Social Development Indicators Factsheet

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Standards of living are difficult to measure, but indicators of social development are available. A basic measure, per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is the value of all goods and services produced within a region over a given time period, averaged per person. A more advanced metric, the Human Development Index (HDI), considers life expectancy, education, and Gross National Income (GNI). The three highest HDI-ranked countries are Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland.1 Many of the indicators discussed below are used to measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of targets agreed upon by United Nations member states as crucial for global human progress.


  • The 2020 U.S. population is 329 million and world population is over 7.6 billion.
  • Global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with 6.7 billion people living in urban areas—a 68% increase from 2015.3
  • Significant issues affecting population include shifting mortality and fertility rates, gender equality, and youth education and employment.4
  • Fertility rate, or number of births per woman (of child-bearing age), is projected to fall from a global average of 2.5 in 2019 to 1.9 by 2100. Currently, Niger has the highest fertility rate at 7.0; the U.S. fertility rate is 1.8.4
  • Life expectancy averages 65 years in Least Developed Countries (LDC); life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is 79 years.5
  • Globally, contraceptive use is increasing. In 2019, contraceptive use was 1.7 times higher than in 1990 and is 6 times higher in LDC.6 However, more than 20% of women of reproductive age in 15 countries still do not have access to contraceptives.7
  • The population of sub-Saharan Africa is growing rapidly and may grow to over 3 billion people by 2100.4

World Population, Urban and Rural, 1950-20503

World Population, Urban and Rural, 1950-2050

Standard of Living

  • In 2015, 0.73 billion people lived below the world poverty line of $1.90 USD per day, down from 1.9 billion in 1990.8
  • According to the Gini Index, Slovenia, Belgium, and Norway have among the most equal income distributions in the world. There are over 100 countries with a more even income distribution than the U.S. (Gini index = 41.5).9
  • In 2018, 11.8% of the U.S. population—38.1 million people—were living in poverty (income under $25,465 for a family of 4 with 2 children). Hispanic and Black populations in the U.S. face higher than average levels of poverty (17.6% and 20.8%, respectively).10 
  • More than 565,000 people were homeless in the U.S. in 2019.11


  • Average expenditures on food as a percentage of income range from 14% in developed countries to 24% in developing countries in 2018.13,14 On average, Americans spend less than 7%, while Nigerians spend 59%.15
  • Globally, 45% of deaths of children under 5 are caused by undernutrition.16
  • The Green Revolution during the second half of the 20th century led to large increases in agricultural yields and helped feed the rapidly growing global population. Sub-Saharan Africa was the only developing region where increased food production was primarily due to increased crop area vs. increased crop yield.17
  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization publishes a comprehensive set of food security statistics annually.18

Fraction of Population Undernourished, 201912​

Fraction of Population Undernourished, 2019

Water and Sanitation

  • Approximately 2.3 billion people lack access to proper sanitation. Access is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, where only one in three people have proper facilities. Worldwide, urban areas have better sanitation coverage—83% have access to proper facilities, compared to 50% in rural areas.20
  • Only one quarter of people in LDCs have access to basic hygiene (soap and water).20
  • In 2015, 71% of the world population had access to clean drinking water at home, but 263 million people spent more than 30 minutes per round trip to collect safe drinking water. However, in Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa only 40% and 43% of the rural populations, respectively, have access to improved water resources.20

​​Deaths from Unsafe Water and Sanitation, 201619

Deaths from Unsafe Water and Sanitation, 2016

Healthcare and Disease

  • Approximately 29% of deaths in 2016 were caused by communicable diseases.21
  • Globally, 38 million people were infected with HIV and 770,000 died from AIDS in 2018. Most cases—20.6 million—are in eastern and southern Africa. The number of new infections declined by 41% between 1997 and 2018, but infection rates have increased in northern Africa, eastern Europe, central Asia, and Latin America.22
  • Diarrheal diseases killed 1.6 million people in 2016 due to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene services. 446,000 children die each year from diarrhea. Greater than 70% and 55% of the infections are due to unsafe drinking water and sanitation, respectively.23
  • In 2018, there were 228 million cases of malaria worldwide, with 93% occurring in Africa. 405,000 died and 67% were children under 5.24 Research shows more populations will be at risk of malaria as climate change expands suitable habitats for disease-carrying mosquitoes.25 Since 2010, malaria mortality rates have decreased by over 38% globally, with the largest decline occurring in south-east Asia.24
  • Indoor air pollution, caused primarily from smoke while cooking, contributes to 3.8 million premature deaths each year.26
  • Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in the world. A healthy diet, regular physical activity, and avoiding tobacco could reduce the major risk factors associated with premature deaths from cardiovascular diseases and strokes.21
  • In 2015, about 90 million people fell under the poverty line due to out-of-pocket health care costs.21

​​Development Assistance for Health to Developing Nations27

Development Assistance for Health to Developing Nations

Education and Employment

  • Global youth literacy has risen from 83% in 1990 to 92% in 2018. The gap in female and male literacy rates is also closing; in 1991, literacy rates were 87.4% and 78.9% for boys and girls, respectively. In 2018, the literacy rates were 93% and 91%.30
  • Cuba spends the highest percentage of its GDP on education, devoting between 12-13% each year. The U.S. spends around 5% each year.31
  • Sub-Saharan Africa primary school enrollment increased from 52% to 80% from 1990-2015; the 2015 world average is 91.5%.32
  • In Low Human Development nations, 25% percent of the population has at least some secondary education. In Very High Human Development nations this metric is 89%.33
  • Most jobs in developing countries are in agriculture (60%), services (27%), and industry (13%).34

​​Adult Literacy Rates, 201828,29

Adult Literacy Rates, 2018


  • It is “extremely likely” (>95% certainty) that the majority of climate change is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.35 In the 21st century, climate change will likely result in increasing extinction risk for plant and animal species, more flooding and coastal erosion, extreme heat, droughts, tropical storm intensity, and human health risks associated with malnutrition and water-related and vector-borne diseases. Declines in crop productivity in low latitudes and freshwater availability are likely. Poor communities are especially vulnerable because of their low adaptive capacity and high dependence on local climate (e.g., rain for agriculture).36
  • A 2019 analysis found that not investing in climate change mitigation would result in an average 7.2% decrease in global GDP by 2100 while adhering to the Paris Agreement could limit this decrease to 1.1%.37


  • In 2015, the UN established seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including eliminating poverty and hunger, reducing inequalities, and improving health and education while ensuring environmental sustainability.38
  • Through 2019, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom continued to exceed giving 0.7% of their GNI as Official Development Assistance (ODA), an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) program. The U.S. donates a lower percentage of GNI, but the greatest absolute dollar amount of any nation. In 2019, U.S. ODA totaled $34.6 billion.39
  1. United Nations (UN) Development Programme (2019) Human Development Report 2019 Overview.
  2. U.S. Census Bureau (2020) U.S. and World Population Clock.
  3. UN Population Division (2018) World Urbanization Prospects: 2018 Revision.
  4. UN Population Division (2019) World Population Prospects 2019.
  5. World Bank (2019) “World Development Indicators-Life Expectancy.”
  6. UN Population Division (2020) “Estimates and Projections: Regions.”
  7. UN Population Division (2020) “Estimates and Projections: Countries.”
  8. The World Bank (2020) “Poverty: Overview.”
  9. United Nations Development Programme (2019) Human Development Report 2019.
  10. U.S. Census Bureau (2019) Income and Poverty in the United States 2018.
  11. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2020) The 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.
  12. World Food Programme (2019) Hunger Map 2019.
  13. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service (ERS) (2019) International Consumer and Food Industry Trends.
  14. UN (2019) World Economic Situation and Prospects 2019.
  15. USDA, ERS (2018) Food Expenditures by Country.
  16. Black, R., et al. (2013) “Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middleincome countries.” The Lancet, 382(9890):396.
  17. Pingali, P. (2012) “Green Revolution: Impacts, Limits, and the Path Ahead.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (31): 12302-12308.
  18. UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2017) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017.
  19. World Health Organization (WHO) (2018) World Health Statistics 2018.
  20. WHO (2017) Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation - 2017 Update.
  21. WHO (2020) World Health Statistics 2020.
  22. UN (2019) UNAIDS Data 2019.
  23. GBD 2016 Diarrhoeal Disease Collaborators (2018) “Estimates of the global, regional, and national morbidity, mortality, and aetiologies of diarrhoea in 195 countries: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016.” The Lancet Infectious Diseases 2018;(18)1211-1228.
  24. WHO (2019) World Malaria Report 2019.
  25. Caminade, C., et al. (2014). “Impact of climate change on global malaria distribution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” 111(9), 3286–3291.
  26. WHO (2018) “Household Air Pollution and Health.”
  27. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2020) Financing Global Health.
  28. UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) (2020) Education: Literacy Rate.
  29. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (2020) World Factbook.
  30. UIS (2020) Education: Youth Literacy Rate.
  31. The World Bank (2019) Government Expenditure on Education.
  32. UN (2015) Millennium Development Goals Report 2015.
  33. UN Development Programme (2018) Human Development Indices and Indicators 2018 Statistical Update.
  34. UNCTAD (2018) Statistical Tables on the Least Develope Countries - 2018.
  35. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report.
  36. World Meteorological Organization (2020) WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019.
  37. National Bureau of Economic Research (2019) Long-term Macroeconomic Effects of Climate Change: A Cross-Country Analysis.
  38. UN (2020) Sustainable Development Goals.
  39. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2019) Official Development Assistance 2019 – Preliminary Data.
Cite as: 
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2020. "Social Development Indicators Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS08-15.