July 13th, 2009

Human Wellbeing: Toward A Better “Success”

Canadians are again doing something right and Americans should follow their lead. Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow and others founded, without government funding, the independent, non-partisan Institute of Wellbeing and developed the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). For example, the CIW considers overwork and stress as social deficits. You can read the first CIW report just recently issued.

The Global Project was created by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) whose task is to develop comprehensive measures of societal progress which take into account the full range of social, health, environmental and economic concerns of citizens. The June 2007 World Forum was in Instanbul and Romanow spoke there. The 3rd Forum is in Oct. 2009 in Korea.

Romanow writes eloquently

GDP (gross domestic product) makes no distinction between economic activities that are good for our wellbeing and those that are harmful. Spending on tobacco, natural and human-made disasters, crime and accidents, all make GDP go up. Conversely, the value of unpaid housework, child care, volunteer work and leisure time are not included in GDP because they take place outside of the formal marketplace.

Even the “father of the GDP,” Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets, recognized that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.”

(the late) Senator Robert Kennedy noted that GDP “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The Institute of Wellbeing has created the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). The CIW is rooted in Canadian values.

 It begins with the belief that our cornerstone value as Canadians is the principle of “shared destiny”: that our society is often best shaped through collective action; that there is a limit to how much can be achieved by individuals acting alone; that the sum of a good society and what it can achieve is greater than the remarkably diverse parts which constitute it …

our standard of living, our health, the quality of our environment, our education and skill levels, the way we use our time, the vitality of our communities, our participation in the democratic process, and the state of our arts, culture and recreation.

Good public policies can improve wellbeing, bad ones can harm it. Three examples. Reductions in Employment Insurance (unemployment benefits in the U.S. which several governors have proudly refused to extend despite additional federal funding) increase financial risks and hamper economic wellbeing for people — a negative. Denial of medical services (even in Canada) causes a rise in a family’s health care expenses leading to poorer health for low-income citizens — a negative from the Canadian CIW perspective (as U.S. lawmakers consider taxing workers’ health care benefits and fight over people’s right to care). Significant cuts in welfare benefits increase income inequality (the rich getting richer) — something that impairs Canadians’ wellbeing.

Wellbeing in the U.S. Starting to Get Noticed

The only diectly comparable US counterpart to the Canadian CIW is the Foundation for Child Development (FCD).

The Child Well-Being Index (CWI) is a national, research-based composite measure  updated annually that describes how young people in the United States have fared since 1975.  It combines national data from 28 indicators across seven domains into a single number that reflects overall child well-being.  The seven quality-of-life domains are family economic well-being, health, safety/behavioral concerns, educational attainment, community connectedness, social relationships, and emotional and spiritual well being.

The FCD 2009 Report warned that the recession adversely impacts child wellbeing.

The percentage of children in poverty will rise to 21 percent in 2010, up from about 17 percent in 2006 primarily because of drops in family income from two incomes to one or none. Estimates of the recession’s effects reduce median family incomes to $55,700 by 2010, down from $59,200 in 2007. Single women household incomes fall to $23,000 in 2010, down from $24,950 in 2007. Single households headed by men income is expected to drop to $33,300 in 2010, from $38,100 in 2007.

As a social scientist-turned-advocate, I’ve seen firsthand how science is ignored by public policy decision makers (legislators) and by courts (and lawyers). Mostly it’s science’s fault by being too obscure, incremental, coupled with the common problem that scientists vary greatly in their ability to translate basic science into information relevant to societal problems. A recent (July 9 released) Pew Research Center survey of scientists found that only 3% of scientists are contacted by the media to describe their work; only 8% of scientists believe that public media exposure is important.

However, the library of relevant articles is growing with respect to workplace bullying. (For a sample, consult the WBI Research section.) And the media have been quite kind to WBI.

Lawmakers nearly always respond predictably to the demands of business lobbyists (no regulation, no enforcement, no accountablity, no new worker protections that interfere with absolute control over employees’ lives). Left out of the process is how laws affect real people living real lives, regardless of what’s good for business. Science about the impact of inhumane business practices should inform compassionate policy developers.

That same Pew survey also asked Americans how much various groups contributed to the “well-being of society.” The group credited as the most contributory: members of the military (84%), teachers (77%), scientists (70%), while lawyers (23%) and business executives (21%) contributed the least. In addition, 53% of the public (and only 33% of scientists) agreed that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength. Militarism is a key cultural ingredient in America. Militarism, all about the business of death, certainly undermines attention to wellbeing.

Rugged individualism, another American trait, sabotages the collective nature of society. It coarsens the regard we Americans have for one another. “To hell with him, let him fend for himself” is often the operating creed.

Both militarism and individualism run counter to genuine human altruistic impulses. Elsewhere, we cited the neuroscience of compassion. In America, showing concern for a fellow human’s wellbeing is frequently mocked as being “wimpy” or a “bleeding heart.” It is a challenge to American exceptionalism (the belief that the nation is the best and most advanced in all endeavors) to compare ourselves to European or Canadian progress on a topic like wellbeing. We clearly lag behind.

However, there is a bold new movement called Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ). WBI colleague and law professor David Yamada introduced TJ in his July 2 blog. He reports that a recent conference of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health included panels on mental health law and family law.

Mental health and law professionals are beginning to see the utility of “connecting the dots” (the CIW description of the process) to make the causal connection between social policy and impact on individual lives (as the CIW and FCD already know). These connections come naturally to social scientists, but the barons of the marketplace, businesses, lawmakers, and obviously do not share the same perspective. The TJ movement is bridging that gap in knowledge.

Finally, theologians can soften American attitudes toward defining success. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his book The Politics of Meaning (1997), wrote:

The goal of the economy should be to help produce and sustain humans who are capable of realizing their highest capacities for love; creativity; intelligence; mutual recognition; solidarity; productive work; freedom; caring and nurturing; intimacy; commitment; trust; vitality; and aesthetic, ethical, spiritual, and ecological sensitivity. The materialist conception that promoting these capacities is difficult when people face material deprivation is correct, but needs to be qualified. There are, and have been throughout human history, societies that more successfully actualize these capacities than some of our contemporary advanced industrial societies, even though these others produce less, materially speaking. In my view, these societies have had a stronger economy-one that we ought to deem more productive and generating a higher standard of living.

Here’s hoping that the public dialogue started in Canada and the rest of the world enthuses America. Taking into account citizens’ wellbeing is one sign of an enlightened society. America needs to catch up. We need only to look north for a model.

UPDATE: 7/15 Public Policy and Health Impact
Los Angeles has an estimated 40,000 homeless people. The city’s policy (called Safer City which spends $6 million to pay for extra 50 police to patrol the downtown 50-block skid row) is to criminalize the destitute (for example, giving harassing tickets for not obeying crossing signals). The city spends only $5.7 million for homeless services at a time when more people, including working people, are living in their cars stripped of their foreclosed homes. Contrasted with LA is New York City with half the homeless population in large part due to a “right to shelter” policy and an investment of $200 million for housing and services for the needy. Read the Reuters report. Policies affect human wellbeing.

Gary Namie


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This entry was posted on Monday, July 13th, 2009 at 3:10 pm and is filed under Bullying & Health, Bullying-Related Research, Fairness & Social Justice Denied. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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