Be all that you can be? Not, alas, in N.C.

Since World War II North Carolina has made amazing progress in improving the standard of living of its citizens. But a new survey finds our state is still hobbled by a legacy of poverty and ignorance.

On several measures of how well Tar Heel citizens develop their potential, our state ranks well below national averages, and on some uncomfortably near the bottom.

The report, “The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009,” was funded by a group of foundations and published by Columbia University Press. Here are some examples of how North Carolina ranked among the states in percentage of population in various categories:

Below the federal poverty line (2006): 14.7 percent – worse than all but seven states (S.C. had 15.7 percent).

Less than a high school education (2005): 17.7 percent – worse than all but 11 states (S.C. had 18.3 percent).

Public school teachers with advanced degrees (2003-04): 31.7 percent – worse than all but three states (S.C. had 51 percent).

State spending per pupil on education (2004-05): $7,159 – worse than all but seven states (S.C. was $7,555).

Infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births (2002-04): 8.35 – worse than all but eight states (S.C. was 8.98).

Residents without health insurance (2004-06): 21.7 percent – worse than all but 10 states (S.C. had 20.5 percent).

Violent crime rate per 100,000 inhabitants (2006): 476 – worse than all but 18 states (S.C. was 766).

Property crime rate per 100,000 inhabitants (2006): 4,121 – worse than all but five states (S.C. was 4,242).

U.S. also trails in key measures

When the United States is compared to other nations, the result is not encouraging. Among 30 nations – the major European countries plus Australia, Japan, Korea and Mexico – the United States was fourth from the bottom in literacy, with 20 percent of the population ages 16-65 lacking functional literacy skills. Fifteen of the nations nave no measureable percentage of illiterate citizens.

Americans were third in the gap between the richest 10 percent and poorest 10 percent of the population (with a smaller gap than only Turkey and Mexico) and next to worst in child poverty rate (better only than Mexico).

What does all this mean? In most of those nations, government provides access to a variety of services and opportunities – including day care and health care, to cite two areas where the United States comes up short. For example, America is No. 1 in health care expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product but 23rd in life expectancy at birth and 25th in infant mortality.

Our capitalist system is better than any other in providing opportunity and producing wealth. But to ensure that the American dream can be a reality for all, our nation must devise ways to provide access to high-quality education, child care and health care to every American, regardless of income.