November 25, 1996
Measuring social progress, starting with
the well-being of Canada's children, youth and families
Speaking notes for
David Ross, Executive Director,
Canadian Council on Social Development
at the national conference: Canada's Children... Canada's Future,
Ottawa, Ontario, November 25, 1996
This is a slightly larger audience than I'm used to addressing in the motel banquet rooms, community centres and church basements across the country. The size of this congregation would be the envy of my grandfather and great grandfather who were Methodist preachers on the Prairies. And, I'm also sure they would use it to greater effect than I will. Nonetheless, I have refrained from asking my staff to pass collection plates among the tables for contributions to the CCSD. But our publications are for sale in the Hotel Lobby.
I want to address you today on how our nation measures its progress. And if we truly cared for our children and youth, how it should be measured. Unfortunately, policy making today is dominated and guided by economic indicators. But these indicators are deficient as good measures of the quality of life in communities. Current policy directions--guided entirely by short run economic and fiscal concerns--are making life miserable for many families and children. A good set of social indicators are needed, and I want to propose a beginning.
Gross Domestic Product (affectionately know as "GDP"); the unemployment rate; changes in the cost of living; the prime lending rate; the Toronto stock exchange 300 index; and the value of the Canadian dollar. All these are familiar and important terms to average Canadians. Never mind that most of us are unaware of their full meaning, or how they are measured. What we do know is that they have become important icons for the state of the nation's health.
We track them daily, quarterly, annually...incessantly. The media refer to them constantly. Politicians and the public alike accord them sacred status as measures of how well we are doing. It seems we just can't live without them. How they perform not only influences the advice proffered by our economic commentators, but decisions taken by governments. In short, indicators spur policy makers and commentators to action, and dictate our economic and social policies. The dollar, can't fall 1 cent, or the GDP, drop one per cent without having an immediate impact on the running of the country.
Questions, are not entertained about what the movements mean, or whether the measures themselves are accurate. No one questions their legitimacy. They've served us so long that we jump like Pavlov's dogs when the indicators move. They even frame the policy issues to be discussed. How fortunate it is for economists and the commercial economy to have friends as influential as these key indicators. But it's time for economists and business to expand their understanding of what constitutes a nation's progress.
I'm putting forward a new perspective. I want us to see the day when policy makers jump to worsening social conditions. Child poverty, teen-pregnancies, youth accidents, suicides, low-birth weight babies, children in care, family dysfunction, are important signs of our collective well-being. But, too often the only response to social statistics is that they are not reliable measures: the data are poor, the gatherers are self-interested and biased, the concepts are inadequate (what is poverty anyway?). Certainly, no one jumps to attention and starts shifting policy levers when social statistics come out.
The radically different responses to economic and social indicators leads me to wonder why our children are not considered as important as impersonal economic data. Aren't rising teen suicide rates as important as rising interest rates?
The CCSD recently released The Progress of Canada's Children in an attempt to create a set of reliable social indicators to spur policy change. We want to see policy makers' adrenalin, react to social indicators the same way it responds now to economic indicators. Our future prosperity depends on it. Economic indicators, only measure current output resulting from past investments made in the population's well-being. They are a limited guide to our future.
Social indicators, are the best predictor of both our future capacity to produce, and our future quality of life. Think of them as long-run economic indicators. Because they are.
Social conditions, are the platform on which our economy is built. Weak platform, weak economy. It's that simple. If the well-being of our children deteriorates, the future economy will deteriorate. Economic progress, and a high quality community life, simply cannot be built upon an unhealthy, poorly-educated, badly motivated, socially fragmented population. Slashing government expenditures, and downsizing workforces may indeed improve the economic bottom line today. But they sow the seeds of long-term costs.
The neglect of families and children, should first and foremost be considered a moral, not an economic issue. But today morality seems to have lost political appeal. That's why in order to "red flag" the issue, child welfare is often cast today in terms of how it will affect our economy and our safety on the streets. It's an appeal to wallets and not hearts. This, is a sad commentary on the state of our society. We all accept that fiscal concerns are important, but we must balance them with our social and family needs.
Balance? Let's see.
The thrust of recent federal budgets has been to reduce the size and scope of government. A direction enthusiastically embraced by some provincial and local governments. The story we hear is that individuals, families, and the private market are expected to do more. Far more. And governments less. Much less.
In recent memory, there have been a rash of policy changes adversely affecting children and families; let's list them:
federal assistance for health, post-secondary education, and social assistance and services? --chopped and channelled into the Canada Health and Social Transfer [CHST];
Canada Assistance Plan [CAP] safeguards?--dumped;
post-secondary education fees?--rapidly rising;
Unemployment benefits?--continual tightening;
universal Family Allowances?--gone;
the universal child tax exemption? [remember that one?]--history;
Child Tax Benefit?--suffering from serious erosion due to incomplete indexing;
national child care program?-- tiresome excuses for delay;
formerly free and universal health care and public education?--under attack and being nibbled away;
community cultural and recreational facilities?--access being reduced by user fees.
Considered together, these changes signal a dangerous undercurrent. The war on the deficit has become a war on families. Families have taken a big hit--by our estimate at least $10 billion dollars worth. And their growing insecurity shows it. The evidence indicates a deliberate transfer of responsibility for economic and social security away from public funding, to families. The "new message of the 90s" seems to be that both the costs and benefits of children are considered to flow only to family. As a result, children are being increasingly accepted more as a private good, and less as a shared responsibility with society.
The growing "privatization" of responsibility places a much greater onus for social security on the shoulders of individual families. They must become more self-reliant. But how exactly are families to shoulder this heavier burden? Obviously through more and better paid jobs in the private marketplace. Now, I happen to think it would be difficult to find many families who would not leap at the chance to increase their self-reliance. That's not the problem. The problem, is the lack of adequately paying jobs and the 10% unemployment rate. Exactly how do we get more families into paid jobs? That's the question we should be asking.
And there is no shortage of answers. In one camp are those who question the strength of our work ethic today, and the role of our safety net. They would pull virtually all public supports from families, forcing them into any remunerative activity--legal or otherwise. Our social safety net was built up painstakingly and with purpose during the Post-war period. And it was designed to protect families from exactly the type of turbulent economic conditions prevailing today. Ironically, just when we need it most, it is being withdrawn...and, worse, it is being portrayed as the very cause of family insecurity, and a weakened work ethic. The proponents of this harsh view would have us believe there are a million good jobs out there chasing fleeing, work-shy Canadians. In fact, we know the reverse to be true. Those on the "front lines" know who is chasing what.
There is another camp, and you can count me in, which argues that the work ethic is alive and well. What families need is not neglect, but societal support--from governments, from business, from the community--in order to obtain sustaining jobs. If child and family welfare is our concern, and not just getting more family members into jobs, and for longer hours, we know what families need. They need, better child care arrangements. They need, improved caring arrangements for elderly parents and disabled family members. They need, public income and training supports to assist in moving from one job to another in the new transitory and insecure work world. They need, more "family-friendly" work places that permit paid maternity and family leave. They need, equal employment opportunities. They need, decent wages and benefits. They need, flexible work schedules so people can better juggle their job and family commitments without experiencing debilitating stress and guilt.
Our social spending should be seen as an investment in family well-being, rather than a cost or a transfer of hard-earned dollars from "workers" to "loafers", and as "money down the drain". If social spending was seen as an investment, we would be less insistent on pushing single-parent mothers into low-paying or non-existent jobs. And we might stop making it increasingly difficult for students to pursue studies. These people would instead be seen as already performing important "jobs" for society, and worth investing in.
One thing we do know with certainty about the quest for self-reliance is that privatization and marketization lead to increasing income inequality among families. The market is providing less income for low and middle income families than it did 10 years ago. Between 1984 and 1994, 2.4% of total market income, or $4 billion, was shifted from the bottom 60% of Canadian families to the top 40%. All this, courtesy of the market's "invisible hand". Looked at another way, the earnings of the richest 20% of families jumped from 12 to 24 times the value of earnings for the poorest 20% of families. It was only due to government transfers and taxes that growing inequality was tempered. However, cuts to transfers and taxes will lead to a predictable end. Incomes will become more unequal, leaving an increasing gap between people at the top and the bottom, and a shrinking pool of middle-income families.
The marketplace generates inequality. This is being recorded today, it has been throughout history, and it is true across countries. So what? many will shrug. So what? Well there are documented costs associated with inequality such as:
- child disability
- infant mortality and low-birth weight
- conduct and emotional disorders, hyperactivity, and other chronic child health problems
- poor school performance and dropping out of school
- teen smoking and alcohol problems
- teen pregnancies
- youth in care
Our research shows that as families move up the ladder at all levels, opportunity increases. It's income inequality, not absolute poverty that exerts a powerful influence on a child's life-chances. That's why it's important to focus not just on children in the poorest families but on those further up as well.
From the 1940s until very recently, Canadians understood that children were a societal as well as a family responsibility. And as a result of this thinking we rank repeatedly near the top as a "good place to live" in various international surveys [although, this may surprise many inner-city dwellers, single-parent moms, children and youth in care, and certain native communities]. Perhaps, because our generation has in large measure inherited this high ranking, we take it for granted. We've forgotten how we got there in the first place.
Many neo-conservatives would have us believe we have achieved prosperity in spite of, not because of, our public programs and social commitments. They preach that we can cut taxes, increase our material incomes and consumption and still maintain our prosperity and number one ranking. In short, we can have the best of both worlds! Good luck! As we chop away at our social infra-structure and stability, we will learn soon enough why our parents and grandparents attached such importance to our social conditions.
As an economist, I'm well aware that the marketplace is a creative and reasonably efficient vehicle for providing an abundance of goods and services and material prosperity. The problem is, that without society's guidance, it concentrates its riches in increasingly fewer hands, and doesn't produce for urgent human needs when these are not backed by money.
Please don't misinterpret me. We need a strong market-place. But in solving some of society's problems, it creates others. And to build a sustainable prosperity in a political federation like Canada's, these problems require a strong central government to redistribute income, wealth, and employment fairly across families and regions. This can only be done through progressive taxes, and the public provision of income programs, and social, education and health services.
In the past decade, the climate for business has become decidedly more favourable. Government programs have been pared down, and so have labour regulations. We are witnessing liberalized trade, declining deficits, low inflation and interest rates, a booming stock market, and record corporate profits. But many Canadians have little hope they will benefit from these improved business conditions. Just look at the current unemployment rates and wage patterns! I predict that Canadians will quickly lose their enthusiasm for the commercialization of society if business can only offer up what it has until now: downsizing and high unemployment, less secure forms of employment, and lower wages.
Business, largely has what it wants from current Canadian governments. In turn, the business community must now accept more social responsibility. It must commit, to more jobs. It must commit, to jobs that offer a living wage and reasonable security. It must commit, to "family friendly" workplaces. Such commitments from the business community should be demanded by governments. Otherwise, they can expect that Canadians will again turn to government for assistance. Canadian families have tightened their belts. Now they expect the promised payoff.
I want to conclude my remarks as I began. With a plea for social indicators. What kind of indicators? And where do we start? Let me suggest my own organization's recent work. The Progress of Canada's Children establishes measures of the inputs that contribute to child and family well-being. It also measures the results--how well our children are actually doing. The Council plans to monitor these indicators annually. And looking at only a few results from this year's report, we should be alarmed, and moved to action on several fronts:
50% of working mothers are having difficulty balancing work and family responsibilities;
One-third of Canadians are worried about losing their jobs;
Since 1984, parents in two-parent families have increased their combined work time by an average of 5.7 weeks per year;
70% of off-reserve Aboriginal peoples live in poverty;
Violent crimes by youth, doubled between 1986 and 1992;
The teen suicide rate has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, especially among teenage boys. Suicide is now the second leading cause of teen death;
Funding for kindergarten programs is being cut across Canada.
Children in poor households are twice as likely to have low scores on school-readiness tests than children from better-off families.
I want to issue a warning. Amidst this rich data being assembled, there is a terrible and shameful gap. We know very little about kids in care, beyond bits of caseload data in selected cities. We are largely ignorant of how they fare after they leave care, beyond the stories related by case workers. We also know too little about native kids. Even the wonderful National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth will be of no help. Lobbying attempts to introduce comprehensive surveys have been unsuccessful. Because we know from the limited evidence that they are among the worst off of our children, this situation is a disgrace:
it is estimated there are about 40,000 kids in care in Canada; but we're not sure;
at least 50% of young offenders have had previous involvement with the child welfare system;
40% of new referrals to metro-Toronto Children's Aid were for reasons of alleged physical and sexual abuse;
80% of the children aided by metro-Toronto Children's aid in 1995, came from families at or below the poverty line.
Given these high risk kids, you would think society should be morally bound to learn more about them and provide help. It's ironic that while virtually anything exchanging hands commercially is counted by government statisticians, that we don't monitor high risk kids. Keeping in mind that it was because of neglect that these children were taken into the protective care of society. Society now turns around and neglects them. Not knowing how they turn out as adults means we can never hope to evaluate how well we do for them, and improve our assistance.
In closing, my final advice is not complicated. I would ask all of you to study the Conference's proposed Action Plan, "Investing in Children: A National Agenda". These are the major issues that society, not just governments, must address. Let's send a message to our leaders. Together, we can eliminate poverty, child abuse, and teen suicides. We can get our kids off the street and off drugs. And out of our jails. We can provide challenging and decent jobs for young adults. We can ensure economic security for young families. And we can produce safe environments and healthy children. We can do it. And we can afford it. We need to invest in our children and youth as though our very future depends on them. Because it surely does.
David P. Ross
Executive Director, CCSD
Canadian Council on Social Development,
190 O'Connor Street, Suite 100,
Ottawa, Ontario, K2P 2R3
Tel: (613) 236-8977, Fax: (613) 236-2750, Web: www.ccsd.ca, Email: email@example.com