Index provides a wider measure of progress

Posted on October 24, 2011 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorials
Published On Fri Oct 21 2011.

Not everything can be measured in dollars and cents. That’s why economists and politicians who measure progress strictly according to Gross Domestic Product and claim that our lives are better just because the number goes up seem increasingly out of touch.

The GDP quantifies just one part of the equation — economic output. It doesn’t count the cost of achieving those gains, whether it’s environmental degradation or a work-life imbalance that stresses families and saps joy from lives. It also says nothing about the distribution of all that additional wealth. As Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots show, most people do not think that the rich getting richer while everyone else falls further behind is laudable progress.

Now, finally, Canadians have a more comprehensive measure. One that doesn’t just tell us how the economy is performing (as vital as that is), but tries to get a broader sense of how people are living. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing measures eight major areas: living standards, community vitality, democratic engagement, education, health, environment, leisure and culture and how we spend our time.

While Canada’s GDP increased by an impressive 31 per cent from 1994 to 2008, the Index of Wellbeing rose just 11 per cent, according to the first composite report released this week. And even that modest overall increase masks areas where quality of life actually declined. The time crunch and income inequality both went in the wrong direction.

To get ahead, or even just stay put, we’re spending more time working and less time visiting elderly parents or playing with our kids (who spend too much time in front of the TV). We’re increasingly working non-standard hours and working women, in particular, are being crushed between additional unpaid responsibilities of raising children and caring for elderly family. The lion’s share of 15 years of wealth and income gains went to the wealthiest few while other Canadians saw a reduction in employment quality and housing affordability.

Most Canadians are “running so fast, and basically standing still, that we do not have the opportunity to enjoy things that really matter in life,” says Roy Romanow, former Saskatchewan premier and chair of the advisory board of the index, which is based at the University of Waterloo.

The wellbeing index is really a statistical account of the kinds of pressures that are driving people to protest movements like Occupy Toronto. But it must be used as more than a gauge of the mood of our times. That 15 years of economic growth resulted in fairly modest improvements to the lives of average Canadians should be a wake-up call for politicians and policy-makers.

Robust economic growth is fundamental to wellbeing. Among other things, it’s about jobs and producing the tax revenue to pay for such things as health care and education. For proof of that, look no further than places where the economy has gone into a tailspin.

But the wellbeing index is a valuable reminder that while growth is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. It’s time to rethink government programs, where investments are made and how we define progress. Citizens now have a measure to hold government to account for making those changes.

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