By Fran Kritz

The Institute for Economics and Peace recently released the second annual United States Peace Index, which provides an assessment of U.S. peacefulness at the state and city levels. The index authors also offer an analysis of the costs associated with violence and the socio-economic measures associated with peace.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Michael Shank, director of policy and communications for the U.S. office of the Institute for Economics and Peace, about the newly released index.

NPH: What data from the U.S. Peace Index is particularly compelling?

Michael Shank: In the past people have often made an anecdotal argument or a moral argument to push for policies that promote improved peacefulness. What I think is so interesting about the Peace Index is that it makes the economic argument for understanding the data and costing out violence. It makes the economic case for policies that promote peace. That appeals to policymakers who are being forced to cut costs.

We have the highest incarceration rate in the rich world and we also have some of the highest violent crime and homicide rates. This represents a hit to economic productivity. If someone is killed or incarcerated, they are removed from the workforce. I think if we speak at it through that lens, it has a greater higher ability to have traction among policy-makers.

With the U.S. Peace Index, something we tried new this year is correlating peacefulness with data around social capital. We found that there’s strong correlation around social capital, volunteerism, organizational involvement, involvement in school or town affairs, the number of group memberships and how people trust each other.

NewPublicHealth: How do you measure peace?

Michael Shank: For the U.S. Peace Index we look at five indicators of violence. We define peace as the absence of violence, and our five indicators are homicide, violent crime, incarceration, police per capita, and availability of small weapons and small arms. That’s how we determine how peaceful states are and then we correlate that data with socioeconomic behaviors. We find that the strongest correlations exist around poverty, inequality, education, health, basic services, labor participation rates and things like percentage of children in single parent households or single parent families.

NPH:  What connections do you see between the Peace Index and the County Health Rankings?

Michael Shank: I think there’s a lot of potential for collaboration and complementarity because the rankings are pretty holistic and robust in their understanding of what constitutes a healthy community. They include both environmental impacts as well as traditional health data.

The key to both the Index and the Rankings is that they look more broadly at what constitutes well-being, so that we understand health more holistically and comprehensively. The aim of both is to make individuals and communities and policy-makers aware that that many issues should not be siloed, because the impacts on health are clear. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for collaboration so that our communities are working together.

NPH: How has the Index been used in the United States?

Michael Shank: It is being used in a couple of different ways. There are efforts to impact how policy is being shaped at the federal and state levels. One article I wrote looked at austerity budgets in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio. Wisconsin and Florida are some of the more violent states, Ohio is somewhere in the middle. But what’s happening at the state level is that deficits and debts are requiring budget cuts. States are increasingly cutting socioeconomic policy areas that potentially impact its peacefulness. The cuts in the three states were in the last year or two, and were in areas that are highly correlated to peacefulness—specifically education and health.

When states think about cutting budgets, they often cut the very areas which may well undermine their state’s ability to maintain peace. Our message in the article was be mindful of where you’re cutting because it may well put your state into a position where you will see high rates of violence, and so it will cost you in the future.

NPH: What’s next for the Index?

Michael Shank: We are eventually going to broaden our nation state Peace Indices so that beyond the U.S. Peace Index we’re looking at other countries and providing them with the tools and metrics to measure their own peacefulness and improve on it. Our Global Peace Index comes out in June, for the sixth year in a row.

We’re also going to be looking at positive peace, not just negative peace. By that we mean we’ve identified, based on some 300-plus data sets, eight pillars of peace that are identifiable in peaceful environments and have strong correlation with peaceful environments including a well- functioning government, sound business environment, free flow of information, respect to the rights of others, relations with neighbors, low corruption, high levels of education and equitable distribution of resources.

Given high income inequality in the U.S., higher than it’s ever been since World War II or the Great Depression, that’s an area of improvement for the U.S.

NPH: Can you quantify the impact of peace on economic well-being?

Michael Shank: What we have found is that, if, on average, a nation can improve their peacefulness by ten slots in the Global Peace Index, they will see an increase in their GDP per capita of about $3,100 U.S. dollars. So there’s a clear indication that by improving your peacefulness you’re helping out your GDP, and intuitively that makes sense.