An index of wellbeing – Opinion/Editorial – An index of wellbeing
June 10, 2009

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. But one of the most misused statistics is GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. It is a measure of the total economic activity in Canada, but is commonly cited, misleadingly, as the most relevant indicator of the country’s overall performance.

In fact, GDP rarely tells us the full story. GDP doesn’t distinguish between harmful activity – say, the pollution costs from industrial production – and other productive activities such as volunteer work, which go uncounted.

That’s the argument mounted opposite this page by Roy Romanow, chair of the Institute of Wellbeing, which is releasing its first report today. Its ambitious goal is to reduce our reliance on the GDP by producing an alternative Canadian Index of Wellbeing – a composite of various measures to provide a more relevant picture of how we’re doing.

Over time, the composite index can be tracked as a measure of our overall living standards – including poverty, equity, health, environment, education, work-life balance, and cultural life. Initial results being released today suggest much room for improvement.

For example, from 1981 to 2008, after-tax per capita income rose 28.8 per cent, but it rose much faster for the top income earners than the rest of us. Over the same period, unemployment decreased slightly, but changes in Employment Insurance reduced the number of unemployed who qualified for benefits. Canadians are also getting fatter: in 1994, 12.7 per cent were obese, compared to 16 per cent in 2007.

But there is also good news. The incidence of depression is down, somewhat. So is the national crime rate, which dropped by 30 per cent between 1991 and 2006.

The new Index of Wellbeing is still in its infancy. But it holds great promise for Canadians who want to know more about how they are doing and what they need to do better.


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