What is the best measure of a country’s standard of living? What is the problem with using GDP per capita as a quality of life indicator?
According to Vaclav Smil, the author of Numbers Don’t Lie, the most important measure of the quality of life in a country is not GDP per capita, as many people believe. It’s the infant mortality rate.
Here’s why infant mortality more accurately reflects the standard of living.
The Infant Mortality Rate as a Quality of Life Indicator
The infant mortality rate is such a powerful quality of life indicator because it accounts for factors that GDP ignores, like income inequality, social support, a strong healthcare system, good education, and safe and clean living conditions.
From 2015 to 2020, Finland, Japan, and Slovenia had extremely low infant mortality rates (around two per 1000 live births). The United States, with the highest GDP in the world, had triple that amount at six per 1000, suggesting that the higher GDP of the US fails to capture important quality-of-life factors that those other countries provide their citizens despite their lower GDP.
Wealth Versus Health
Studies that examine the relationship between a country’s wealth and the health of its citizens echo Smil’s argument that GDP is not a good measure of life quality. One way this is shown is in the paradoxical effect of economic recessions on population health. In wealthy countries, mortality rates actually decline during recessions.
This is also true for infant mortality rates, as child health generally improves during economic contractions in the United States. During a recession in prosperous nations, mothers who find themselves out of work generally have more time to prepare food, provide clean water, and visit the doctor, which will decrease infant mortality rates. The opposite is true for underdeveloped countries, however. When a less affluent nation is hit by economic hardships, mothers have less access to healthcare, clean water, and adequate supply of food, which increases mortality rates.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Numbers Don't Lie summary:
- How you can understand the world by understanding numbers and statistics
- Why the infant mortality rate is a better indicator of standard of living than GDP per capita
- Why nuclear energy is not the answer to sustainability