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Understanding How We Live

New database to provide a clearer portrait of life in the United States

If you have ever wished for a centralized repository ofdata and information about the living standards of people in the UnitedStates, your wish is about to come true.

The idea for Human and Economic Development in America’s Citiesemerged last month when forty academicians, researchers, policymakers,foundation executives, civic leaders, and journalists met for aweek-long conference at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). Thereport will be available in book form and as a computerized database.It will make race, age, gender, and regional comparisons of the lifeexpectancy, educational attainment, literacy, incarceration rates, andincomes, of Americans, according to Lord Meghnad Desai, professor andchair of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the LondonSchool of Economics.

Desai is one of the creators of the Human Development Report,produced by the United Nations Development Program, the world’santi-poverty agency. The UNDP report ranks developed and undevelopedcountries based on a human development index.

Wim Weiwel, dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at UIC,said the UNDP report receives a lot of attention each year and pointsto discrepancies that exist in the world.

The U.S. report, he said, “will compare metropolitan areas in theUnited States and it will call attention to both the good and theproblems in American cities. We are beginning to assemble a veryhigh-quality group of universities, as well as practitioners andjournalists, to help us think through how best to do this.”

In addition to UIC, participating universities include HowardUniversity, Morgan State University, Rutgers University, the Universityof New Orleans, Governors State University, the University ofWisconsin, Cleveland State University, Northeastern University, and theUniversity of Chicago.

The first-ever U.S. human development report will go beyond theUNDP report by also examining how federal and state taxes and subsidieshave an impact on people’s lives, said Desai, the report’s co-principalinvestigator.

“Who pays and how they pay shapes neighborhoods and the financingof such services as education and health care,” he said. “The [U.S.]report will look at the stagnation of the standard of living for somepeople and why it now takes two people to support a household.”

The American report will study poverty in the inner city, howexcessive consumption affects the environment, and how tax incentivescan be used to encourage people to pollute less, he said. The report isscheduled for release in the summer of 2000.

“That is a presidential election year, and the report will get into the political bloodstream” Desai said.

“[The presidential election] is a time when Americans will pause totake stock and look at issues with some depth, and we want toparticipate in that dialogue” said Dr. Alice Palmer, a researchassociate professor in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairsat UIC.

Palmer is a co-director, along with Desai, of the U.S. report and aco-director of the PEOPLE Programme, which sponsored the conferencealong with UIC’s Center for Urban and Economic Development. VernitaWickliffe-Lewis, the development and program manager in the Institutefor Research on Race and Public Policy, helped Palmer organize theconference.

The U.S. report will be based on information already collected by government agencies and universities, Palmer said.

“It is not a question of finding the data, but it is the manner of how we put it together,” she said.

Desai was creator of the UNDP Human Development Report in 1990,along with Mahbub ul Haq of Pakistan, who died in July, and Amartya Senof India, a professor of economics at Trinity College at CambridgeUniversity in the United Kingdom. Sen is the 1998 Nobel laureate ineconomics whom Palmer credits with bringing a human face to thesubject. In 1990, Sen was quoted as saying, “I believe economicanalysis has something to contribute to substantive ethics in the worldin which we live.”

“For Black people it is not enough to talk about the gross nationalproduct,” Palmer said. “We need to understand better the humancondition and the realities of it.”

In the latest UNDP Human Development Report, the United States hasthe highest proportion of poor people among the industrialized nations,Desai noted.

“In one sense, the human development index in the United States ishigh, but in the past, we have pointed out disparity in the humandevelopment by race and gender. Black males are at the bottom of thepile and the White female is at the top of the pile because they livelonger,” Desai said.

“The disparity between the top and the bottom is enormous, and wewant to focus attention on these persistent problems,” he said. “We[also] will look at policies that have been tried locally. We will belooking for success stories [from] around the country.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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