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About Human Development




Human development is defined as the process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their well-being. Human development is about the real freedom ordinary people have to decide who to be, what to do, and how to live.

The human development concept was developed by economist Mahbub ul Haq. At the World Bank in the 1970s, and later as minister of finance in his own country, Pakistan, Dr. Haq argued that existing measures of human progress failed to account for the true purpose of development—to improve people’s lives. In particular, he believed that the commonly used measure of Gross Domestic Product failed to adequately measure well-being. Working with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and other gifted economists, in 1990 Dr. Haq published the first Human Development Report, which was commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme.

Central to the human development approach is the concept of capabilities. Capabilities—what people can do and what they can become-are the equipment one has to pursue a life of value. Basic capabilities valued by virtually everyone include: good health, access to knowledge, and a decent material standard of living. Other capabilities central to a fulfilling life could include the ability to participate in the decisions that affect one’s life, to have control over one’s living environment, to enjoy freedom from violence, to have societal respect, and to relax and have fun.

Our capabilities are expanded (or constrained) by our own efforts and by the institutions and conditions of our society. People with extensive, well-developed capabilities have the tools they need to make their vision of “a good life” a reality. Those poor in capabilities are less able to chart their own course and to seize opportunities. Without basic capabilities, human potential remains unfulfilled.The capability approach is a normative framework used for analyzing well-being, often employed to understand development problems. Although certain aspects of the approach can be linked to Aristotle and Adam Smith, it is philosopher-economist Amartya Sen and more recently, University of Chicago professor of law and ethics Martha Nussbaum, who are responsible for its development and proliferation. The core premise of the capability approach is that well-being should be defined by people’s real and actual opportunities to undertake the pursuits that they desire (often referred to as ‘capabilities to function’) – and through these freedoms, be whom they would like to be. One illustration of the difference between capabilities to function and formal freedoms is found in the area of educational opportunity. All US citizens have the formal freedom to earn a college degree. However when comparing students from low-income neighborhoods with more affluent students, low-income students’ real freedoms to attend college can be constrained by, among other things, low quality local high schools and financial considerations. Formal freedoms, in this and many cases, are necessary but not sufficient to provide true capabilities to function.The capability approach to well-being, which prioritizes the ability to actualize opportunity into ‘beings and doings’, contrasts with other theories of well-being which focus on subjective measures, such as happiness, or on material means, such as income.


The state of the nation is often expressed through GDP (Gross Domestic Product), daily stock market results, consumer spending levels, and national debt figures. But these numbers provide only a partial view of how people are faring.

The Human Development Index was developed as an alternative to simple money metrics. It is an easy-to-understand numerical measure made up of what most people believe are the very basic ingredients of human well-being: health, education, and income. The first Human Development Index was presented in 1990. It has been an annual feature of every Human Development Report since, ranking virtually every country in the world from number one (currently Iceland) to number 177 (currently Sierra Leone).

This composite index has become one of the most widely used indices of well-being around the world and has succeeded in broadening the measurement and discussion of well-being beyond the important, but nevertheless narrow, confines of income. In a number of countries, the Human Development Index is now an official government statistic; its annual publication inaugurates serious political discussion and renewed efforts, nationally and regionally, to improve lives.

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The Measure of America presents a modified American Human Development Index. The American HD Index measures the same three basic dimensions as the standard HD Index, but it uses different indicators to better reflect the U.S. context and to maximize use of available data. For example, while the standard index measures access to knowledge using the average number of years that students spend in school, we have chosen instead to use educational attainment, a more demanding indicator.

While data are plentiful on the extremes of affluence and deprivation in the United States, the American Human Development Index provides a single measure of well-being for all Americans, disaggregated by state and congressional district, as well as by gender, race, and ethnicity. All data used in the index come from official U.S. government sources—the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data included in the American Human Development Index will help us understand variations among regions and groups. It is a snapshot of America today. Moreover, the index will serve as a baseline for monitoring future progress.

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Most people would agree that a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent material standard of living are the basic building blocks of well-being and opportunity. They are also the building blocks of the American Human Development Index as well as the U.N. Human Development Index upon which it is modeled. These three core capabilities are universally valued around the world, and measurable, intuitively sensible, and reliable indicators exist to represent them—two critical considerations in the construction of a composite index.


The most valuable capability people possess is to be alive. Advancing human development requires, first and foremost, expanding the real opportunities people have to avoid premature death by disease or injury, to enjoy protection from arbitrary denial of life, to live in a healthy environment, to maintain a healthy lifestyle, to receive quality medical care, and to attain the highest possible standard of physical and mental health.

In the American HD Index, life expectancy at birth stands as a proxy for the capability to live a long and healthy life. Life expectancy at birth is the average number of years a baby born today is expected to live if current mortality patterns continue throughout his or her lifetime. The most commonly used gauge of population health the world over, life expectancy at birth represents one-third of the overall American HD Index.

The American Human Development Project calculates life expectancy for the 50 states, the 435 congressional districts, women and men, and major racial and ethnic groups from mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, and population data from the CDC WONDER database.