The 2019 edition of the social-justice index compiled by Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German non-profit, provides ample food for thought on why leftist ideas have gained popularity in the US and lost it in Germany. It also goes some way towards explaining why Sweden, long a paragon of social health, has a far-right party contending for first place in national polls.

The index is an effort to bring together all the indicators that reflect how fair and inclusive a nation is for its citizens, ranging from poverty levels for different age groups to environmental data. The indicators are pulled together into six major groups: poverty prevention; equitable education; labour market access; social inclusion; inter-generational justice; and health.

The first three categories are given extra weight. All the indicators are transformed into values on a one-to-10 scale then aggregated into the final score, which in 2019 ranged from 4.76 (last-place Mexico) to 7.9 (first-place Norway).

The German foundation used to calculate the index for EU countries only, but this year it has added non-European member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), thus expanding coverage to most of the industrialised world.

As could be expected, Nordic nations make up the top five. The US is among the underachievers, ranked 36th of 41 countries. It ranks behind even crisis-ravaged Greece, and fares only marginally better than Europe’s poorest countries, Bulgaria and Romania.

The US is terrible at reducing poverty: in the past 10 years, the share of its population at risk of poverty, 17.8%, has barely budged, and its performance on inter-generational justice has worsened because of incoherent environmental policies and growing national debt. While the US educational system does reasonably well compared with others, academic results are more dependent on students’ socioe-conomic status than in 18 other rich countries. The health care system and social inclusion are below average for the rich nations’ club.

While the Nordic nations remain ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to social justice, one of them, Sweden, shows some worrying signs

The US’s underperformance on most social-justice indicators relative to its wealth is so fundamental that it doesn’t just fall behind the Nordics, the universally recognised fairness champions; it’s actually doing considerably worse on this scale than some post-communist nations, such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland.

That should explain why socialist ideas have gained currency and why the Democratic Party has shifted noticeably to the left in recent years. The growing acceptance of socialism isn’t all emotion and short memory, it’s also backed up by comparative data.

On the other hand, Germany, in 10th place, and the UK, ranked 11th, have made progress on most aspects of social justice over the past 10 years. They aren’t higher on the list largely because of inter-generational equity problems: weak environmental policies; and, in the UK’s case, high public debt.

The tangible improvements in the past 10 years help explain why the centre-left German Social Democrats are struggling to attract voters with their demands for more economic justice. That doesn’t feel like a priority to most Germans. They are, however, suitably worried about the environment, which translates into poll success for the Greens.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on social equity has also failed to help his Labour Party catch up to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the run-up to next week’s election. The country has made so much progress on poverty prevention under Conservative governments that Corbyn’s calls for more socialism don’t resonate with enough people.

While the Nordic nations remain ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to social justice, one of them, Sweden, shows some worrying signs. Its performance on most indicators is worse than a decade ago, and though Bertelsmann Stiftung doesn’t say it in so many words in its report, much of that backsliding can be attributed to the country’s inability to cope with a massive influx of immigrants.

Of its 10-million residents, 18.5% are foreign-born, but they haven’t merged well into Swedish society. The country ranks 41st among the 41 nations in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s index in terms of foreigners’ integration into the labour market. This has led to increasing inequality.

The high percentage of young people among immigrants is also driving up youth unemployment and poverty and worsening educational outcomes. Sweden has tried to counter this by pumping more money into pre-primary education in the hope of tackling integration problems at an early age, and its famed social safety net has largely held, but Swedes have noticed the strain.

This explains the popularity of the far-right Sweden Democrats, vying now with the Social Democrats for the status of the country’s most popular party. In Germany, too, the relatively high percentage of unemployed people among the foreign-born has helped the far-right gain support.

Voters are highly sensitive to changes in social-justice levels. Bertelsmann Stiftung’s effort at aggregating the relevant data points provides valuable insights into what drives political change in wealthy nations. Economic growth is important, but social equity now has at least as much to do with how people vote.

• Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.


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