The state of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States

Report cover showing a city, workers, and wind turbines


President Biden entered office in January 2021 with the promise to end the COVID-19 pandemic and facilitate an economic transformation to “build a better America.” With several simultaneous priorities—improve and protect public health, address the legacy of systemic racism, take forceful action on climate change, and build a job-rich and inclusive economy—his administration has undertaken an urgent and ambitious agenda.

But what, exactly, does “better” mean? Answering that question in specific ways means establishing explicit benchmarks for progress, analyzing current trends, and identifying their impact and on whom.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), can help with the answer. These 17 comprehensive, interconnected objectives, designed to be achieved by 2030, offer a set of metrics and evidence to better understand where the U.S. is on a set of critical economic, social, and environmental dimensions and how far it needs to go in its quest to build back better.

The U.S. itself played a central role in shaping these benchmarks, joining all the world’s countries in adopting them in 2015. Importantly, in a first, the goals recognized that “sustainable development” is a continuum of progress that no country has fully attained, making the goals applicable to all countries, regardless of income level.

The SDGs offer a shared framework to improve the coherence of U.S. priorities and interventions across policy realms, with specific targets for the U.S. to assess its progress.

The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets include explicit aims to strengthen democratic accountability and rule of law; address corruption, violence, and inequities across gender and marginalized groups; and promote opportunity and inclusive economic growth while addressing climate change and environmental sustainability. Grounded in human rights, fairness, opportunity, and justice, the goals largely reflect American values and anticipate the governing vision and key priorities articulated by the Biden administration.

The SDGs thus offer a shared framework to improve the coherence of U.S. priorities and interventions across policy realms, with specific targets for the U.S. to assess its progress. They provide a common frame of reference for communicating precisely what it means to build better—and tools for demonstrating the impact for Americans if the country fails to do so. As a common language embraced and used across sectors, the SDGs also offer significant opportunities for partnership, investment, and collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, from business to civil society.

This policy brief showcases opportunities to advance U.S. priorities at home and abroad by embracing the SDGs and providing political leadership, stronger partnerships, and institutional arrangements to accelerate progress. It presents findings from a quantitative assessment of U.S. progress made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic on select SDG indicators, offering a coherent empirical basis for defining an economic recovery that leaves the country better off, with benchmarks for identifying where policy efforts may need adjustment. It outlines opportunities for the U.S. government to maximize its international impact and reinforce its leadership on the global stage, as well as advance U.S. domestic priorities through wider collaboration. It concludes with recommendations detailing how the U.S. government can harness its leadership to drive collective action and widespread, cross-sector progress.

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