Is the US a first world country?

Is the US a first world country?

Countries are often compared. Comparisons are made about wealth, about happiness, about healthcare outcomes, and about education outcomes (literacy, for example). Many people rank the United States as a developed country, because it has high rates of wealth and is “industrialized”, but in this article we will look at how the USA ranks in a lot of different areas and let you decide whether it warrants being considered a first world country:

Firearm-related death rate

US ranks ninth in terms of total deaths by firearms (source). Countries with a lower death rate include:

  • South Africa
  • Nicaragua
  • Serbia
  • Every nation in Europe and Asia

The best ranked nation is Singapore, with 0.01 deaths per 100,000 people.

The USA’s gun-related homicide rate is higher than Finland’s gun-related suicide rate – itself the highest among high-income countries.

Because these comparisons are ‘rates’ the population of a country does not have a significant impact on the values. That said, countries with low populations can have much higher rates if there are a few murders in any one year. The United States has a large population so its score is relatively stable and speaks to underlying conditions (gun ownership, culture, regulation).

Leave from work

Vacation / holiday

The following is a list of all countries with no mandatory vacation (source):

  • Kiribati
  • Marshall Islands (former US colony)
  • Federates States of Micronesia (former US colony)
  • Nauru
  • Palau (former US colony)
  • United States

The following three countries are the next lowest with minimums of a week (source). Again, this is all the world’s nations with only 5 days off per year. In the case of China, the number of days increases with longevity in a job.

  • China
  • Nigeria
  • Philippines

Some example countries with minimums over three weeks (source), which includes most nations:

  • Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium (all European Union nations, actually), Cambodia, Chad, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya…

Sick leave

There is no requirement for sick leave in the United States (source). 145 countries provide paid sick leave for short- or long-term illness (source). As far back as 1500 BCE, workers who built the Egyptian pharaohs’ tombs received paid sick leave (source).

Maternity / paternity leave

All countries in the world require a minimum amount of maternity leave except the United States (source).

The next country in the list that provides the least minimum is Tunisia (4 weeks).

The only country other than the United States that does not mandate any pay for maternity leave is Papua New Guinea.

Paternity leave is a common requirement. Countries such as Iran require a minimum of two weeks of paternity leave to be taken, while in the United Kingdom up to 50 of the 52 weeks of maternity leave can be taken by the father.

State of Democracy

The United States is ranked 25th in the world in terms of the state of its democracy according to its Democracy Index (source). It is considered a “flawed democracy”. It ranks behind Chile, Costa Rica, Mauritius, Japan, Taiwan, and most Western European nations. The United States’ score has reduced or stayed the same in each ranking since 2006. By comparison, Canada has improved over that time frame and Denmark and the United Kingdom have remained stable. The United States performs poorly on “political culture” and “functioning of government” which would ring true for anyone who has followed US politics in recent years.

These measures could be improved by improvements to the United States’ deadlocked Congress (e.g. removal of the undemocratic filibuster) and the cessation of anti-democratic actions mostly by the Republican Party (gerrymandering, limitations on voting registration, limitations on mail-in voting). In addition, the involvement of the two main parties in the organization of elections limits democratic voices and reduces the opportunity for individuals to influence politics.

Alarmingly, the US’s score was somewhat improved by the ban on torture that was introduced in 2015 (source). The US score was, rightly, damaged by the storming of the Capitol and some politicians’ willingness to challenge the results (only members of the Republican Party).

The militarized responses to non-violent protest also damaged the US score and suggest a risk of further deterioration in the future (source, page 46).

As with many other indices in this list, Nordic countries rank highest.


The United States is ranked 25th in the world in terms of corruption (source). Nordic countries rank highest (best) along with New Zealand, Singapore, and Western European nations.

The United States ranks behind (is more corrupt than):

  • France
  • Hong Kong
  • Ireland
  • Estonia
  • The United Arab Emirates

Gender equality

The United States is ranked 46th in the world in terms of gender equality below all European Union nations except Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. It is also ranked lower than (for example):

  • Albania
  • Belarus
  • Bosnia
  • China
  • Israel
  • Kazakhstan
  • Montenegro
  • The United Arab Emirates

Income Inequality

Income equality is achieved either through direct government intervention (communism) or through equality of opportunity and indirect government intervention. The Gini index scores nations using a 100 point scale. 0 expresses perfect equality, while 100 expresses maximal inequality.

The least equal country is South Africa, with a score 63 in 2014, according to the World Bank (source).

European nations rank between 34.9 and 24.2.

The United States scores 41.4 the worst of any Western nation, ranking below the following example countries (lower is better):

  • Burundi (38.6)
  • Ethiopia (35)
  • Haiti (41.1)
  • Iran (40.8)
  • Kazakhstan (27.5)
  • Thailand (36.4)
  • United Kingdom which is among the worst in Western Europe (34.8)

Percentage of population living below national poverty line

Data from the CIA (source):

  • Gaza Strip: 30%
  • Tunisia: 15.5%
  • United Kingdom: 15%
  • United States: 11.8%
  • Georgia: 9.2%
  • Brazil: 4.2%
  • China: 3.3%
  • Austria: 3%
  • Kazakhstan: 2.6%

According to the World Bank, 1.7% of Americans live on less than $5.50 per day (source) up from 1.2% in 2000 (source).


The United States is the 18th most happy country. This is among the lowest scores in the developed world, but is above countries like France, Italy, Romania, and Singapore (source).

The happiest countries are Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Aside from Switzerland and the Netherlands, these are all Nordic countries. All five Nordic countries have been in the top ten every World Happiness Report published.

Homicide Rate (Intentional)

Although we reviewed Fire Arm deaths above, the homicide rate overall is worth reviewing. 4.96 per 100,000 are murdered per year in the United States (2018 figures) (source). This is more than in (for example):

  • Kenya
  • Angola
  • Timor-Leste
  • Pakistan

The worst country in Western Europe has a rate of 1.7 per 100,000 (Belgium).

Note: Gibraltar had one murder in 2010 which gave it a rate of 3.01, but this is because of its small population. Similarly, Vatican City, Monaco, the Channel Islands, and Niue had a murder rate of zero in the most recent figures.

Incarceration Rate

Crime is high in the United States, so perhaps the justice system is failing to keep violent people out of society by failing to imprison those who cannot be reformed?

Unfortunately no, the United States is ranked number one in terms of percentage of the population incarcerated (639 per 100,000) (source). Within the States of the United States there is variation, but the least incarcerated States (including DC) have rates higher than 300 per 100,000 (source). The most incarcerated States are the former Confederate States of America and Oklahoma (which was not a State at the time of the secession of States before and during the American Civil War) (source).

Scotland has amongst the highest rates in Europe, with just 134 per 100,000. The Nordic countries, with high happiness and low crime have rates around 53 (Finland), 49 (Norway) and 33 (Iceland) per 100,000 people (source).

Healthcare availability

The following countries do not have universal healthcare (source):

  • Bangladesh, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, Paraguay, United Arab Emirates, Tanzania, Uganda, United States, Yemen

The following nations have universal healthcare (source):

  • Africa: Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, Mauritius, Morocco, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Tunisia
  • Asia: Bhutan, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand
  • Europe: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guernsey, Iceland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Italy, Jersey, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Wales
  • The Americas: Argentina, The Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago
  • Pacific: Australia, New Zealand

Diabetes quality of care

In 2018, the United States was scored 62/100 by researchers in a peer-reviewed paper in the Lancet. It ranked lower than Libya, Iran, and Vietnam in the rankings (source). Most other developed nations scored 90+.

GDP per capita

GDP per capita measures how much economic activity there is per person. This means that whether a country has a large population or a small population does not matter so much as how much money is being generated by each person in the country. If we exclude tax havens, and economies distorted significantly by resources (oil and gas, typically), the United States is number one in the world with $59,495 per person in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund (source). An estimate for 2021 puts the figure at $68,309 (source).


In a very few areas considered, the United States ranks at the bottom of the other developed nations. In others, it ranks below what many would consider developing countries such as Egypt, Iran and Kazakhstan. In only one area is the United States exceptional, which is in GDP per capita, and this is undermined by income inequality. Income inequality stems from inequality of opportunity (low income people of all ethnicities and black people more generally have lower opportunity for social mobility in the USA than in developed countries). This is exacerbated by a healthcare system which is advantageous only for the wealthy; the United States is one of only a few territories in the world without any universal healthcare provision.

Unless money is everything, the United States is among the least developed countries in the world. What do you think? Am I being unfair? As an American Citizen and as someone who is reasonably well travelled, I see the good in America, but I am straight, white, educated, and reasonably wealthy. What can the USA do to get lower in the negative rankings (murders, incarcerated population, corruption) and higher in the positive rankings (happiness, income equality, gender equality, democratic indices, healthcare quality and availability)?

8 thoughts on “Is the US a first world country?

  1. Interesting that your lists have countries ahead of US in most things… then when you get to happiness, they mostly fall below.
    Do you not find that odd?
    I mostly lost you when you mentioned mail-in voting the way you did though. You obviously have not looked Into these other ‘highly ranked’ countries’ requirements around voting.

  2. I would not consider 18th to be “mostly ahead” especially when American Exceptionalism, and the US GDP suggest that it could and should be leading.
    In terms of mail-in voting, I was not suggesting that this was a unique problem in the USA, only that we limit it more when we think it benefits one party or the other. Both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, for example, and both might restrict mail-in voting, I suspect, if it was seen to be in their best interests. The Republicans just have the most to gain at the moment and the USA’s uniquely institutionalized two main parties limit the ability of the voters to have a real say.

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