Human Security in the United States

  • Human Security in the United States
  • Conclusion
  • Endnotes
  • Related Content

A growing literature defines security in relation to the individual. Instead of focusing on a state’s external threats, scholars of “human security” focus on a broader set of threats. This approach includes threats — such as poverty and pollution — to individuals within states. Scholars of human security began to take that approach at the end of the Cold War as state‐​to‐​state warfare seemed less relevant. Those scholars do not dismiss the importance of a state’s ability to defend itself. Rather, they tend to argue that without human security, there can be little traditional state security and vice versa, and some conclude that threats to U.S. human security are increasing. This chapter concludes otherwise: the United States is secure in both the traditional sense and with respect to human security.1

Consider first the traditional definitions of security that focus on a country’s external threats. The United States has not faced a great‐​power rival since the end of the Cold War, and none are likely to emerge. Its closest rivals, such as China and Russia, cannot compete militarily and struggle to project military power abroad.2 Furthermore, the United States’ geography and nuclear prowess make it an unlikely target for invasion. In addition, the United States has powerful allies and maintains unequaled diplomatic power. According to John Mueller of Ohio State University, terrorism is not a considerable threat either:

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, terrorists have inflicted little violence in the West … [Extremist Islamist terrorism] has claimed 200 to 400 lives yearly worldwide outside war zones … about the same number as bathtub drownings every year in the United States [A]l-Qaeda has mainly succeeded in uniting the world, including its huge Muslim population, against its violent jihad, and cooperative efforts by governments have led to important breakthroughs against the group.3

Furthermore, it is unlikely that terrorists will be able to obtain nuclear weapons. In sum, as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago argues, no great power in world history comes close to enjoying the traditional state security that the United States does today.4

Scholars of “human security” argue that as threats from foreign states diminish, as they have for the United States, security analyses should shift focus to individuals. Any meaningful discussion of security, they argue, should include other dangers such as hunger, disease, violent crime, pollution, and natural disasters. Those risks kill far more people than war, genocide, and terrorism combined.5 Human security scholars suggest that to evaluate the security of a country’s citizens, one must consider whether people are “able to take care of themselves … [whether they] have the opportunity to meet their most essential needs.”6

Human security is not an esoteric concept used exclusively by university professors. Influential people and policymakers have also adopted that approach. For example, President Dwight Eisenhower’s national security agenda focused on the improvement of human security indicators such as education and transportation.7 Similarly, Cold War defense secretary James Forrestal argued: “The question of national security is not merely a question of the Army and the Navy. We have to take into account our whole potential for war, our mines, industry, manpower, research, and all the activities that go into normal civilian life.”8

International organizations such as the United Nations have also used the human security approach, even forming the United Nations Commission on Human Security.9 Kofi Annan, former secretary‐​general of the United Nations, said: “Security can no longer be narrowly defined as the absence of armed conflict, be it between or within states … [We must] adopt a much more coordinated approach to a range of issues.”10 Other international organizations, including the World Bank and the Organization for Security and Co‐​operation in Europe, have adopted the human security approach in all but name.11 Public intellectuals, such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, have championed the notion of human security.12 And several governments, such as Canada and Japan, have adopted human security goals in their foreign policy approaches.13

If one considers the growing importance of human security, is it reasonable to ask how secure the United States is (or Americans are)? How does one evaluate the human security of a state? Because human security focuses on the security of individuals, we could compare Americans with citizens of “peer nations,” such as Australia or Canada. Unfortunately, cross‐​country comparisons of human security indicators such as wealth, child mortality, and good governance do not tell us how secure the United States is. They tell us only how secure the United States is relative to other countries.

Human Security in the United States

To evaluate whether the United States is “human secure,” then, requires considering whether a majority of Americans have attained an ideal level of each indicator of human security. In many cases, that ideal is obvious: for instance, no occupational deaths among any Americans are ideal according to human security scholars. In some cases, the ideal is not obvious: how many additional forest hectares per annum are ideal? And in other cases, arithmetic mean measures of indicators, such as life expectancy, make it unclear what proportion of Americans has reached an ideal level (see Figure 1). In all of those cases, one should consider whether the trend is in the right direction — that is, whether the population is becoming more or less secure over time. Combining both approaches — evaluating whether a majority of Americans have reached an ideal level of security and considering security trends over time — will indicate whether Americans are human secure and what to expect regarding their security in the future.

Figure 1: Life expectancy at Birth for U.S. Men and Women, 1960–2010

Source: Human​Progress​.org; World Bank, http://​data​.world​bank​.org/​i​n​d​i​c​a​t​o​r​/​S​P​.​D​Y​N​.​L​E​00.IN.

Indicators of human security are threats to individuals’ lives and livelihoods. This chapter uses those indicators defined by the United Nations’ 1994 Human Development Report.14 That report was the first in which a world‐​class organization endorsed human security as a national security approach. It has shaped the human security school ever since its publication. The Human Development Report defines the following human security threats:

  • Health security: the threat of injury and disease
  • Environmental security: the threat of pollution, environmental degradation, and resource depletion
  • Economic security: the threat of poverty
  • Political security: the threat of political repression
  • Food security: the threat of hunger and famine
  • Community security: the threat to the integrity of cultures
  • Personal security: the threat of various forms of violence

Evaluating U.S. human security according to those criteria shows that although some U.S. residents are insecure in certain aspects, the majority of Americans are secure and are becoming more secure all the time.

Health Security

There are many ways to measure the danger of injury and disease, and an exhaustive discussion is beyond the scope of this chapter. This section will use’s statistics on life expectancy, injury, and disease as representative indicators of health security.15 As the following figures demonstrate, most Americans are healthy, and the nation is becoming healthier.

Americans live long and healthy lives. Infant mortality afflicts a tiny percentage of babies in the United States and is dropping (see Figure 2). Only a small percentage of children suffer malnourishment — between 1 and 4 percent, depending on how it is measured.16 Americans are also living longer. In the 1960s, women lived to about age 73; now, the average life expectancy is about 81. Men’s life expectancy during the same period has risen from age 66 to about 76 (see Figure 1). Moreover, a tiny fraction of Americans suffers premature death — 14 percent of men and 8 percent of women — and the rate is dropping.17 Work‐​related injuries and fatalities affect a small share of the population and are declining. For instance, 2.5 million workers suffered a temporary or permanent injury in 1999 (i.e., less than 1 percent of the population). By 2008, only 1 million workers suffered the same (see Figure 3). Although more than 6,000 people died at work in 1999, by 2008, about 5,200 people died while working.

Figure 2: U.S. infant Mortality rate, 1960–2011

Source: Human​Progress​.org; UNICEF, http://​www​.unicef​.org/​i​n​f​o​b​y​c​o​u​n​t​r​y​/​u​s​a​_​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​c​s​.html.

Figure 3: U.S. Work Injuries, Temporary and Permanent Incapacity, 1999–2008

Source: Human​Progress​.org; International Labor Organization, http://​labors​ta​.ilo​.org/​a​p​p​l​v​8​/​d​a​t​a​/​c​8​e​.html.

In addition, disease is uncommon and becoming rarer. For example, fewer men and women are dying from the most common types of cancer.18 Although 13 men per 100,000 died of prostate cancer in the 1950s, only 10 men per 100,000 die of the same disease today. Similarly, 21 women per 100,000 died of breast cancer in the 1950s, whereas now only 15 women per 100,000 die (see Figure 4). AIDS‐​related deaths are also at an all‐​time low since the disease was first discovered. Although 55,000 Americans died each year of AIDS‐​related illnesses in the early 1990s, now 17,000 die each year. And deaths from tuberculosis have been almost eliminated, with only 0.2 people dying per 100,000 people now versus 0.5 people dying per 100,000 in 1990.

Unfortunately, there are a few negative trends. For instance, more women are dying in childbirth in the United States now than in the past. Suicide, if counted in health security, is also becoming (marginally) more common. However, those negative trends are outweighed by positive ones. The health of the average American is high, and the nation’s health is improving. Those improvements are even more promising when considering the simultaneous expansion of the U.S. population. Americans are, therefore, “health secure.”

Figure 4: U.S. Prostate Cancer Deaths for Men and Breast Cancer Deaths for Women, 1950–2008

Source: Human​Progress​.org; International Agency for Research on Cancer, WHO Cancer Mortality Database, http://​www​-dep​.iarc​.fr/​W​H​O​d​b​/​W​H​O​d​b.htm.

Environmental Security

Americans enjoy a high and growing level of “environmental security.”19 Population growth,20 for example, has slowed. That trend is seen throughout the developed world, including in the United States. Since 1960, population growth has declined from 1.7 percent to 0.8 percent, and the number of births per woman has declined from 3.7 children to 2.1 children.

Forest coverage, far from abating, is increasing (see Figure 5). That development is partly driven by increased productivity in farming, which also allows more Americans to be fed by less land under cultivation.

Figure 5: U.S. Forest Area, 1990–2008

Source: Human​Progress​.org; UN Development Programme, http://​hdr​.undp​.org/​e​n​/data.

Although carbon dioxide emissions have risen since the 1960s, the rate of increase is slowing. Moreover, carbon dioxide emissions per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) and per person have dropped over the same period (see Figures 6 and 7). Although increasing world emissions may pose an as‐​of‐​yet‐​unobserved security risk to Americans, the positive effect is clear. People’s use of carbonaceous energy improves human security as they use it to harvest food, to deliver health care, and to stay warm — among countless other security uses.

Vulnerability to extreme weather has abated. While nearly 1,000 Americans died each year, on average, from hurricanes in the first decade of the 20th century, that figure has averaged well below 100 per year in nearly every decade since the 1940s. The temporary spike to 127 deaths per year in the 2000s reflects deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the annual average today remains well below levels in the early 20th century (see Figure 8). Some 41 Americans per million died from heatrelated deaths in the 1960s. That number declined to 5 people per million in the 1990s.

Figure 6: U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 1960–2008

Source: Human​Progress​.org; World Bank, http://​data​.world​bank​.org.

Figure 7: U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions Per Capita, 1990–2009

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Human Development Reports data, http://​hdr​.undp​.org/​e​n​/data.

All Americans have had access to improved sanitation since 1990.21 That improvement means that every American has access to facilities that separate human excreta from human contact via (for example) flush toilets connected to sewers. Among Americans, 99 percent have had access to improved drinking water sources since 1990,22 which means nearly every American has access to drinking water that is safe and protected from contamination.

However, the picture is not all rosy. The United States used an additional 0.6 percent of its total renewable water resources between 1990 and 2005 alone.23 Methane emissions have barely dropped since 1990.24 Although hydrofluorocarbon emissions have been dropping in recent years, that drop came after a long uptick since the early 1990s.25 Luckily, human ingenuity means the overall picture for environmental security is a positive one. Fewer people are dying from extreme weather events. Fewer are exposed to pollution that can cause sickness. And environmental protection and resource conservation are becoming the norm. Americans are — and are becoming more — “environmentally secure.”

Figure 8: Annual U.S. Hurricane‐​Related Deaths by Decade, 1900–2010

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Patrick J. Michaels, ed., “Addendum: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” Cato Institute, October 31, 2012, p. 145.

Economic Security

Poverty, one indication of a lack of economic security, is uncommon in the United States. When official data were first collected, the poverty rate was about 22 percent of the population. It soon dropped, and for about the past 50 years, the poverty rate has hovered between 12 and 15 percent.26 Therefore, a minority of Americans lack sufficient income with which to obtain basic necessities.

Most Americans’ incomes are rising, allowing them to afford much more than the basics. Since the 1950s, inflation‐​adjusted GDP per person has risen from under $15,000 to over $48,000 (see Figure 9). Those gains were felt across all income brackets; even the lowest‐​income quintile’s real, inflation‐​adjusted income rose by more than 49 percent between 1979 and 2010.27 Before the 1960s, Americans spent more than half of their disposable income on basic necessities. Now they spend less than a third of their incomes on basics (see Figure 10). Indeed, the very definition of basic necessities has expanded with rising incomes. Items that were once considered luxuries are now counted as essentials. As incomes have risen, many goods have also become cheaper, which means Americans have more money available to improve their lives.

Figure 9: U.S. Gross Domestic Product Per Person PPP, 1950–2010

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Conference Board Total Economy Database, http://​www​.con​fer​ence​-board​.org/​d​a​t​a​/​e​c​o​n​o​m​y​d​a​t​a​base/.
Note: PPP 5 purchasing power parity. PPP provides some constancy when comparing monetary data of several countries.

Figure 10: U.S. Spending on the Basics, as Share of Personal Disposable Income, 1930–2010

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Mark J. Perry, “Access to Good Life for LowIncome Americans Comes from ‘Miracle of the Marketplace,’ Especially manufacturing,” AEI Ideas Blog, October 26, 2012.

In the 1970s, 163.5 million plane trips were taken each year; now, 707.5 million are taken. The median living space for American households has risen from 1,500 to 2,200 square feet since the 1970s, while fewer people live in each household (see Figure 11). Whereas 2 percent of Americans had cellular phone subscriptions in the 1990s, now 90 percent do. And although 1 percent of Americans used the Internet in the 1990s, today 74 percent of the population does (see Figure 12). And those facts don’t take into account that most products, such as cell phones, have become more useful over time. The United States’ score on the Human Development Index — combining measures of life expectancy, education, and GDP per capita on a scale from 0 to 1 — has risen from 0.84 to 0.91 since the 1980s.

Figure 11: U.S. New Single‐​Family Homes: House Size and Household Size, 1973–2011

Source: Human​Progress​.org; U.S. Census Bureau, https://​www​.cen​sus​.gov/​c​o​n​s​t​r​u​c​t​i​o​n​/​c​h​a​r​s​/​p​d​f​/​m​e​d​a​v​g​s​q​f​t.pdf.

Figure 12: U.S. Cell Phone Subscriptions and Internet Users, 1990–2010

Source: Human​Progress​.org; World Bank Data website, bank​.org.

Americans from all income groups have more money and are better able to live comfortably, to travel freely, and to communicate widely than ever before. As poverty persists in the United States for a minority, the vast majority grows more secure economically every year.

Political Security

The repression of individuals and government control of information are primary indicators of political security. Indexes of political repression show that Americans enjoy a high level of political freedom, though it has improved little over time.28 That finding is counterintuitive.

Traditional measures of political freedom, such as the World Bank’s voice and accountability index, have declined since the 1990s (see Figure 13).29 Declining index scores for freedom of association are consistent with the weakened privacy rights as revealed by Edward Snowden.30 Dropping scores for freedom of expression are consistent with chilled speech in public places (especially in universities).31

Figure 13: U.S. Score on the Voice and Accountability Index, 1996–2011

Source: Human​Progress​.org; World Bank, info​.world​bank​.org/​g​o​v​e​r​n​ance/ wgi/index.asp.

Declining scores for a free press since 2009 are consistent with the government’s insistence that New York Times reporter James Risen reveal sources, accusations by the Justice Department against Fox News’s James Rosen, and the seizure of two months of Associated Press journalists’ phone records.32

More optimistically, the rule of law has improved in the United States since 1996, from a score of 3.95 to 4.09 on a 5‐​point scale. And Americans have enjoyed essentially perfect civil liberties since the early 1970s (when records began).33 The same goes for political rights. It is legitimate to question whether those latter scores are deserved considering the previously mentioned abuses. That discrepancy may be the result of the subjective nature of political repression indexes. Or perhaps Freedom House, the creator of those final two indexes, finds perfect civil liberties impossible to attain, leading it to conclude that the United States approaches the attainable ideal.

Ultimately, few consider the United States to be a place where citizens face widespread political repression. The indexes indicate that Americans enjoy secure political rights. Some of the indexes report that those scores are slipping over time. Therefore, although Americans are in greatest danger of a security decline in that realm (compared with the other six types of human security), they still enjoy a high level of political security.

Food Security

Most Americans have reliable access to food. When evaluating “food security,” human security scholars often consider not only the availability of food but also its affordability. As shown earlier, even the poorest Americans’ inflation-adjusted incomes are rising. Agricultural yields in staples such as wheat and corn have also increased since the 19th century as prices have dropped (see Figure 14). As a consequence, Americans spend less of their total household expenditure on food over time (see Figure 15). So not only do Americans have easy access to cheaper food, but also they have more money left over to improve other aspects of their lives. Those great advances in food security are partly responsible for the fact that Americans’ food consumption exceeds what is necessary for survival and has increased over time. In addition, Americans are eating more healthy foods than in the past, such as vegetables and seafood, which contribute to increased protein consumption (see Figures 16, 17, and 18).

Figure 14: U.S. Corn Prices and Yields, 1866–2012

Source:; U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service website,

Figure 15: U.S. Food Consumption Expenditure as Share of Total Household Expenditures, 1997–2009

Source:; UN Food and Agricultural Organization, FAOSTAT website,

Figure 16: U.S. Supply of Vegetable Products Per Capita, 1961–2009

Source:; UN Food and Agricultural Organization, FAOSTAT website,

Figure 17: U.S. Supply of Fish and Seafood Per Capita, 1961–2009

Source:; UN Food and Agricultural Organization, FAOSTAT website,

Figure 18: U.S. Dietary Protein Consumption, 1991–2006

Source:; UN Food and Agricultural Organization, FAOSTAT website,
Note: According to the FAO, “The dietary protein consumption per person is the amount of protein in food, in grams per day, for each individual in the total population.”

Community Security

Community security includes discriminatory violence against any particular communities. Community violence in the United States is low and, in most cases, declining. Nonlethal hate crimes against African Americans have fallen since the mid‐​1990s. Those crimes now affect a tiny minority of the population (see Figure 19). Antigay hate crimes are a mixed bag. Simple assault and homicide of gays have risen, whereas aggravated assault has declined — both to a modest degree. Luckily, those crimes affect only a tiny minority of gay people — far less than 1 percent. The security of homosexuals has improved considerably in at least one way: intimidation of gay people has dropped by more than 28 percent since the mid‐​1990s.

Other statistics indicate that community tensions are declining. For example, 68 percent of whites supported school segregation in the 1940s, and now fewer than 5 percent do (see Figure 20). The use of community rights terms, such as “civil rights” and “gay rights,” has risen since the 1950s, indicating the growing importance of recognizing and curbing discrimination (see Figure 21).34

Figure 19: Nonlethal Hate Crimes Against African Americans in the United States, 1996 – 2008

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), p. 387.

Figure 20: Segregationist Attitudes in the United States, 1942–1995

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), p. 391.

Figure 21: Use of Community Rights Terms in English‐​Language Books, 1948–2000

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), p. 380.

Although racial and ethnic conflict in the United States has not been eliminated, a small fraction of minorities are targeted for violence on the basis of their identity. Therefore, the United States can be said to enjoy a high level of “community security.”

Personal Security

Personal security (i.e., concern with violent crime) is the final class of indicators of human security. Steven Pinker of Harvard University has argued:

Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment in our species’ time on earth … Cruelty as entertainment … torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion … pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution — all were unexceptional features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West.35

Figure 22: Approval of Husband’s Slapping Wife in the United States, 1968–1994

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), p. 409.

It makes sense, then, that a small and declining proportion of Americans suffers from violence of all types. Spousal abuse in the United States is rare and dropping. The approval of a husband’s slapping his wife dropped dramatically between the 1960s and 1990s (see Figure 22). In 1993, about 1,000 women per 100,000 were assaulted by their spouses. In 2005, about 350 women out of 100,000 were assaulted. At the beginning of the same period, about 160 men out of 100,000 were assaulted by their spouses each year. In 2005, about 90 men out of 100,000 were assaulted (see Figure 23). Homicides of intimate partners have also dropped. In the 1970s, about 1.44 women and about 1.23 men per 100,000 were murdered by their spouses. Now only 0.79 women and 0.23 men per 100,000 are murdered by their spouses. In addition, rape has dropped by 80 percent, and murder has dropped by 42 percent since the 1970s (see Figure 24). Finally, although intentional homicide36 in the United States rose in the 2000s, the rate has since dropped to about 13,000 homicides per year. And even at the height of violence, perpetrators murdered a tiny fraction of Americans. Violence affects a minority of Americans and is affecting fewer every year, which means that Americans are personally secure and becoming more secure over time.

Figure 23: Assaults by Intimate Partners in the United States, 1993–2005

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), p. 411.

Figure 24: Rape and Homicide Rates in the United States, 1973–2008

Source: Human​Progress​.org; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), p. 402.


Human security scholars sometimes include income inequality in their discussions, though it is unclear how inequality affects security. What does someone else’s income imply about one’s own security? Certain forces that lead to inequality — theft, political corruption, exploitation, and so forth — may affect one’s welfare. But those forces are simply a few of several explanations for inequality.

The bottom 20 percent of income earners in the United States have a smaller share of national income now than in the 1970s. That fact, however, does not imply that anyone is worse off in an absolute sense.

People are not poor because others are rich. Across every income quintile, incomes are rising, and fast. Since the 1970s, real incomes have risen in every quintile by a minimum of 40 percent.37 Those inflation adjusted income gains have been more dramatic for the poorest, whose incomes have risen by 49 percent.38 And four out of every five people become richer than their parents.39 In addition, consumer goods tend to become cheaper over time, so the welfare of Americans from every income group has risen even more than those numbers indicate.

Growing inequality in the United States is a fact, but it does not imply a reduction in human security. Real incomes have risen across every income group, and they continue to rise. Nearly every American is wealthier than at any time before. And greater wealth improves citizens’ quality of life and security.


Despite common claims that the United States is doing poorly and getting worse, things are, in fact, good and improving for today’s 317 million Americans. Americans are secure with regard to traditional security threats, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and great‐​power conflict. Americans are also secure with regard to human security. Of course, not all Americans are equally “human secure.” However, even the least secure enjoy a considerable and increasing level of security. And the most pessimistic should acknowledge the following: few individuals in the United States are violently targeted because of their ethnic affiliation. Food is widely available and, in many cases, more affordable than in the past. Political repression is low. Americans are becoming richer, with more money to spend on luxury goods like computers and cell phones. The rate of environmental degradation is slowing, with environmental indicators improving. And perhaps best of all, people are living longer. Therefore, inhabitants of the United States are secure and are becoming more secure all of the time.

Stephanie Rugolo

Stephanie Rugolo was the Managing Editor of Human​ at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.