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Rapid economic growth raised average living standards in many countries around the globe in the 1960s and the early 1970s, but inequality also emerged as an issue. Prosperity bypassed large segments of the population, especially in developing countries, which stimulated a search for meaningful measures of poverty that were readily calculable. Some people saw progress in the segments of the population that lacked essential human needs, such as clean water, basic medical care, suitable housing, and adequate calories. Although interesting and useful, this approach also required considerable survey evidence, which was expensive and often unreliable.
At the behest of the Overseas Development Council, Morris David Morris created the physical quality of life index (PQLI), which assessed conditions in a country from its infant mortality rate, adult literacy rate, and life expectancy at age one (Morris 1979). Nearly all countries routinely reported these data by the 1970s.
The technique first scales each ingredient from 0 to 100, with the end points set to capture the range of historical experience. The infant mortality rate extends from a high of 229 to a low of 7 per thousand (a span of 222); life expectancy at age 1 from a low of 38 to a high of 77 years (a span of 39); and the literacy rate from 0 to 100 (a span of 100). For example, the index value of life expectancy = (100) (life expectancy – 38)/39, which means that an increase in life expectancy of 0.39 years raises the index value by 1 point. Then the indexes of the components are averaged to obtain the overall PQLI.
In principle one could use the PQLI in much the same way as any measure of human welfare, including policy design and assessment, or as a phenomenon to be explained by economic or social models. Econometric work, however, has been limited, in part because imitators and successors have crowded the field. Although the PQLI was designed as a minimal measure of social performance and partly as an antidote to undue emphasis on gross national product (GNP) per capita, its critics have noted that health is counted twice (infant mortality and life expectancy at age one are highly correlated) and that the index omits the material side of the quality of life. Soon other indexes appeared, some with more than 40 components or indicators, including crime, pollution, and suicide rates. Among these, the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations has been the most widely discussed and applied. Created by the economist Mahbub ul Haq in 1990, this index was designed to register the “expansion of choice” provided by good health, knowledge, and access to material goods (United Nations Development Programme 1990). It soon was criticized for lack of attention to inequality and for incorporating a poor measure of knowledge. Thus researchers continue to debate the components of quality of life indexes and the weights that should be given to each. What is suitable, however, depends heavily on how the index will be used.
- Morris, David M 1979. Measuring the Condition of the World’s Poor: The Physical Quality of Life Index. New York: Pergamon.
- United Nations Development Pr 1990. Human Development Report. New York: United Nations.
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