The future is coming—but whose future is it, and what will it do to you? Every year begins in hope and ends in a widening gap between those who have money and power and those who do not, between those who have the means to be healthy and comfortable, and those who do not. This is no coincidence. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “we are called on to be the architects of the future, not its victims.” Seen any good plans lately?
In the United States, the designs of the long-ago architects of 1776 are not being applied to serve the best interests of the great majority of the people in a post-industrial nation. Some, nonetheless, keep at it, in the best can-do, we’re-all-in-this-together tradition: in dozens of settings, utilizing many approaches, clinical social workers and other health- and social-services professionals work to make life more fair and equitable, especially for those who are least able to help themselves. However, for all this effort, it does not seem that the corner has been turned—we are not, as a nation, making progress.
In fact, per Fuller, we are becoming victims—not just the poorest among us, or the most obvious targets of discrimination—but everyone, old and young, rich and poor and all in-between, of whatever color or heritage. That is, everyone except for the 1% who hire the future-architects in order to make things come out their way. This is borne out by the new world-wide 2015 Social Progress Index (SPI), just published by the not-for-profit Social Progress Imperative in collaboration with Scott Stern, professor of Management Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Using 52 indicators, the SPI measures the social progress of 133 nations in the same fashion as the long-standing and well-accepted measurement of economic progress (the U. S., with an economy worth $16.8 trillion, ranks first in overall wealth but 6th or 7th in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita, behind Qatar and other Near East oil-rich countries, the Scandinavians, and Australia). The Index people realize that the “wealth” of nations depends on many factors other than money, most notably the well-being and confidence of their people.
Arguably, the U. S. has been going backward in its “Social Progress” for the past twenty years, paralyzed by Congressional inaction and red-blue divisions, by interminable wars and war-related deficits, by the disappearance of manufacturing, the politicization of wealth, etc. Here, “social justice” is an obscure term. In most other republics, “social justice” is the driving concept of society, integral to all other efforts and reflecting a national consensus that the well-being of the great majority is the purpose of government and the thing that makes the country strong. In other countries, political parties (often many more than two) exist not to hold the nation hostage to their agendas, but to represent the interests of a diverse constituency in the course of making the compromises which are necessary to the passage of legislation. No other democracy is plagued with a national legislature that won’t or can’t compromise—and without new legislation that reflects the evolving needs of society, we in the U. S. will continue to suffer decline.
Other countries have found a way forward based on the principle that their people are their greatest resource, and that all people are entitled (not privileged) to basic human needs, to well-being, and to opportunity. Like us in the U.S., they have been dealing with recession and the difficult realities of economic and social change in the 21st century; but unlike America they have pulled together, and called in the architects to draft good designs for the benefit of all of their citizenry. The result is that they are doing better than we are.
How do I know this? Because the Index shows that the U. S. comes in sixteenth (16th) in Social Progress. Norway is tops. The people of the U. S. are very big losers in the area of Health and Wellness: we rank #68—below the fiftieth percentile!—and that does not include the fact that our per-capita healthcare costs are obscenely high compared to those in any other country anywhere. As clinical social workers, trying to provide health and wellness in America, we need to focus on turning this around—with every client we see, and in every interaction with a delivery system.
Clinical social workers are also citizens, in a country heading in the wrong direction (compared to, say, Norway, Austria, Australia, or Canada). This argues that we need to adopt new principles to guide our national improvement efforts. That’s exactly what forty of the 133 countries are doing right now, using Social Progress Index indicators to construct their initiatives. If we want a different sort of society, that’s what we should be doing too, at the national level—but also in our agencies, our cities, and our states—to make things better and not worse.
We need leaders—or we need to become leaders—who will find architects for that better future.
Image via SPI.