Opinion: Gap between GDP and wellbeing should threaten Canada’s complacency (Vancouver Sun)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

By Charles Ungerleider​

Complacency about social conditions in Canada may lead some Canadians to believe that this country is immune to the factors — anger, disfranchisement, poor quality of life — that contributed to the recent election of Donald Trump, but they would be wrong. There is a growing gap between what Canadians care about — their health, living standards, leisure time, education, and the quality of the environment — and Canada’s gross domestic product. Ignoring that gap risks a reaction similar to the one evident during the U.S. campaign.

Over the course of the last 20 years, Canada’s gross domestic product — the market value of all goods and services produced — has soared by approximately 38 per cent. But the evidence indicates that Canadians do not feel as if their situation has improved. The gap between GDP and Canadian feelings of well-being has grown from 21 per cent in 2008 — when the recession dealt a significant blow to both the economy and Canadian’s sense of well-being — to 24.5 per cent in 2010, and 28 per cent in 2014.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) measures well-being with 64 indicators in eight domains that Canadians believe are vital. At almost every turn, Canadians are bearing the burden of precarious work, longer commutes, less time with friends, fewer opportunities to volunteer or participate in social activities. Even our sleep has been compromised. Slightly more than one third of Canadians (35 per cent) are getting sufficient sleep. Canadians in 2014 spent approximately 30 per cent less time with friends than they did in 1994. Vacation time — measured by nights away on vacation — has declined by 30 per cent since the 2008 recession.

The data are not uniformly bleak. Education is the only domain that has kept pace with GDP. Community vitality is strong; Canadians believe their communities are safer and that they have a strong attachment to them. We are living longer, but fewer of us rate our health as very good or excellent. However, living standards declined by 11 per cent since the recession and inequality has increased. Fewer people have regularly scheduled work. One employed person in every 20 works less than 30 hours per week, not by choice, an increase from one in 25 in 1994.

It is no secret that Canadians are struggling with the cost of housing and access to quality housing and food. Household spending on culture and recreation in 2014 was at its lowest point in 21 years. The Leisure and Culture domain declined by more than nine per cent.

Canadian democracy — measured by engagement, satisfaction, and confidence in Parliament — is also relatively precarious. Levels of engagement with political or advocacy organizations are low (two per cent), voter turnout is stagnant (66 per cent), and confidence in Federal parliament has declined.

Canada’s environmental footprint — the fourth largest in the world — has not improved. Air quality and freshwater yields are essentially the same today as they were in 1994. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased.

As is evident, the data used for the CIW tell a largely negative story about Canadian wellbeing. But the good news is that we have data about our well-being to juxtapose with the gross domestic product. While the comparison is largely unfavourable, our ability to make such a comparison provides policy-makers with a tool they can use to evaluate the impact of their policies on the wellbeing of Canadians. 

It was arguably the failure of policy makers in the United States to consider carefully the evidence about their wellbeing that contributed to the dramatic electoral change that recently occurred there. They would have done well to recall the speech Robert Kennedy gave at the University of Kansas in 1968 about GDP’s preoccupation with the accumulation of material goods. “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play … it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” 

Anger, disfranchisement, and an increasingly poor quality of life for many are also present in Canada, albeit to a lesser extent. Policy makers can ignore them at their peril. 

Charles Ungerleider is managing partner of Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group and a member of the Advisory Board to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.


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