Do Britons understand the US better than Americans?

It is often said that a political leader must be a teacher and not just someone who takes tough decisions. As he embarks on his second term as President, perhaps one of Barack Obama’s challenges is to teach his fellow Americans to recognise some of the country’s problems.

Earlier this month, a weighty report by leading health experts painted a grim picture of life and death in America today.  In “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health”, The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council found that, compared with other wealthy countries, the United States has…

  • “a shorter life expectancy”
  • “the highest infant mortality rate of high-income countries”
  • “the highest obesity rate among high-income countries”
  • “much higher rates of deaths from motor vehicles crashes, non-transportation-related injuries and violence”

It also suffers from a higher rate of adolescent pregnancies, sexually-transmitted infections, arthritis, chronic lung disease and alcohol- and drug-related deaths.

However, according to YouGov surveys in the US and Britain, most Americans are unaware of these facts – and, indeed, less aware than the British. This lack of knowledge goes beyond health: it applies also to two politically-sensitive financial indicators: family incomes and income tax rates.

In our two surveys we asked people how they thought the US compares with other wealthy countries on eight measures. This is what we found. The shaded lines show the “correct” answers according to official statistics.

Q. How do you think the U.S. compares with other wealthy countries, such as Britain, Canada, France and Germany?

How the US compares with other rich countries
(Correct answers shown shaded)
U.S. adults British adults
Average life expectancy
Lower in U.S. 28 29
About the same 38 45
Higher in U.S. 20 11
Don't know 14 16
The proportion of newborn babies who die before they are one year old
Lower in U.S. 35 11
About the same 24 39
Higher in U.S. 19 20
Don't know 21 30
The proportion of people who are obese
Lower in U.S. 4 2
About the same 13 10
Higher in U.S. 72 81
Don't know 11 7
The proportion of people who are homicide victims (that is, victims of murder or manslaughter)
Lower in U.S. 12 3
About the same 22 9
Higher in U.S. 47 80
Don't know 18 8
The proportion of people who die in car accidents
Lower in U.S. 9 8
About the same 31 38
Higher in U.S. 38 34
Don't know 22 20
The proportion of people who are illiterate
Lower in U.S. 23 9
About the same 28 31
Higher in U.S. 29 43
Don't know 19 16
Average family income
Lower in U.S. 27 15
About the same 27 29
Higher in U.S. 28 39
Don't know 18 17
Income tax rates
Lower in U.S. 35 45
About the same 21 19
Higher in U.S. 26 10
Don't know 18 26
Average correct 37 45

As those figures show, obesity is the only one of the health issues we tested where most people recognise that the U.S. does worse than other countries. Barely one in four know that life expectancy is lower in the U.S.; only one in five knows that infant mortality rates are higher. And these are the results of polling conducted shortly after the media had given wide coverage to the findings of “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health”. Either the report has had little or no impact, or it has raised awareness from even lower levels.

In the main, it’s not that majorities think, wrongly, that the U.S. does better than other countries. In none of the five health-related issues is this the case. And on only one, infant  mortality, do more people think the U.S. does better (35%) rather than worse (19%). Rather, it’s that, with the exception of obesity, considerable numbers of Americans say “about the same” or “don’t know”.

The same applies to family income and income tax rates. Here the U.S. has a better story to tell. Per capita income is higher and personal tax rates lower than almost all other wealthy countries. Yet, again, only a minority of Americans are aware of this. This suggests that most people have little awareness of how the U.S. compares with other countries generally, not just a lack of knowledge about America’s standing on health–related matters.

Indeed, it is striking that on four of the eight measures tested by UK, Britons are more likely to give the “right” answers. And on two of the other four, while the “right” figures for the two countries are similar, Americans are significantly more likely to give the “wrong” answers (that is, Americans are more likely than Britons to think, erroneously, that their life expectancy is higher, and their mortality rates lower, than other well-off countries).

Why are Britons better informed? A variety of factors are probably at play. Britons tend to travel abroad, not least to the U.S. American news, movies and TV programmes are big in Britain, whereas foreign information, drama and comedy play a far smaller role in the U.S. The reporting of Obamacare, associated health care issues, and international comparisons have been very different in the two countries.

That does not mean that British “knowledge” of the U.S. is based invariably on better information. The fact that as many as 80% of Britons think, correctly, the US has a higher homicide rate than other countries (compared with just 47% of Americans) may owe more to the impact of Columbo, the Sopranos and The Wire on British viewers than factual reports of crime statistics.

Yet whatever the explanations for the figures in the two surveys, and even if questionable stereotypes do shape the way people view reality, our data pose a problem for political leaders. When so many people have such little awareness of how things are, it is hard to win acceptance for new policies. The task facing President Obama, the Senate and the House of Representatives is not just to describe the America they wish to build, but to persuade voters to share their understanding of what the country is actually like today.

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