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A Nation's Well-Being Is More Than Just How Rich It Is

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For nearly a century, the global consensus around what makes life worthwhile was thought to be measured by a country's gross domestic product (GDP). Increased economic activity meant new jobs and, in the post-war era, offered a greater chance for peace. It's no wonder countries around the world clung to their economies -- and any signs of economic progress -- for hope.

Yet today, with rising inequality and the well-being of children in even the most affluent countries at serious risk, we can no longer confuse the health of a country's economy with the health of its people. The failure of GDP to capture the well-being of people -- including children -- necessitates a new way of thinking about well-being and a new way of measuring how we're really doing.

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In a recent report, the University of Waterloo's Canadian Index of Well-being identified the massive gap between how well the economy is doing and Canadians' well-being -- a gap that has only grown since the recession in 2008 and is, in fact, the widest it's been in a generation.

According to the report, GDP grew by 38 per cent between 1994 and 2014. Yet the Canadian Index of Well-being, which measures quality of life indicators such as health, living standards and leisure, rose by only 10 per cent. The report highlights how Canadians are feeling caught in an unhealthy time crunch, spending less time with their children and getting less sleep, but more time commuting to work or working on evenings and weekends -- pressures that are felt even more acutely by women and single parents.

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Canadians care about the economy to be sure, but they also care about their health and their children's well-being. We need a robust job market but we also need affordable post-secondary education, healthy meals for all children, and parents who are rested enough to take good care of their kids.

A recent UNICEF study found that Canada ranks 26th out of 35 wealthy countries when it comes to overall child inequality. Canadian children reported one of the highest proportions of very low life satisfaction. Nearly one quarter of Canadian children reported having poor health symptoms on a daily basis. And nearly one quarter of older youth reported diagnosable mental health problems. Canada is, in fact, one of a handful of countries, along with France, Iceland and Sweden, where inequality among children has increased markedly in recent years.

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The economic progress we're witnessing in Canada is not being felt by everyone. As economic indicators rise, adults and children alike are having to sacrifice more of the things that actually make life worthwhile. The dividends of economic growth are not showing up in improved child well-being. As Canadian society grows more unequal, children are also starting life more unequal. This is a cost that is not being accounted for on the economic balance sheet.

Canada has taken some steps in the right direction and witnessed improvements in social indicators as a result. The rate of youth smoking has declined, the high-school graduation rate has increased and the availability of childcare, for instance, has increased steadily. The Canada Child Benefit is a boost that should reduce the rate of child poverty.

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But we must do more, individually, collectively and especially among decision-makers, to not only understand well-being in a broader-than-economic sense, but to place it at the heart of all we do. We must shift resources to invest earlier in people, to ensure children get the best start in life. Some of our economic growth should be re-invested in more adequate parental leave remuneration and early child development programs that can help create and spread opportunity and diminish inequality.

Above all, we must place our children's quality of life on the same pedestal on which we place our economic growth. Only in striking that balance will we be able to lift ourselves up to achieve the dreams Canadians seek as a nation.

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