What works for the French, in bed and out? The United States versus France in quality-of-life terms


After listening on Bastille Day morning to a rousing version of La Marseillaise, performed by the Royal Opera Covent Garden Orchestra, the French Army Choir, and soloist Roberto Alagna, my caffeinated mind asked: How does France differ from the United States? So, I refilled my coffee mug, settled in with my laptop, and, just for the fun of it, browsed the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) “Society at a Glance” social indicators.

France, of course, learned a lot about us almost two hundred years ago, after sending Alexis de Tocqueville to visit. He admired our democracy, our aspirations toward equality, and our voluntary associations which contributed to our community vitality. He thought that Europe could take a lesson. What might he think now? What do current indicators tell us?

The notable American trait of voluntary association, identified by DeToqueville, persists: We still have the highest rates of “pro-social behavior” (giving money, volunteering time) among any of the countries measured by the OECD. France ranks in the middle of the pack on this indicator. With respect to “anti-social behavior” (primarily indicated by crime), the two countries rank about the same.

We surpass France in terms of household income. (However, the French have two-tier universal health care coverage; so that advantage effectively gives them an income boost which narrows the difference between the two nations.)

The bad news: Both our poverty rate and the rate of income inequality in the U.S. exceed the French rates on those indicators. An interesting indicator developed by the OECD reveals the ease of elevating oneself from low-income status. France does much better than the United States on that measure. In fact, of 31 countries ranked on that measure, the U.S. placed at number 31 – the very bottom – with the implication that, compared to poor people in all other countries, poor people here have more difficulty bringing themselves above the poverty level.

We also fall behind France (and most other countries) in voting rates. So, while “Democracy in America” may have impressed deToqueville, many Americans do not, or cannot, participate in democratic decision-making.

If you have a French birth certificate, good for you. You have a longer life expectancy. Since life expectancy rates tend to reflect a composite of social, cultural, and lifestyle attributes of a population, influenced as well by access to, and quality of, health care, the French probably have a number of other positive things going for them that we fall short on in the U.S. Relatedly, France does better on infant mortality; a higher rate of infant deaths occur in the United States.

Interestingly, if you dig a bit into the data, you will see that the United States stands at the top in spending the highest percentage of its Gross Domestic Product on health care: 16%. France comes in second, but only at 11%. The U.S. spends more per capita than does France on health care. Whereas, for most countries, increased health care spending relates to longer life expectancy, the high level of health care spending in the United States does not produce that positive effect.

So, in total, we probably do not win the quality of life indicators competition with the Patrie des droits de l’homme (the country of human rights).

Notwithstanding all the eye-opening, mind expanding days I’ve spent in French museums, large and small, the quality of which is difficult to match in the United States – notwithstanding as well all the exciting nights I’ve enjoyed in Paris – my intuition still tells me that we in the U.S. should have the capacity to at least match the achievements of the French, shouldn’t we? Why have we not done so?

Oh yes, the bed part. OECD time use studies indicate that the French spend more time in bed than do people in any other country. Les français also have the highest fertility rates of any OECD-measured population. Perhaps that statistical correlation tells us something??…