Singapore went from third world to first world in ~30 years. So I posit that the reverse is possible too. I want to objectively know if US, as place to live, is on the decline.

To that effect, what are quantitative or qualitative indicators that make a “third world country” “third world”?

My goal is to watch these over the years to see that if US as a country is moving towards being a “third world nation” and decide where the younger generations future is - within US or outside US.

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  • Just curious why is the question downvoted? Bear with my curiosity I am new here
    – Thinker
    Aug 4, 2020 at 2:44
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    Regarding the downvotes, I can only guess, but there are actually different questions in the subject line and the main body of the posting. Always a very bad sign. The question seems to imply that there is only the first and third world. Does that imply a lack of research?
    – o.m.
    Aug 4, 2020 at 4:17
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    I recently read in an article a statement along these lines: the GDP per capita is quite high in the US, yet wealth is so unequally distributed, that the middle class in the US is worse off than in most European countries. So, it depends entirely on the metric you choose, whether the US score more Third-World points over time, or not. The number of billionaires? The number of working poor? Availability of health care? ...
    – Dohn Joe
    Aug 4, 2020 at 7:37
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    re your curiosity. the question on its own, minus the snark about the US, has some validity. generally speaking, most people would agree "Third world" carries a connotation of "poor, underdeveloped country", even if, in our PC times, folk want to dress it up with nicer terminology. so far, so good - asking for a definition is fine. however since I can't think of a really good objective metric where an informed person might think the US is headed that way in the short to medium term economically, I am left with the conclusion it's a "push question" meant to discredit someone. Aug 4, 2020 at 20:25

2 Answers 2


The term "Third World" is no longer applicable

The categories "first world", "second world" and "third world" were never categories of economic development. They were categories of political allegiance during the cold war with:

  • First world: The "Free World": United States, other NATO members and countries aligned with them.
  • Second world: The "Communist World": The Soviet Union, its satellite states, other Warsaw Pact members, China, and countries aligned with them.
  • Third world: Countries unaligned with either power-block.

While this political division made a lot of sense in the second half of the 20th century, it is no longer a useful model to describe geopolitical allegiances in the 21st century.

However, due to the tendency of third world countries of having a lower level of economic development than most 1st and 2nd world countries, the term "Third World" became synonymous with poor and economically underdeveloped countries and is still sometimes used that way.

What term you actually mean

The categories used by political scientists to group countries by economic development level, are:

  • Developed countries (United States, Canada, most parts of Europe, Australia, Japan...)
  • Developing countries (Russia, India, China, Brazil...)
  • Least Developed countries (Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Haiti...)

But how do you put countries into these categories objectively? While there is no one objective rating system, one option is the Human Development Index. It rates countries by:

  • Quality of health, measured in life expectancy at birth
  • Education level, measured in average years spent in school education.
  • Standard of living, measured in Gross National Income per capita.

This system isn't perfect. For example, it doesn't take inequalities into account. It also uses measurements which represent quantity but not quality. But when you are looking for a way to compare ~200 countries in the world with ~7.8 billion inhabitants in an objective manner, you have to apply some simplifications.

How does the US measure in these criteria?

Life expectancy at birth: Slight fluctuations, but basically the same since 10 years ago: 78.8 years. World average in 2014 was 72.2.

Years spent in education: 16.5, which ranks it as 8th in the world. Higher education becoming less and less affordable in the US is a problem, but so far it does not lead to less people going to college.

Gross Domestic Product per capita: 10th highest in the world. It is raising steadily for decades, but so does the GDP per capita of most other countries. 2020 might actually see a decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the same applies to the rest of the world (although the US is the developed country which currently gets hit the hardest, but the short-term and long-term effects on the US GDP are still very much speculation).

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    "The categories "first world", "second world" and "third world" were never categories of economic development." There were and are used that ways. "While this political division made a lot of sense in the second half of the 20th century" Putting China in the same category as the USSR became less valid after the re-alignment in the seventies., and the Soviet Bloc started losing its cohesiveness in the 80s. Sep 17, 2020 at 3:09

Two questions here, one in the subject line and one in the main text. Regarding the second question, I answer a clear "no" -- another term for president Trump will not turn the US into a third world country. There are some worrying trends, but not towards the third world.

Regarding the first question, a combination of many of the following indicators:

  • Low per-capita GDP, both nominal and in ppp. The US is far from being the world leader, but it is quite high for countries with a significant population. It wouldn't do to compare with Liechtenstein or Monaco, after all.
  • Exports mostly consisting of agricultural goods and raw materials. The US exports mostly processed chemicals and manufactured goods.
  • A foreign currency balance covered to a large part by remittances (expats working abroad, sending money to family home).
  • A significant brain drain. Skilled workers come to the US to study and work, and apart from the Corona situation the US allows them in.
  • Lack of an educated workforce.
  • Lack of infrastructure like airports, roads, telecommunications.

Note that I don't mention quality of governance, political stability, and rule of law. Those will help industry and education, and therefore GDP, but they are not sufficient by themselves. And freedom of the press is even less necessary to lift a country out of the third world. Freedom of the press is necessary for a Western-style democracy, but that's not the same.

For that matter, look at both the Cold-War-era classification of the second world, and authoritarian tendencies in Eastern Europe.

  • (+1, as good a definition as any for such a broad question) Interestingly, US exports are atypical for a developed nation. With a few exceptions (US, Germany), manufactured goods are the hallmark of an emerging or newly industrialized country, advanced economies typically have a larger share of services. Same thing for raw materials and petroleum products (the US has a larger share of processed oil products but most oil extracting nations export some and the US exports crude oil and natural gas too). Finally, it does export quite a bit of agricultural products too.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 4, 2020 at 10:13
  • I think you can cut the first paragraph as the part about Trump has been removed from the OP.
    – Jan
    Sep 17, 2020 at 5:50

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