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GUEST COLUMN: Government's obsession with GDP hurting quality of life

Canadian Index of Wellbeing produced many recommendations, but 'is any of it being turned into wise policy?' columnist asks
2019-04-30 Bryan Smale CIW
Bryan Smale, director of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, is shown in this file photo. | Nathan Taylor/OrilliaMatters

In the spring of 1968, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech that has echoed for half a century.

It was a notion he’d been playing with for some time, and it became part of his campaign in his bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee. He suggested gross national product was the wrong measure of a nation’s success. It measured nothing but money and output, and failed to measure the level of satisfaction America’s citizens were experiencing.

It measured everything, he said, “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

By any measure, Americans weren’t happy at the time. Riots were being fought in streets and university campuses over the war in Vietnam, and over racial discrimination. Kennedy said government needed to focus on quality of life, by improving education, striving for racial equality, and creating good job opportunities for all. Sadly, he was assassinated before his agenda could be attempted.

I’ve always found it an intriguing concept: government that focuses on the contentment of its citizens, rather than economic growth.

Since the early 2000s, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing has worked on measuring Canadians’ contentment. It was founded by the Atkinson Foundation with the Canadian Policy Research Networks. They consulted Canadians to determine the core values they considered critical to their well-being. Three massive national well-being reports have been issued by the group, which calls itself the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). Provincial and population-specific reports have been issued as well.

The most recent national report of the CIW, released in 2016, compared trends in well-being to economic growth between 1994 and 2014. They concluded there was a huge and growing gap between GDP and Canadians’ well-being.

“When Canadians go to bed at night, they are not worried about GDP,” the report stated. “They are worried about stringing together enough hours of part-time jobs, rising tuition fees, and affordable housing. They are thinking about the last time they got together with friends or the next time they can take a vacation.”

Our standard of living declined 10.9 per cent after the 2008 recession, and has not recovered.

The report found Canadians felt swamped by the pace of life — something that also seems to increase as the GDP grows. In the scramble for work, there was little time left for family, leisure activities, arts and cultural events or volunteering. Part-time work couldn’t keep up with rising inflation.

There were troubling trends in health, too. The rate of diabetes had risen two-and-a-half times. It was harder to find doctors. In the years following the 2008 recession, mental health declined (and since then, the pandemic’s impact on mental health has created major challenges for a system ill prepared to meet them).

The CIW concluded its findings with a battery of policy recommendations. It called for a universal basic income guarantee; action on social justice; a national education strategy; increased collaboration among community organizations; “upstream” health promotion focusing on working and living conditions; and universal access to leisure, parks, sports and recreation.

Is any of it being turned into wise policy?

You have to wonder.

As Ontario’s political parties scramble for electoral advantage, they’re all promising affordable housing, but that’s the cause du jour and policy has failed repeatedly. Jobs have increased but only in part-time employment where benefits and job security are non-existent. Public health has been working on upstream health promotion for many years, but its funding gets cut almost annually, and the pandemic has left it riddled with gaps in service.

Canadians want better, low-cost child care. They want new and expensive medical treatments for chronic diseases. They want to live in their own homes without being crushed by debt. They want time to unwind from the stresses of modern life, without the fear of stress-related illness like heart disease.

These demands are based on an urge to improve the quality of life that most see as something that’s been lost. It’s ironic that government’s blinkered focus on supporting GDP and growth is reducing quality of life and, in turn, creating public demand for support programs that take the cost of government further and further out of control.

John Challis is a writer and editor living in Washago. He has produced this article on behalf of Canadians for a Sustainable Society, a non-profit organization.