life will have organized itself to minimize the number of premature deaths in its population.
What do these two measures tell us about American society?
The infant mortality rate throughout most of recorded history has been estimated to be about 250 per 1,000 live births. Early in the 1900s the rate was well over 100 in the United States. The rate appears to have leveled off in recent years and it remains to be seen if some minimum barrier has been attained.
Life expectancy at birth for the United States in 1900 was just under 50 years. While life expectancy has increased by eight or nine years over the last fifty years, it improved by nearly twenty years in the first fifty years of the Twentieth Century. With continued advances in biotechnology it remains to be seen how high this rate may rise.
These two measures illustrate the remarkable advances we have experienced in recent generations due to health care, sanitation, education, workplace reforms and technology. No populations in the past, and few populations in the present, have experienced the high quality of life Americans enjoy today.