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What If We Made Well-Being Our Bottom Line?

February 2021

 

Dear State and National Policymakers,

The wild and manipulated ride of GameStop and AMC stock in late January captured an inherent tension in American culture: we obsess over metrics like the stock market as measures of how we are doing as a nation, even though stock prices less and less reflect their own quality, let alone the strength of our country.

It made me wonder if we could harness and repurpose our obsession with the stock market — and align value with values.

What we value drives who we elect, our public policy, and our decisions about raising and spending public resources. While we tinker around the margins, history reveals that what we Americans value most is capitalism, the private businesses that drive it, the jobs it creates, and the income it generates. GDP. The Dow and NASDAQ. The unemployment rate. The jobs report. We hear these statistics daily, some even hourly. We treat them as indicators of our success or failure as a country.

For the next few years, many of these metrics will not look good. Some, like GDP, may trend in the right direction, but they will not mitigate the suffering in large portions of the country. Suffering from poor health, unstable work and income, and for those from marginalized communities, inequitable access to opportunity. In truth, large portions of the population suffer even when the economic indicators are good. Thriving capital markets do not equal a thriving society.

What if we expanded our definition of the bottom line to include the well-being of our people – their access to stable work, quality child care, healthy foods, and safe communities? I mean really expanded it in the sense of tracking metrics daily (hourly!) and had it drive our policies and our funding.

 

What if we anticipated the monthly homelessness report? Tracked trends in the number of people earning a living wage? Pledged to dramatically reduce child poverty? What if the nascent indicator of whether children are healthy and ready to learn was on the data dashboard of every legislator, governor, and mayor? (Note: we developed a measure for GDP in 1944. We are still working on developing a measure of school readiness.)

What if we believed changing those metrics actually improved our country? I’m not suggesting we ignore private markets, but could we broaden our definition of what a thriving society looks like? Maybe we could learn from the environmental movement. Sustainable building materials, reduced emissions, clean water, they all cost more money in the short term, but we are still investing in them. Have you heard about the incredible return on investment from healthy early childhood development? Developers strive for LEEDS certification while we struggle for the early childhood workforce to make a living wage.

Capitalism is a core value of our country. That’s not going to change. I’m not even arguing it should go away. I just want us to value a few other things as much as capitalism. Last year, Iceland’s Prime Minister Kartín Jakobsdóttir proposed a framework of 39 indicators that cover social, economic, and environmental dimension. She said, “Gross Domestic Product and economic growth are certainly important metrics and will continue to be so, but these factors do not tell the whole story about people’s quality of life and the successes of communities. It is important to have metrics that take the environment, society, and economy into account.”

In New Zealand, the treasury department has a data dashboard with indicators measuring population well-being that inform an annual Wellbeing Budget. In an article in Forbes Magazine published last year Finance Minister Grant Robertson said,  “Sure, we had – and have – GDP growth rates that many other countries around the world envied, but for many New Zealanders, this GDP growth had not translated into higher living standards or better opportunities. How could we be a rockstar, they asked, with homelessness, child poverty and inequality on the rise?”

In 2013, the German government launched “Wellbeing in Germany – what matters to us” stating “We wish to align our policies more closely with the values and hopes of German citizens.”  The interactive report (in English!) includes 12 dimensions of well-being and states: “The federal government believes wellbeing should lie at the heart of policymaking that simultaneously pursues economic, social and environmental goals. It has been clear for some time now that it is no longer enough to simply work to ensure economic growth and greater prosperity. When it comes to material goods, it is no longer just about “more” but also about “better” in terms of the quality of their production and distribution.”

To be fair, well-being indicators exist in the United States. Have you heard of them? They come from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, or the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. They do not come from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. At the state level we have even more examples, like the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Rankings. Getting the data is not the problem. We’re drowning in it.

What if the President/Governor/Mayor got briefings on well-being indicators as often as economic indicators? Maybe a page dedicated in The Wall Street Journal to other indicators of a thriving society?

In 2021 we will emerge from a pandemic with a broken economy, but also with heightened knowledge of how it was always broken when it came to child care, elder care, health care, education, and how communities of color are disproportionately affected by any downturn. We will have a new President, a few new Governors, and many new state legislators. But will we have the courage to change the way we govern? Will we fall back into old patterns of policymaking, or will the 500,000+ deaths due to COVID-19, and the undeniable impact of systemic racism on how we govern be our wake-up call? Let this be the moment when we enact policies that go beyond economic health and embrace human health and well-being as an essential element of a prosperous nation.

With shared values,

Helene Stebbins

Executive Director,
Alliance for Early Success

 

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