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9 Countries That Do It Better: Why Does Europe Take Better Care of Its People Than America?

The world's wealthy democracies have somewhat different priorities, leading to some very different outcomes for their citizens.

An abiding belief in American exceptionalism is more or less ubiquitous across the political spectrum. But in many ways, what makes America different from other advanced democracies are relatively modest differences in priorities. While all wealthy democracies share the same basic model --they derive the bulk of their economic activity from the private sector while offering some form of social safety net for those who fall through the cracks -- even slight differences in priorities can have a huge impact on the lives of their people. 

Here are 9 countries that do a better job providing for their citizens than we do.

Taking Care of the Ill: France

If you have access to the best health care in the United States, then you have some of the best care in the world. But that comes with an extremely steep price, and not everyone has that kind of access.

In 2008, the U.S. spent 16 percent of its economic output on health-care and covered 85 percent of its citizens. It was the only OECD country other than Mexico and Turkey to cover less than 90 percent of its people. We have the 37th  longest average life expectancy, and  a recent study found that Amer ican “life expectancy has been stagnant for much of the country and is actually decreasing over much of the Southern portion of the United States.”

France, which has a health-care system ranked number one in the world by the WHO, spent 11.2 percent of its economy to cover everyone.

There are a number of drivers of health-care costs, but one statistic stands out: in the European (and European-style) economies, upwards of 70 percent of the total health-care bill is picked up by the government, meaning that people are insured in large pools with lots of bargaining clout to hold down providers' costs. In the U.S., less than half of our health care is in the public sector, resulting in a patchwork system of private insurers with much higher administrative costs. When you plug what France pays per person for health care into our own  government's fiscal projections, you get balanced budgets by around 2014, which then turn into surpluses after 2040.

Collective Bargaining: France

At around 12 percent (in 2008), the United States doesn't have the lowest unionization rate among the wealthy countries. That distinction goes to France, where under 8 percent of the workforce belongs to a union.

But union membership isn't important, collective bargaining is; and around 90 percent of non-managerial French workers – union members or not -- are covered under collective bargaining agreements.

Honorable mention goes to the Scandinavian countries – with 53 percent of its workforce in a union, Norway comes in dead last among them; 68 percent of Swedes belong to a union, topping the list.

Inequality: Denmark

A large body of research shows that higher union density correlates with less inequality. The U.S. is the most unequal society among the wealthy countries – in the OECD, only three middle-income countries (Turkey, Mexico and Chile) have a more lopsided distribution of wealth.

Denmark leads the way, with the flattest distribution among the high-income countries in the OECD.

Poverty: Denmark

Inequality is a measure of how much income those at the top of the pile take in compared to what those at the bottom grab. So, in countries with equal wealth, more inequality means more poverty – the piece of the economic pie shared by those at the bottom end of the scale will be smaller by definition.

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