UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — American students' math ability may rank 19th in a study of
21 nations. But tireless researchers still work to give numbers real meaning for them, and for everyone, through rankings and comparisons that stimulate interest in issues both serious and light.
RICH vs. POOR COUNTRIES
* Big Spenders, Rich Habits
The United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report indicates that, with global spending on goods and services approaching $24 trillion this year, it has never been better to be a consumer; that is, if you belong to the minority of haves. But then, one-fifth of the world's richest people consume 86 percent of total goods and services, whereas the one-fifth on the other side of the income spectrum consume about 1 percent. What's more:
The richest fifth eat meat 11 times more often than do the poorest fifth. Europeans and Americans spend $12 billion on perfume, twice the increased amount needed to give everyone basic education.
Europeans and Americans spend $17 billion a year on pet food, while a quarter of the 4.4 billion inhabitants of developing countries lack adequate housing.
* One Man's Wallet, Another's GNP
The world's 225 richest people, including 60 from the United States, have a combined wealth of $1 trillion, equal to the income of the poorest 2.5 billion of the world's poor.
The 15 richest people have assets that exceed the total gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa.
* Long Lines in the Powder Room
Europeans and Americans spend $8 billion on cosmetics. (The Broadway show "Cats" is an unapologetic culprit, using more than 18,600 eyeliners in its first 15 years, according to the World Almanac.)
* Children's Big Footprints
One child in an industrial country is equivalent to at least 30 children in the third world in terms of his or her contribution to consumption and pollution over a lifetime.
* Whose Woods?
While deforestation is concentrated in developing countries, more than half the wood is used by the industrialized countries.
* Crowded Classrooms
Think your local schools face desk and teacher shortages? the Worldwatch Institute estimates that the US school-age population will grow by 10 percent between 1995 and 2050. But Nigeria faces a 77 percent rise, Pakistan 51 percent.
Russia stands to see a drop of 39 percent, Japan's headed downward too, by 21 percent, as well as China, with a 12 percent decrease.
THE DEVELOPING WORLD
* Not Breathing Easy
More than 90 percent of air-pollution-related deaths occur in the developing world. And 80 percent of these casualties are from indoor pollution, as many poor people lack access to clean fuel and therefore burn dung and wood for cooking and heating.
* Where Risk Pays
Poverty has been the force behind some hazardous occupations. The commercial sex sector in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines accounts for 2 percent to 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to the International Labor Organization.
* Hotbed of Heroin
Burma (Myanmar) accounts for more than 60 percent of the world's opium-poppy cultivation and opium-gum production, enough to produce 236 metric tons of heroin, probably more than enough to meet the world's heroin demand, according to the US State Department.
* Let's Wait for the Reviews
Hollywood may be the world's movie capital in terms of production costs and box-office domination. But, says UNESCO, India dominates (assuming no major drop-off from its 1990 total, the last one available). In 1995, the Philippines turned out more total films (456) than America (420). Hong Kong contributed 315 (thank you, Jackie Chan).
Even Yugoslavia managed to produce eight films in 1995, a year in which it was ending a war.
* Shopping-Mall Madness
Is mall culture creeping? You bet. Santiago, Chile, (population, 5 million) has nine new malls, according to the UN Human Development Report, drawing as many as 1.8 million people a year. Three more are under construction.
Since malls tend to pull drivers from the old selling-centers downtown, that boom may help explain Latin America's gasoline consumption: a developing-world-leading 72 million tons in 1995. East Asia burned 38 million tons, the Arab countries 27, Southeast Asia and the Pacific 19, and sub-Saharan Africa 15.
* Prosperity Boom
The UN Human Development Report is not entirely a book of doom and gloom. The infant mortality rate in developing countries has dropped by more than half in a 35-year period, from 149 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 65 in 1996. And yesterday's luxury items in some developing countries are now commonplace.
Every family in China has a refrigerator, and its rural counterpart in India owns a watch.
The number of radios sold in Africa quadrupled between 1975 and 1995.
Sales of television sets in Latin America grew 500 percent over the same period.
* They've Got Work - and Homework
Even though Americans and other citizens of rich industrialized countries have a bigger share of the consumption pie, they are not necessarily enjoying a picnic. American 12th-graders spend more time in after-school jobs than do their global peers. Among the test takers at the Third International Math and Science Study, more than half the American students work more than three hours a day, whereas three-quarters of the students from the 20 other countries work less than one hour a day. (Working more hours may be a reason for American high-schoolers' low ranking in math and science achievement, says the Boston College-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.)
* Where Help Is Needed
The US has the highest average income, but also the highest percentage of what the UNDP calls human poverty, taking into account many factors, including illiteracy, among industrialized countries.
Twenty workers are murdered each week in the United States. Chauffeurs and taxicab drivers have a higher risk of being killed than any other workers, including law enforcers and firemen, according to the International Labor Organization.
More American women reported that they experienced sexual assault and offensive behavior at work than did women in Indonesia and many other developing countries, according to the ILO. However, Northern Ireland, France, Finland, and Argentina reported higher rates, with France topping the survey.
On a lighter note, Americans can take comfort in some of the latest socio-economic data.
Some 1,150,000 divorces were granted in 1996. It constituted the lowest divorce rate in two decades and was 5 percent lower than the all-time high recorded in 1992. The US is also among the least corrupt countries in the world. However, it ranks 17th on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, behind Britain, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, and Denmark, which topped the "least corrupt" list.
* Maturing Population
The American population is growing older. With a median age of 34.9, two years older than in 1990, according to the US Census Bureau. Contrary to popular belief, Florida does not have the oldest population. West Virginia holds that distinction. Utah has the youngest median age, 26.9. That might explain why Salt Lake City leads cities in terms of Jell-O consumption.
* Diversity On the Quad
America leads the way in playing host to foreign students, with 453,787, according to UNESCO. Asia represents the lion's share: The most come from China (72,315, with another 12,000-plus from Hong Kong, using pre-unification figures), and Japan sends 45,531.
France ranks second as a host country, welcoming 170,574 to study.
Most American students who study abroad (more than 6,000) do so in - no surprise - Britain.
* Population Explosion, in Plastic
According to Mattel, the number of Barbie dolls in existence is greater than the entire United States population, a stunning figure considering that the US is the third-most populous country in the world, with more than 267 million people, behind China and India.
* City Gripes
Though New Yorkers love to complain, they cannot claim to live in the most expensive place in the world. London's West End tops the list of office rental costs, at more than $116 per square foot per year, according to property consultant Richard Ellis. Midtown Manhattan ranked fourth, at $72.89, behind Greater London and Moscow.
New York does not even hold the world title in terms of the most populous city. Tokyo, Mexico, So Paulo take the lead. New York is fourth. Los Angeles ranks seventh.