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You are here: Home Caring Economy Campaign Social Wealth Indicators The Urgent Need for Social Wealth Indicators

The Urgent Need for Social Wealth Indicators

Proposal for new measures of national progress as part of the Key National Indicators System for the United States

In a climate of heightened public anxiety and growing concern, identifying and implementing more efficient and more accurate economic measures is an imperative of good government. Low-cost, high-value improvements in measures of economic success could have broad appeal across party lines. Ensuring our national competitiveness and future prosperity may be the ultimate opportunity for a bi-partisan win-win—the embodiment of a healthy democracy.

An Emerging Consensus That Something is Missing

Across political party lines, we all desire a healthy economy, a better quality of life, and a strong democracy. In the aftermath of the recent global economic tidal wave, a consensus is emerging that:

  1. GDP has serious limits in terms of accurately identifying the real condition of our economy; and
  2. that something is seriously missing from our national economic indicators.

Economists, scholars, and policy-makers in private, non-profit, and public sectors are identifying similar missing pieces of the economic puzzle:

  • The 2009 OECD World Forum on “Statistics, Knowledge and Policy” focused on these questions: What does progress mean for our societies? What are the new paradigms to measure progress? How can there be better policies within these new paradigms to foster the progress of our societies?
  • A Bureau of Economic Analysis report (Landefeld, 2010) calls for expanded or supplementary indicators to include the distribution of growth in income across households and regions, among other measures.
  • A Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (Stiglitz, 2009) report distinguishes measures of current well-being fromsustainability (whether we can pass our “capital” on to future generations) and makes recommendations such as: 1) emphasize the household perspective; 2) broaden income measures to non-market activities; 3) understand that “wealth” is multi-dimensional and includes health, education, social connections, and the environment; and 4) ensure that quality of life indicators also assess inequalities.
  • The Maryland Genuine Progress Indicator is an example of emerging state economic measures that include the social and environmental costs of what we buy and how we live in order to measure how economic progress impacts long-term prosperity.
  • State of Society Report CoverAn Urban Institute report, The State of Society: Measuring Economic Success and Human Well-Being (June 2010) looked at dozens of new national indicator projects and recommended that the most inclusive indicators of economic health and social well-being should: 1) give more visibility and value to care work—in both market and non-market economic sectors; 2) pay particular attention to the status of marginalized groups such as women, children, the elderly, and groups defined by race, ethnicity, disability, and sexual identity; and 3) recognize that the status of women and the related status of children are powerful predictors of both economic competitiveness and quality of life, as well as the sustainability of economic success and long-term well-being.
Social Wealth measures the economic and social value of investing in our human infrastructure—the “high quality human capital” essential for the post-industrial knowledge/service economy.

These constituents all endorse the need for economic indicators that measure our Social Wealth. In addition to measuring our material and natural infrastructures, Social Wealth will measure the economic and social value of investing in our human infrastructure—the “high quality human capital” essential for the post-industrial knowledge/service economy.

Why Measuring Social Wealth Matters

Caring Societies Build Stronger Economies

A growing body of research shows that caring societies lead to stronger economies. However, measures of the economic (and social) impact of investing in caring for people have not been included in mainstream economic indicators.

Studies show that societies that support caring and caregiving enjoy improved economic success and higher quality of life (less poverty, less crime, and better educated children). For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Nordic nations were so poor that they experienced famines. Today, they invariably rank high in both the UN Human Development Reports and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competiveness Reports. How did this happen? These societies chose to invest in their human infrastructures. They have excellent child-care, universal health care, paid parental leave, elder care with dignity, high quality universal early education, stipends to families for childcare, and green environmental policies, as well as 40% representation of women in national legislatures.

Gender Matters: When Women and Children Thrive, Economies Grow

Gender has not been adequately included in mainstream economic and social measurements. However, studies show that the status of women is a powerful predictor of general quality of life and a nation’s long-term economic success.

A study by the Center for Partnership Studies titled Women, Men, and the Global Quality of Life (1995) analyzed statistical data from 89 nations comparing the status of women with general quality of life indicators (such as infant mortality, human rights, environmental regulations). The study found that Women, Men & Global Book Coverthe status of women can be a better predictor of general quality of life than GDP. Other studies such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Reports and the World Values Surveys documented similar findings.

Since the status of women remains closely connected to the situation of children, the Social Wealth domain places a particular emphasis on gender and children. Measuring Social Wealth draws needed attention to the status of families, especially the effects of government and business support for caring and caregiving on families.

Valuing (and Counting) Care Develops Human Capacity and National Competitiveness

Our economic success and our national competitiveness in a global market depend on what economists call “high quality human capital”— essential for the post-industrial knowledge/service economy. Caring matters in terms of developing this high quality human capital.

Most would agree that fostering the ingenuity and capability of a nation’s citizens dramatically contributes to that society’s progress. Indeed, neuroscience shows that the quality of childcare and education in early childhood is vital to optimal human development. Therefore, Social Wealth focuses on the social and economic value of caring for people, starting in early childhood and throughout the lifespan.

Although women aren’t the only ones capable of care, the bulk of the caring work in the market (paid) and non-market (unpaid) economies is still primarily done by women. However, GDP doesn’t measure most of this caring work. Research, indicates that the failure to give adequate value to this work is a major factor in the disproportionate poverty of women in the United States (and most other countries). For more, read Riane Eisler's The Real Wealth of Nations (2007), Nancy Folbre's The Invisible Heart (2001) and Devaki Jain and Nirmala Banerjee, eds. The Tyranny of the Household (1985) .

In The Real Wealth of Nations (2007), Riane Eisler—whose vision aligns with other scholars such as Amartya Sen, Nancy Folbre, Randy Albelda, Jane Dutton, and W. Steven Barnett—proposes a full-spectrum economics, making it possible to measure the work of caring and caregiving. Eisler suggests that to measure our real wealth, we must include all of the pieces of the economic puzzle:CE puzzle w new pieces pulled out

  • conventional sectors (market, government, and illegal economies)
  • new sectors (household, unpaid community, and natural economies).

The Social Wealth domain includes the work of caring and caregiving in the paid (market and government) sectors and in the unpaid (household, community and natural) sectors—measuring the contributions of caring work to four critical areas: 1) the production of high quality human capital; 2) household income security; 3) high quality care for children and the elderly, and 4) a sustainable natural environment.

The Social Wealth Domain

All data should be compared to other nations and categorized by race, income, gender, age, and ability. Following are examples of the types of indicators that measure Social Wealth. These examples will be evaluated by experts on the basis of statistical potency, feasibility, and synergistic power.

Social Wealth focuses on the condition of our human infrastructure, and includes our progress in:

  • human capacity development (both our capacities for economic productivity and our capacities for caring and creativity);
  • our guiding values system (especially whether caring for people, starting in early childhood and throughout the lifespan, is valued socially and economically); and
  • implementing our values through government and business investments in care.

Social Wealth cross-cuts other domains and links three major sub-domains:

  1. Human CapacityMeasures the degree of human capacity development—including development of our capacities for caring and creativity (individually, in families, and in groups and organizations)—for economic success and for healthy and meaningful lives.
  2. Social EquityMeasures our guiding values —whether caring for people, starting in early childhood and throughout the lifespan, is valued socially and economically—as addressing inequity makes for a more productive, harmonious, and healthy society.
  3. Care Investment Measures our national investment (government, business, and nonprofit sectors) in caring for people through unpaid household and community sectors as well as paid sectors – meeting both our human needs and our nation’s needs for the high quality human capital required to compete in the knowledge/service economy.

Human Capacity Indicators

  1. Caregiving measures:  value of unpaid care work; pay for caregivers compared to professions requiring equivalent levels of training and skill; availability of high-quality care (from child care to elder care).
  2. Education measures:  affordable high-quality early childhood education—as the lifetime impact of care in early childhood on human capacity development is well documented.
  3. Health measures:  teen pregnancy rates; affordable family planning and prenatal health care; maternal mortality rates.
  4. Social connectivity and cohesion measures:  value of non-profit and volunteer contributions.
  5. Environmental measures affecting human capacity, such as air and water quality.

Social Equity Indicators

  1. Human rights measures:  violence and discrimination against women, children, and racial and other minorities.
  2. Wealth and income disparity measures:  poverty rates for women and children (such as female-headed households vs. married and male-headed households, women compared to men over 65); disparity of lifetime earnings between women and men (including disparities in pensions, unemployment, and disability benefits).
  3. Time poverty rates:  differences between women and men related to unpaid care work, such as childcare, eldercare, and care for the disabled in families.
  4. Status of women and children as predictors of general quality of life and long-term economic success (as this connection is documented by studies such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Reports).
  5. Political and legal measures:  legal protection for women, children, the elderly, and minorities; and protection of the environment.

Care Investment Indicators

  1. Government investment in care work:  family-friendly policies throughout the lifespan; subsidies for unpaid care work in families (such as Social Security credits for caregivers); adequate training and salaries for paid care work; investment in early childcare and education compared to investment in prisons.
  2. Business investment in caring business policies/practices:  paid vacation, good health care, child care, flextime, paid parental leave, paid family leave.
  3. Correlations between investment in care work (unpaid and paid) and human capacity development and economic security (a connection that is documented by the UN Human Development and World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness reports).
  4. Military budgets compared to education budgets:  national as well as for foreign aid for education, especially for girls.
  5. Investment in caring for and protecting our natural environment.

Data Analysis & Sources

Social Wealth indicators, and the data and analysis to support them, will be defined by experts in a variety of fields, including: National Academy members and members of the Center for Partnership Studies Caring Economics Advisory Council such as University of Massachusetts economics professors Nancy Folbre and Randy Albelda (experts on gender and the value of care work), professors W. Steven Barnett and Paul Kershaw (experts on the ROI from early childhood education), Erwin de Leon and Elizabeth T. Boris (fellows at the Urban Institute who wrote The State of Society report), and Riane Eisler (author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics and founder of the Caring Economics project).

Data sets already exist to support many Social Wealth indicators since multiple studies have focused on various components—from the human and economic return from investment in high quality childhood education to health, education, social cohesion, functional literacy, and poverty. These data sets are available from government sources such as the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, and other federal and state agencies, as well as from academic and other research institutions.

New data will need to be generated to measure some Social Wealth indicators such as the availability and quality of education and training for caregiving, the extent of workplace family-friendly policies, and the correlation between investment in care work and human capacity development and economic security.

Ultimately, the Social Wealth domain will provide important predictive data for economic success and quality of life for the Key National Indicator System by broadening and reframing the social and economic conversation in more accurate and inclusive terms, and by advancing the national debate towards building a better future for ourselves and our children, for generations to come.


de Leon, E., and E. T. Boris. (June 2010). The State of Society: Measuring Economic Success and Human Well-Being. The Urban Institute.

Eisler, R. (2007). The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Eisler, R., D, Loye, and K. Norgaard. (1995). Women, Men, and the Global Quality of Life.  Center for Partnership Studies.

Folbre, Nancy (2001). The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. New York: New Press.

Hausmann, R., L.D.Tyson, and S. Zahidi. (2010). The Global Gender Gap Report. The World Economic Forum.

Jain, D. and  N. Banerjee (1985). The Tyranny of the Household: Women and Poverty. New Delhi: Shakti Books.

Landefeld, J.S., (April 2010). GDP and Beyond: Measuring Economic Progress and Sustainability. Survey of Current Business, 91(4), 12-23.

Schwab, K. (2011). The Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011. The World Economic Forum.

Stiglitz, J.E., (2009). Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

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