Think of it as a 3-D movie that captures movement, texture and color. Measuring development in the hemisphere requires more than tracking economic growth or poverty reduction. Our fourth annual Americas Quarterly Social Inclusion Index monitors public policies and highlights gaps—while identifying variables such as access to goods and the protection of civil and political rights, to create an accurate portrait of the Americas region. The Index is generously supported by the Seattle International Foundation, dedicated to supporting worldwide poverty alleviation efforts through grant-making and other activities, with a strategic focus on Central America.

Some highlights: Uruguay remains in first place for the second straight year. The Southern Cone country is a champion in LGBT rights and in access to formal jobs, and continues making improvements in areas such as the amount of GDP spent on social projects and financial inclusion. Placing second in the 2015 rankings—moving up two places—is the United States, which scored high across several indicators: women’s rights, financial inclusion and personal empowerment by gender and race. Argentina placed third, lagging in ethnoracial inclusion and civil society participation by race and gender. Nevertheless, it outranks several of its peers in indicators such as GDP spent on social programs.

Two of the countries in the Northern Triangle—Guatemala and Honduras—continue to rank at the bottom of the pack across the majority of indicators. High poverty rates, lack of opportunities, gender and race disparities, and very low access to formal jobs and education paint a challenging picture. El Salvador—a bright spot in the Northern Triangle—made gains in almost all categories this year, climbing three positions in the overall ranking. At Americas Quarterly we consider social inclusion to be more than the reduction of poverty and inequality. It covers factors that contribute to an individual’s capacity to enjoy a safe, productive life irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation.

This year’s Index ranks 17 countries across 22 variables. For a list of the sources used, please see pages 65 and 66. We have added a new ethnoracial indicator with assistance from the Gender and Diversity Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). This variable is based on three criteria: the existence of race and ethnicity questions in national census or household surveys; the existence of inclusion legislation; and the existence of affirmative action laws for Indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. The top five, in order of rank: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, the U.S., and Panama. For more on the ethnoracial component of this year’s Social Inclusion Index, read the article by the IDB’s Judith Morrison on page 80.

Zooming in on country-by-country results is one way of reading the Index. The scorecards and rankings by variable contained in pages 65 to 75 provide a snapshot of each country’s level of inclusion, how it compares to others in the hemisphere, where progress has been made, and where public policies are still lagging. But a deeper dive reveals how entire segments of the population in some countries are crippled by unequal access to formal jobs, education, income, and rights. Women and Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities lag behind in almost every variable—despite the high growth rates of the recent past.

Still, there are encouraging signs everywhere.

The majority of the countries included in the Index improved in access to adequate housing—most significantly Paraguay. All countries except Nicaragua and Guatemala scored over 50 percent across both race and gender, with nine countries scoring 80 percent or higher in male and female coverage. Minorities, however, are much less likely to have access to adequate housing compared with nonminorities in many countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru.

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Poverty is receding across the board, notably in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. Yet in Honduras—second to last among the 17 countries in the overall Index—poverty has actually increased. Minorities are more vulnerable to poverty than nonminorities, usually by at least 10 percentage points.

Access to a formal job remains sketchy in the region. There were improvements in Bolivia and Ecuador across both gender and race. However, Colombia and Peru saw decreases; and Honduras continues to score abysmally in terms of access to a formal job, increasing only from 5.1 percent to 5.6 percent for males, and from 10.8 percent to 11.6 percent for females. In comparison, Uruguay has 91.8 percent male coverage and 88.6 percent female coverage. All Central American countries where household survey data was available, except for Costa Rica, scored under 60 percent this year.

Some of the variables in the Social Inclusion Index enable us to measure the actual results delivered by governments. But public perceptions of government responsiveness also have an impact on citizens’ sense of empowerment. Most countries in the region made progress across these indicators. Men tend to feel more politically empowered than women, while minority groups feel less politically empowered than nonminority groups in all countries—with the notable exceptions of Peru, Chile, Colombia, and El Salvador. Additionally, authorities in Colombia and Mexico may want to explore the reasons behind the marked decrease in their citizens’ perception of government responsiveness by both gender and race.

When it comes to financial inclusion, every country improved its score in this year’s Index except for Paraguay—for which updated data was not available. Between 2011 and 2014, bank account ownership dramatically increased in the region. Growth was strongest in Brazil and in Mexico. There is still room, however, for women and those under the poverty line to have greater access to the financial system.

The region’s champions of women’s rights are the U.S., Uruguay, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Colombia. But the picture is far from rosy. While 13 of the 17 countries examined in the Index allow for the termination of pregnancy in some circumstances, a large majority of abortions in the region still take place illegally and in unsafe surroundings. Other factors in our women’s rights variable remained almost unchanged—such as the assistance provided to working families with children—or presented only slight improvement, such as the percentage of women in political power.

Yet we saw great improvement in all countries in decreasing the maternal mortality rate, compared to 2014 (except for the U.S. and Uruguay, which already had low rates). In Bolivia, the rate dropped spectacularly from 8 percent to 1 percent. For more on reproductive rights laws and the reasons behind the drop in maternal mortality, read the article by Joan Caivano and Jane Marcus Delgado on page 76.

No social inclusion index would be complete without looking at the sweeping changes in LGBT rights throughout the region. The top five include Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. The exception is Paraguay, which shares the bottom of the scale with countries in the Northern Triangle, particularly Honduras and Guatemala. This year’s LGBT rights variable included an extra indicator on hate crimes, which slightly altered the scale we used in previous years. Further evidence on public acceptance of LGBT rights in the form of same sex-marriage can be found in our Just the Numbers graphic on page 120.

As Latin America enters its fifth straight year of slow growth, it is more important than ever to monitor, preserve and expand the social gains of recent decades. We hope the 2015 Americas Quarterly Social Inclusion Index can serve as a tool for policymakers, multilateral agencies and others concerned with evaluating the impact of public policies—particularly those that affect the poorest and most vulnerable in our hemisphere.

Methodology notes: Some country scores remained similar to last year in absolute numbers, but rankings changed in comparison to other countries. Others improved in raw numbers in variables, but were penalized because of the disparity between male and female access. Because some countries lacked data on certain variables, such as race-based household survey data, our overall country ranking accounts only for the variables every country had full data on.

▶  Explore the 2015 Social Inclusion Index
▶  How did countries rank last year? Access the 2014 Social Inclusion Index