How are Canadians Really Doing? The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) offers a comprehensive answer
Written by Bryan Smale, CIW Director and Professor, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada for the January 2012 edition of the Newsletter on Measuring the Progress of Societies.
The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) is starting a national conversation by asking “How are Canadians really doing?” This relatively simple question requires a complex response because we have come to realise that GDP does not go far enough in explaining the breadth and nuances of the quality of life of average Canadians. With the release of the inaugural CIW composite index on October 20, 2011, we have provided Canadians, for the first time, with a transparent national picture of their wellbeing in all of its many dimensions. By juxtaposing it with GDP per capita, we begin to see how we are really doing, and specifically, what areas of our wellbeing are improving or not.
The CIW draws from a deep well of data – much of it taken from primary data sources available from Statistics Canada and several other credible sources – and uses 64 separate headline indicators to characterise eight interconnected domains central to the lives of Canadians: Community Vitality, Democratic Engagement, Education, Environment, Healthy Populations, Leisure and Culture, Living Standards, and Time Use.
Using 1994 as the base year from which we began measuring these indicators, the CIW tracks the trends for each domain, as well as overall, through to 2008. By looking at the percentage changes over this 15-year period, we see that, after pulling together all eight domains, the CIW composite index improved by 11.0 per cent. While this modest growth in the wellbeing of Canadians might appear gratifying, it pales in comparison to the more robust 31.2 per cent growth in Canada’s GDP per capita over the same time period. Looking more deeply at each of the domains comprising the CIW (see Figure 1), we see that our wellbeing improved in five domains (green lines) and declined in three others (red lines). Nevertheless, none of the domains of wellbeing showed the level of growth realised by GDP.
Clearly, our economic performance is outpacing our quality of life. The fact that our overall wellbeing consistently lags behind a measure of expenditure and consumption does not just demonstrate that money cannot buy happiness, but reveals that when GDP is used to guide both economic and social policies, we are not necessarily better off as a nation. This is at the very heart of the issue of growing inequality – where a small percentage of us do extremely well while many more of us fare less well.
Figure 1. Trends in the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and its Eight Domains, Compared with GDP (1994 to 2008)
The Honourable Roy J. Romanow, Chair of the CIW Advisory Board, says:
“The CIW shows us what GDP cannot: our country is not reaping all of the benefits of our economic growth. Our quality of life has actually gone down in areas such as the environment, leisure and culture, and time use, with only modest gains in health. And even in areas where growth has been robust, our research shows that it was the top 20 per cent that received the lion’s share of rising income and wealth during the boom years, while the gap down to the bottom 20 per cent grew even larger. That’s the Canadian reality.”
Moving from the Canadian Reality to Achieving the CIW Vision
The CIW’s vision is to enable all Canadians to share in the highest levels of wellbeing by identifying, developing, and publicising statistical measures that offer clear, valid, and regular reporting on progress toward wellbeing goals and outcomes that Canadians seek as a nation.
Attaining the CIW vision rests on three interconnected pillars: (1) research, (2) communication, and (3) knowledge mobilisation. Along with the annual release of an update on the CIW composite index, the CIW is planning to advance its activities in all three pillars. Research will focus on conducting, supporting, and gathering leading edge research on wellbeing at the individual through to societal level, with a focus on exploring regional and subpopulation variations in wellbeing as well as interconnections among the eight CIW domains. Communication will ensure that knowledge generated through research and the other activities of the CIW continues to educate specific groups such as the general public, policy shapers, decision- makers, and the media through the dissemination of user-friendly reports and development of web tools. Knowledge mobilisation will focus on facilitating usership of the CIW in communities and by groups committed to social change and application to progressive policy development. The intersection of these three pillars will ensure that a national dialogue on wellbeing continues.
The challenges to realising the CIW vision are many. The consistency and sustainability of data sources need to be addressed. The federal government in Canada needs to show leadership that other Group of Eight (G8) national governments are showing in embracing wellbeing as a central policy issue. Long term funding for the CIW needs to be secured. What is encouraging is the recent media focus, both internationally and domestically, on themes that have arisen in response to the narrow focus on the economy. For example, discussions of inequality and the growing gap between rich and poor and the shrinking of the middle class, and of democracy and citizen engagement have been enlivened by the Occupy movement. There is definitely a growing global awareness that current measures of progress are limited and at times fail us. The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission, the OECD Better Life Initiative, and the UK’s subjective wellbeing project are regularly in the news and are helping the CIW leverage media interest at home.
As the CIW enters 2012, it is with an enthusiasm generated by its new home base at the University of Waterloo and an ambitious three pillar approach to making the CIW more than just a number. When considered in conjunction with GDP, the CIW provides a comprehensive approach for citizens and decision-makers to plan for better access to, and the highest possible standard of, wellbeing. It will empower citizens to hold their governments accountable for making progress or falling behind. I invite you to follow our progress at www.ciw.ca