Moving Beyond GDP to Measure Well-Being

Article In The Thread
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July 5, 2022

What we measure matters — key indicators guide our funding, governance, and policymaking decisions. The measures we choose to develop and rely on can also fail to drive the outcomes we seek, and governments are waking up to the reality that measuring economic growth alone does not meaningfully capture the well-being of individuals and families. While several holistic frameworks for measuring well-being exist, the United States has yet to adopt a national framework that goes beyond conventional economic indicators like GDP and employment.

As the United States seeks to foster equitable economic progress, better indicators could, in the words of Christopher Nelson, Anita Chandra, and Carolyn Miller, serve “not to narrow the focus but to trigger conversations, attract new change agents, encourage new partnerships, and foster joint exploration.” Better indicators could then even help shape policies that more effectively support or uphold our well-being. As part of The Opportunity Project, a U.S. Census Bureau program, New America is leading a partnership of technologists, government agencies, and community groups to take on this work of redefining well-being and finding ways to measure it. We are bringing together change agents to develop a more widely shared understanding of well-being and create practical tools that support the design and implementation of new indicators of social and economic progress.

If we want to be a society that understands and prioritizes well-being in a meaningful way, we have a long way to go. Our dominant reporting on GDP, unemployment, and inflation fail to capture an integral view of well-being, one that might consider factors like access to care or the impacts of climate change. Additionally, these indicators are typically measured in the aggregate, masking the divergent experiences of different groups, which tends to further racial and other troubling inequities. When policymaking is based on the wrong metrics, we ignore vital factors that influence well-being. Decades of rising GDP data, for example, obscures how the total share of wealth is falling for the bottom 90 percent of Americans. The focus on low unemployment rates disregards workers who left the labor force due to the lack of care infrastructure and other factors.

The Census Bureau has previously called for “extended measures of well-being,” including quality of housing and community conditions. But to achieve a society where all communities can truly thrive, we must understand more fully what factors influence their quality of life, such as mental and physical health, social and human development, and a sense of purpose and access to opportunity. Creating a set of measures to capture the quality of the human experience is a daunting task. It requires being clear-eyed about what is feasible when selecting indicators from dozens of measurement options, humble and curious enough to explore new areas we don’t know enough about (but should be measuring), and committed to an inclusive participatory design process to ensure the measures reflect lived experience.

If we want to be a society that understands and prioritizes well-being in a meaningful way, we have a long way to go.

In our work, we are inspired by the City of Santa Monica’s prior efforts to build a local well-being index. Along with groups like the Social Progress Index, Civic Wellbeing Partners, and Full Frame Initiative, they have been working toward a definition of well-being that considers a more holistic set of factors as they aim to build systems that support genuine contributors to well-being. In our project proposal for The Opportunity Project, New America’s New Practice Lab invited collaborators into a three-month design sprint to help policymakers and community leaders design and implement new well-being measures that can shape meaningful policy outcomes for individuals, families, and communities.

The collaboration involves leaders from federal agencies such as the Departments of Commerce and Treasury, nonprofits like the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and academic institutions, along with practitioners in technology and data science. An integral part of this work, New America’s Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative — a partnership with Harvard University’s Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics — is working to facilitate the direct involvement of mayors and city and county officials. These local stakeholders join the team as user advocates, ensuring input from diverse community participants directly into the creation of tools that are intended to support well-being measurement design and application across local, state, and federal levels.

This collaborative design sprint should prove enriching for participants through a shared grounding in research, grassroots input, and work across different levels of government.

Below we include insights from some of the participants on what well-being means to them. The diversity of responses reflect an opportunity to unite around shared measures that better capture the current and desired state of well-being for all Americans as we endeavor toward a better future.


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