In 2013, UNICEF released a report comparing the well-being of children in 29 of the world’s most advanced nations. The report compiled data on health, safety, education, behavioral factors, living environments, material well-being, and subjective “life satisfaction” surveys from children themselves. The United States landed near the bottom on almost all measures, ranking 26th out of 29 countries; only Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania performed worse.
Somehow there is a huge disconnect between this country’s prosperity and the well-being of its families. According to the traditional economic view, growth and productivity as measured by GDP are key markers of the success of a society. The UNICEF well-being report underscores just how incomplete is this conventional view. Cities and countries with rising incomes have been confronted by the paradox of unhappy growth, in which increased GDP per capita has not led to increased well-being.
Early cities appear to have been fairly egalitarian. Engong Ismael, a Balinese anthropologist, describes them as characterized by a horizontal caste system with clearly defined roles—each caste respected for its contribution to the health of the community. But as urban cultures developed they became more hierarchical. Most of the grand monuments of the past were built by slaves or indentured labor. As a city grew more prosperous, if the gap between the richest and poorest was perceived as too great, the social cohesion of the city suffered. In the cases of the Mayan and Russian empires, when stressful environmental conditions were accompanied by a low collective sense of we-ness, social unrest followed, and even collapse.