by David P. Ross
In this issue of Perception, we focus on work that the Canadian Council on Social Development is doing in collaboration with others to establish new ways of measuring the country's well-being. The goal of our work in this area is to establish credible, reliable indicators of growth beyond traditional ones such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the national unemployment rate.
The GDP, changes in the cost of living index (CPI), the prime lending rate, the Toronto Stock Exchange 300 index, and the value of the Canadian dollar are all familiar concepts to Canadians. These benchmarks of economic health are tracked and presented annually, quarterly, monthly, daily, even hourly. If the dollar falls by 10 cents, or the GDP drops one per cent, or interest rates climb by half a point, policy makers and commentators are spurred to action. No one questions what the movements mean, or whether the measures themselves are accurate. Over time, we have been conditioned like Pavlov's dogs to respond to changes in these economic indicators.
But those of us who are concerned about social progress know instinctively that the traditional economic indicators used to assess a country's health often do not reflect what is happening in many people's lives. Child poverty, teenage pregnancies, youth accidents, drug abuse and suicides, inequitable income distributions, low birth weight babies, quality of child care, school performance, lone-parenthood and absent fathers, family dysfunction, social cohesion – these are also important indicators of how well we are faring as a nation.
Yet none of these factors make policy makers jump. Too often the only response one gets to such social statistics is to be told that they are not reliable measures anyway. Criticisms are trotted out: the data are poor, the stats gatherers are biased, the concepts are inadequate (What is poverty anyway?). Certainly no one in authority starts shifting policy levers when these statistics are reported.
Two major initiatives recently undertaken by the CCSD to help promote the introduction of social indicators are reported on in the following pages. One is a recent publication, the other a symposium that brought together Canadians and social scientists from other countries to exchange ideas about social indicators.
One can think of economic indicators as short-term measures of the efforts by current and former members of the population. On the other hand, social indicators are guides to the future health and capacity of our society. Without good social health, there can be no sustained economic progress. If the health of our children deteriorates, our future economy deteriorates. Long-term economic progress cannot be maintained by an unhealthy, under-educated, and socially dysfunctional population. We may, perhaps, get away with it in the short-term, but if we are concerned about the future of Canada we must establish a set of measures to guide us.
The latest CCSD publication, The Progress of Canada's Children 1996 attempts to create a set of social indicators to measure the well-being of Canada's children and youth. Hopefully the kind of policy adrenalin now set off by changes in economic indicators will rise when social indicators, such as those established in this report, suggest problems or successes in certain areas.
David P. Ross is the executive director of the CCSD.
Canadian Council on Social Development,
190 O'Connor Street, Suite 100,
Ottawa, Ontario, K2P 2R3