Index offers a new way of looking at public policy decisions

You don’t have to look further than the Occupy movement to realize that public policy has been skewed by a focus on changes to the gross domestic product (GDP) – a measure of change in the size of the overall economy.

Changes in economic activity don’t necessarily tell us whether we’re sacrificing our work-life balance to maintain our standard of living, whether new wealth is only flowing to those at the very top, or whether such growth is at the expense of the environment, critical for all human life.

The first ever Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) was released this month to provide an alternate way of looking at public policy decisions through a more rational evidence-based lens.

The CIW composite index reflects a statistical profile of community vitality, democratic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, living standards, time use, leisure and culture.

The authors argue this is a more logical way of making policy.

“For example, spending on tobacco, war, natural and human-made disasters – all of these activities make the GDP go up. Yet if GDP were really a measure of progress, they would be subtracted. Meanwhile beneficial activities, like giving care to an ailing relative, unpaid housework, child care, volunteer work and leisure time would be added instead of ignored.”

Canada not doing nearly as well as its GDP indicates

In its first ever report, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing Network suggests Canada is not doing nearly as well as the GDP would indicate. Between 1994-2008 GDP grew by 31 per cent, but this increase in economic activity has not benefited the majority of us. Instead, the report suggests we are more stressed for time, our environment is being rapidly degraded, our jobs are more insecure and pay less, and the dramatic rise in inequality is having a direct impact on our health. The CIW quantifies this into an index that suggests our quality of life has only increased by 11 per cent over the same 15-year period.

By looking at a variety of indicators, the CIW offers a mixed view on changes affecting the lives of Canadians.

Under the category of health populations, the CIW suggests our progress on human health has been far more modest than the overall CIW. For all the wealth that has been amassed, our population health only improved by 6.6 per cent. Other health findings include:

  • Discrepancies in health according to social groupings and gender
  • People with higher incomes and education live longer, are less likely to have diabetes and other chronic conditions, are more likely to be physically active and report better levels of health overall
  • Canadian’s rating of the quality of their health has declined since the late 1990s but stabilized in more recent years
  •  The decline in health is most marked among teenagers
  • 87 per cent of Canadians still regard the quality of their health care system as high and most are satisfied with their health care services. This is up 2.8 per cent since 1994.

The CIW highlights that fact that life expectancy for Canadians is among the best in the world, with consistent gains in recent decades. On average, a Canadian born in 2006 could expect to live to 80.8 years, up 3.3 per cent from 1994. While women continue to live longer than men – 83 years compared to 78 years – men are catching up. Male life expectancy increased by seven years between 1979 and 2006 compared to 4.2 years for women. Life expectancies can be as much as a decade shorter in the northern territories, highlighting key disparities within the country.

Diabetes up 49.2 per cent

The bad news is that while we are living longer we are more inclined to suffer from a chronic disease or mental illness as we age. Most alarming, diabetes rates have increased 49.2 per cent over the last 15 years, from 3 per cent to 5.9 per cent in 2008. The likelihood of depression has gone up by 11.7 per cent.

While our education system gets high marks, social and emotional competency scores among children 12 to 13 declined slowly but steadily. Bullying, friendship intimacy and empathy all suffered in the last decade and a half.

The worst scores in the CIW belong to the environment, which have a direct impact on human health.

“Ground-level ozone can be directly linked to human health – such as respiratory problems – and ecosystem degradation. It can impose billions of dollars of costs on society, especially in large municipalities with traffic congestion such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. It rose from 36.1 ppb in 1994 to 37.5 ppb in 2008, for an increase of 3.5 per cent.”

Similarly greenhouse gases are on the rise despite Canada’s Kyoto commitment.

By ignoring the environment, we are risking future prosperity, suggesting climate change could decrease Global GDP by up to 20 per cent.

Income inequality also has a direct impact on health.

“The stark reality is that household income continues to be the best predictor of future health status. The formula is straightforward: more income equals better health, less income equals worse health. This is true in all age groups and for both women and men.”

Gap between rich and poor widened by 13.9 per cent

The ratio of after-tax income of the top 20 per cent of households to the bottom 20 per cent rose 13.9 per cent. The report states that the top 20 per cent received the lion’s share of rising income and wealth.

This may be explained in part by the declining job quality and increased employment and health insecurity. The CIBC Job Quality Index peaked in 2001 and then has slowly declined. Home ownership, a key indicator of social mobility, became much less affordable.

The CIW report calls income inequality very destructive to our society and long-term prosperity: “in the long run, a large divide between income earners at the top and bottom may cause the wealthy to become reluctant to contribute to public programs that our communities depend on.”

The good news in health is we are winning the war on tobacco – the percentage of Canadians who use tobacco has decline among all age groups by 83.3 per cent from 1994-2008. We are also increasing our levels of physical activity by 24.5 per cent, but the levels of growth are levelling off, causing some concern over this potential ticking time bomb for health care.

Using the CIW, the authors warn that cuts to government spending can siphon “a lot of money” out of the economy and risk a second painful recession.

“The reality is we cannot shrink ourselves bigger. To pay off our public debts we have to grow our economy. Governments must be part of the equation, but they have to spend and invest in those areas that improve our collective quality of life, so that we have a citizenry with the strength to meet both our challenges and obligations.”

The authors suggest that a high standard of living, combined with economic growth, would improve Canada’s competitive advantage in part by attracting the best and brightest talents to settle and work here.

More interested in politics, fewer voting

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be flexing his muscle with a new majority in parliament, the CIW warns that “an overwhelming majority of Canadians feel that the policies of the federal government have not made their lives better.” They are also dissatisfied with the state of their democracy. This may be directly expressed by the fact that more people are interested in politics but fewer are voting.

The report offers a number of ideas for positive change including addressing inequality by moving towards becoming a rich and fair country, enhancing intergovernmental cooperation, deploy technology more effectively, provide leisure and culture activities to all income groups, coordinator national early childhood education, reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy reserves and strengthen our institutional capacity to gather data and conduct policy enforcement.

The CIW is based at the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo. It is Chaired by former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow. Deputy Chair is former Federal Health Minister Monique Begin.

To read the full report, go to

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