RollingStone Politics || Six Ways America Is Like a Third-World Country

This article was so good had to post it here in it entirety
March 5, 2014 12:00 PM ET

Although the U.S. is one of the richest societies in history, it still lags behind other developed nations in many important indicators of human development – key factors like how we educate our children, how we treat our prisoners, how we take care of the sick and more. In some instances, the U.S.’s performance is downright abysmal, far below foreign countries that are snidely looked-down-upon as “third world.” Here are six of the most egregious examples that show how far we still have to go:

1. Criminal Justice

We all know the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed, but few are likely aware of just how bad it is compared to the rest of the world. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). That’s significantly worse than Russia (484 prisoners per 100,000 citizens), China (121) and Iran (284). The only country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than we do is North Korea. The U.S. is also the only developed country that executes prisoners – and our death penalty has a serious race problem: 42 percent of those on death row are black, compared to less than 15 percent of the overall population.

Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges (overwhelmingly African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed. As of 2011, an estimated 217,000 American prisoners were raped each year ­– that’s 600 new victims every day, a truly horrifying number. In 2010, the Department of Justicereleased a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1 percent of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and 12 months had a victimization rate of 14.2 percent.

2. Gun Violence

The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders, and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.

3. Healthcare

A study last year found that in many American counties, especially in the deep South, life expectancy is lower than in Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee health care to its citizens; even after the Affordable Care Act, millions of poor Americans will remain uninsured because governors, mainly Republicans, have refused to expand Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income Americans. Although the federal government will pay for the expansion, many governors cited cost, even though the expansion would actually save money. America is unique among developed countries in that tens of thousands of poor Americans die because they lack health insurance, even while we spend more than twice as much of our GDP on healthcare than the average for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a collection of rich world countries. The U.S. has an infant mortality rate that dwarfs comparable nations, as well as the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in the developed world, largely because of the politically-motivated unavailability of contraception in many areas.

4. Education

The U.S. is among only three nations in the world that does not guarantee paid maternal leave (the other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). This means many poor American mothers must choose between raising their children and keeping their jobs. The U.S. education system is plagued with structural racial biases, like the fact that schools are funded at the local, rather than national level. That means that schools attended by poor black people get far less funding than the schools attended by wealthier students. The Department of Education has confirmed that schools with high concentrations of poor students have lower levels of funding. It’s no wonder America has one of the highest achievement gaps between high income and low income students, as measured by the OECD. Schools today are actually more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s. Our higher education system is unique among developed nations in that is funded almost entirely privately, by debt. Students in the average OECD country can expect about 70 percent of their college tuition to be publicly funded; in the United States, only about 40 percent of the cost of education is publicly-funded. That’s one reason the U.S. has the highest tuition costs of any OECD country.

5. Inequality

By almost every measure, the U.S. tops out OECD countries in terms of income inequality, largely because America has the stingiest welfare state of any developed country. This inequality has deep and profound effects on American society. For instance, although the U.S. justifies its rampant inequality on the premise of upward mobility, many parts of the United States have abysmal levels of social mobility, where children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Inequality harms our democracy, because the wealthy exert an outsized political influence. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, spent more to influence the 2012 election than the residents of 12 states combined. Inequality also tears at the social fabric, with a largebody of research showing that inequality correlates with low levels of social trust. In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson show that a wide variety of social indicators, including health and well-being are intimately tied to inequality.

6. Infrastructure

The United States infrastructure is slowly crumbling apart and is in desperate need for repair. One study estimates that our infrastructure system needs a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years. In New York City, the development of Second Avenue subway line was first delayed by the outbreak of World War II; it’s still not finished. In South Dakota, Alaska and Pennsylvania, water is still transported via century-old wooden pipes. Some 45 percent of Americans lack access to public transit. Large portions of U.S. wastewater capacity are more than half a century old and in Detroit, some of the sewer lines date back to the mid-19th century. One in nine U.S. bridges (or 66,405 bridges) are considered “structurally deficient,” according to the National Bridge Inventory. All of this means that the U.S. has fallen rapidly in international rankings of infrastructure.

America is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots. The fact that nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the voting-age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record means that politicians can lock up more and more citizens without fear of losing their seat. Our ideas of meritocracy and upward mobility blind us to the realities of class and inequality. Our healthcare system provides good care to some, but it comes at a cost – millions of people without health insurance. If we don’t critically examine these flaws, how can we ever hope to progress as a society?


  1. If statistics mentioned in this article are comparable, as proof, being or becoming similar to any third-world system mentioned in this article—it because of the third-world managers in the U.S.A government are statically the same….corrupt!

    This article is flawed, dishonest, and full of corrupted thinking. Picking and choosing statically data that refers to their narrative presented within. It is an attempt to pull down the USA to the level of tyrannical, socialist societies, rather than excepting that our problems are unique unto it’s self, both a blessing and a curse; therefore incomparable to other nations who don’t extend the same amount of freedoms and liberties to each of its citizenry.
    Statistics can, and often do get twisted to present a negative or a positive depending on the narrative being presented and the kind of messages express. Statics are often used in that way to prove a theory that one has, rather than a comparisons of data.
    Comparing the prison systems of Russia, China, and North Korea, merrily on numerical differences while excluding these same countries from death row statics is a flawed presentation. This doesn’t even address the problems of statically accrete accounting coming out of a tyrannical society command and control style government.
    Under gun violence: the use of terms like “developed world average” is misleading, when the whole article was written alluding to America as being like third-world nation, yet the term excludes nations defined and redefined or excluded to the authors liking. Later on in the article compare “cities like New Orleans and Detroit to rival most Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.” Are these now comparable as “Developed” or third-world, to lend an accrete comparison? What happened too other U.S. cities equally under Democrat control that recently has over 30 or 40 or 50 shootings in a single weekend. Shootings that rival a war zone. In fact that had more shooting deaths in a year’s worth of stats than American military deaths in that same year in Afghanistan?
    Under healthcare: the article says, “The U.S. has an infant mortality rate that dwarfs comparable nations…” Are those same nations mentioned earlier in the same article, like “Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh” statically comparable or excluded? Are Abortion stats thrown into the mix to distort stats, or are we just talking and using stats of babies born to people who wanted them but somehow didn’t make it?
    Under education: Quote from the article “The Department of Education has confirmed that schools with high concentrations of poor students have lower levels of funding.” Are the performances of poor students due to lack of funds to fund education for the students, or is it the misuse of funds “spent” that have nothing to do in educating in these districts? I seem to remember a world-wide education spending stat where the U.S. ranked among top spenders on education per student yet receiving fewer bangs for the buck when comparing student performances. Would that be an indicator of lots waste in the system?
    Rich Lowry, Editor of The National Review puts it more succinctly:
    “Public sector unions have created an education monopoly, which like all monopolies, become defenders of the status quo even if it means blocking reform of miserably failing school districts. Its about a system that defends failure in order to protect employment and benefits. The Children be Damned.” Unlike the National Education Association, which dominates suburban and rural school districts, the American Federation of Teachers dominates inner-city schools. That puts AFT on the front lines of America’s education crisis. For years, the AFT’s mantra has been to fight for policies that effectively throw money at the problem by decreasing class size and hiring more teachers. In Washington, D.C., a U.S. Census Bureau report from 2012 indicates that the city spends more money per student than any other state in the country. Despite that, the city ranked fifty-first in performance according to data from the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.
    Yet where are these statistics mentioned in the article of six ways America is a third-world nation? Maybe there wasn’t a third-world nation to compare these kinds of volume of dollars wasted too?
    If the education system is comparable as proof of being similar to any third-world education system—it because of the third-world government managers of it. They are statically the same then….corrupt!

    Under Inequality quote: “income inequality, largely because America has the stingiest welfare state of any developed country.” Even the term welfare state reeks of Greece style failure, European economically disadvantaged, socialism—police state—limited liberty and freedoms—and of the political practices of the day, “may your uncle buy your vote”? Again the term Developed country appears, yet redefined to fit the message otherwise we could compare the U.S. to other comparable nations mentioned in this article as being comparable worthy. Countries like… Russia, China, and North Korea, Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh, most Latin American countries, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, all of these countries were mentioned in one way or another to prove that, in six ways America is a third-world country. Yet the inequality in these already mentioned nations (true third-world nations) is off the hook! Incomparable!
    Imagine, the average welfare recipient in the U.S.A. if compared statistically to the rest of the world, we would realize by American standards they are poor—by worldly standards they are off the hook wealthy beyond belief.
    Stats can redefine truth, it’s all in the presentation of what is said to be accurately comparable in order to be truthful.


    • Sup Dude,

      It’s been a while amigo. Hope this article didnt rustle any jimmies. I rarely receive a 2 page long comment. For my part, I liked the statistics in the article and I reprinted it for that.

      If we want to be captious about it there is a lot we can point to as being unclear with the article. For example the term Third World came about during the cold war to describe countries that didnt align themselves with either NATO or the Commie bloc. The term has gone on since then to mean something else or something not entirely in line with the original definition.

      We could them talk how post colonial and neo colonial attitudes have shaped the definition of the third word and how accurate a depiction of the current state of affairs is the term.

      We can then talk about how does one measure corruption on the local state and national governmental levels? Are there any flaws in how we measure corruption when we compare and contrast different methods for measuring corruption, Then there are more questions about the relationship between statistics and truth etc and we can go on but:

      lol sorry i have been dying to use that all day

      This is why I reposted as is. Plus I think the title says it all. 6 reasons are not clearly enough reasons to convince me to do anything like see a Cameron Diaz movies, get my crotch waxed or read a Jane Austen book. I can easily come up with 100x more reasons why we aren’t a third world nation like:for example the bottled water section of the local grocery, girls from NJ, and twerking.


  2. I get your points, and are well taken–as are mine I sure. But aren’t you tired of articles that put the negative spin into play to gain political points with all of our less informed sound bite people? Honestly, I have no problem criticizing and excepting it, as long as it has a chance for people to look at problems and then work together in finding solutions. These days its more of complaining loudly for government to do something without also demanding to value the policies or actions, or even doing away with them all together, based on quantifiable results. Something that seems to be missing altogether with taxpayers money is solving problems while controlling waste, and costs. Government seems to be more interested in arguing about more money and saving pet projects, than solving solutions for that benefits all. Anywho. It was nice to read, and view your blog, and will return again to read more. It was just that last one….pushed my buttons. :^)


  3. This is a great article. Most Americans are brainwashed, haven’t traveled to other parts of the world or interacted w/people from other parts of the world. Certainly, there are countries worse off than us…. However, there are wealthy and middle class people in 3rd-world-countries. What really distinguishes the 1st world from the 3rd world is that 3rd-world-countries do virtually nothing for their poor, so poor people stay poor. There are no or very few safety nets to help them move up the ladder. 1st world countries (I would argue the US is no longer 1st world) provide education, health care and other safety nets for all people–rich and poor–so that the poor are able to elevate themselves.

    Another thing many Americans don’t understand is what socialism is. It’s government-funded industry. We have socialism here in the US–public schools, public parks, the post office, libraries, etc. Socialism is not dangerous. Hitler arrested union leaders, democratic socialists and communists because he saw them as a threat to his tyranny.

    So people need to be careful here. “Socialism” is just a label that can mean different things to different people. What we have in the US is a type of capitalism with little or no regulation over big business. The TPP, for example, was a law written up by big corporations and just handed over to our government. Imagine, CEOs of big corporations writing our laws, telling our politicians what to do! That’s what’s turning us into a 3rd-world-country.

    The statistics are correct. We’re going down. Pretending everything’s okay just because maybe you personally are doing okay isn’t going to change anything. We need to face the problems and realize we’re all connected. Many Americans are not doing okay. We need to stand up for each other and break out of the selfishness mode.


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