This volume is the culmination of a six-year research effort to paint a broad picture of the quality of life in the United States. It was created jointly by a multi-disciplinary group of practitioners and scholars from government agencies, for-profit firms, and nonprofit organizations who see the need for more practical and sophisticated metrics of societal conditions. The Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators allow individuals and/or groups to access in one place a comprehensive picture of the overall well-being of the nation in a manner that is easy to understand and use, statistically verifiable, grounded in theoretical and empirical knowledge about each domain, and rigorous in its treatment of the subject matter. The study offers a primer on the deeper trends and complexities that underlie oft quoted national statistics on quality of life. It is our hope that the Calvert-Henderson Indicators will be used to educate the public; broaden the national debate about our social, economic and environmental conditions; hold government and business accountable; and clarify the multiple choices we make as individuals in our work, education, leisure, and civic commitments.
The Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators represent the first national, comprehensive effort to redefine overall quality of life using a systems approach. The variables included in our definition of national quality of life are diverse, complex, and wide ranging. The indicators include traditional economic measures of employment, income distribution, and housing, along with assessments of infrastructure, health, and education. Our approach reviews aspects of public safety and energy consumption and their relation to quality of life while tackling complex issues related to national security, the environment, human rights, and re-creation. We believe that all of these measurements are necessary to attempt a comprehensive view of national well-being.
This report is a public education tool by which to distill and assess national trends. We report in-depth on major issues, some of which may be generally familiar to the readers and others unique to our work. We present comprehensive and complex views on each indicator, yet we do not offer a critique of what is working or what is not. The indicators suggest, for example, a growing divide in national incomes, significant improvements in national air quality, historically high home ownership rates, and a long-term decline in public infrastructure investment. We do not pass judgment on these trends, nor do we offer solutions or policy recommendations to some of the major challenges of our time. Our goal is more basic: to inform and present a framework through which to understand and assess salient national trends, using rigorous empirical techniques and reliable data.
In this era of information overload, the availability of reliable information, accompanied by an analysis of how to make sense of national data, is more critical than ever. The old adage that in a democracy “information is power” remains. An informed citizenry that has the intellectual tools and critical judgment to make sense of a complex picture exponentially increases its influence. To be understood, statistics must be placed in context to enhance its meaning. The Calvert-Henderson approach was designed as a response to this observation. We dedicate a chapter to each of the 12 Calvert-Henderson Indicators to bring the readers up to speed on the state of each indicator. We describe in detail the cutting-edge thinking on the topic from the perspective of scholars and practitioners well-versed in the respective fields of study. Complex issues are deconstructed by each author; underlying elements driving outcomes are revealed and discussed. We intend for this report to inform the public debates within government, business, and communities on our national well-being.
Although this study is not prescriptive, we are not impartial to national trends. We share a deep concern, accompanied by optimism, regarding the many findings that come out of this report. We believe that a broader, deeper, and more inclusive national debate about “what matters” is essential. As Hazel Henderson says, “we measure what we treasure.” Therefore understanding the complexities of income distribution, environmental quality, and the status of education, among other issues, is essential to drawing a clearer picture of the health of the nation.
I. Origins of the Report
This study grew out of an 18-year relationship between an international futurist and an asset management firm. Calvert Group is a 23-year-old asset management company that is a leading specialist in the field of socially responsible investing. Hazel Henderson is an independent futurist, author, and pioneer in the field of sustainable development. Dr. Henderson authored and helped steer the quality of life conceptual approach for this project, which is based on her Country Futures Indicators©, and Calvert Group lead the research effort.
So it might be asked, why is an asset management firm toiling in the field of quality of life indicators? The answer lies in Calvert’s specialty in socially responsible investing (SRI). At its core, SRI is about assessing the societal impacts of investments. Calvert and its cohorts apply an investment strategy that integrates portfolio management with the promotion of a healthy, equitable, and sustainable society. Simply put, we invest in companies that treat their workers well, minimize their environmental impact, contribute to their communities, and make healthy and socially useful products.
Over the course of our practice in socially responsible investing, it became evident that there were no broad indicators by which to guide our unique investment strategy. Yes, our portfolio managers had traditional economic indicators to help guide their financial investment decisions. Routine releases of the Consumer Price Index, housing starts, consumer credit, manufacturing orders and capacity utilization, job vacancies, growth in average earnings, productivity, and unit labor costs all provide information to navigate the direction of economic cycles and investment strategies.
Yet no such measurements existed to assess how a specific company contributes to or is affected by broader societal and environmental trends. While Calvert analysts had developed sophisticated tools to analyze a specific company’s environmental impact, for example, there were no reliable indicators to determine the larger environmental trends. How was it that we could analyze the environmental impact of a major chemical company, yet we could not ascertain the overall quality of the environment in which it operates? Company management typically insists that it is improving its overall environmental record. We did not have the tools to assess whether indeed environmental quality was improving or worsening as a result of a company’s behavior.
In a similar vein, when reviewing how to invest in the fast food industry, analysts had no indicators that would elucidate how further investments in an inherently low wage industry might impact broader socio-economic trends. What were the trends in national income distribution? What were the demographics of this traditionally low wage segment of the workforce? Was this growth industry contributing to increased national income disparities or simply providing a low rung step in the ladder of economic development for workers?
As a leading practitioner in the field of socially responsible investing, Calvert analysts did not have tools similar to those available to traditional investment professionals. We understood the need for a broader array of socio-economic indicators. We also began to understand that there was little information available to understand the relationships between economic forces and societal or environmental impacts. This dilemma led Calvert into the field of quality of life indicators.
Calvert analysts had a hard time separating their professional responsibilities from their roles as citizens. We saw that there was a broader audience who might benefit from analytical tools that take a comprehensive view of societal trends. Within the asset management business there are many proprietary tools, but very few are shared with the public. Calvert eventually decided to open up the process of developing quality of life indicators, work with a group of independent experts, and take our findings public. As this project unfolded, we at Calvert eventually understood our work as one of public education.
On a personal note, the editors of this volume individually received their introduction to the subject of quality of life indicators in various ways. Hazel Henderson’s alarm in having to wash off pollutants from her daughter Ali’s tiny body resulted in her leading a group of citizens to develop the now well-known air quality index in New York City in the 1960s. Hazel went on to dissect the problems of macroeconomic indexes and lend her support to Marian Chambers’ Jacksonville Quality of Life Indicators in the mid-1980s, setting a precedent for community indicators project. Jon Lickerman received his introduction to the subject while working as a researcher and manager at Working Assets (now Citizens Trust) in San Francisco in the 1980s. Patrice Flynn became involved with quality of life indicators at the Urban Institute while working on the National Neighborhood Indicators Project in the 1990s. We have all watched the quality of life movement ripen and provide essential information for scholars, practitioners, funders, policy makers, and leaders in the United States and abroad.
II. Quality of Life Indicators Studies
The Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators deal with the application of statistics to the measurement of environmental, social and economic conditions over time. The project rests on the wealth of knowledge gained from four major fields of research. The first is the field of sustainable development or environmental indicators, which began in the 1950s in the United States, and has gained increasing attention among scholars, advocates, and elected and appointed leaders. A December 1998 report, spearheaded by David Berry with the U.S. Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators, entitled Sustainable Development in the United States, provides a valuable reference point on the state of sustainable development research.
The Calvert-Henderson study also builds on the vast literature on social indicators. In the United States, the social indicators movement began in the 1960s with the well-known study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from which Raymond Bauer coined the term social indicators. The field of social indicators involves “issues related to variables and organizations that have an effect on the subjective and/or physical well-being of individuals, groups, communities, and/or society” (International Society for Quality of Life Studies). Kenneth Land’s article in the Encyclopedia of Sociology is a seminal treatise on the origins and state of social indicators in the United States as we cross into the 21st century (Land 2000). The collaborators in the Calvert-Henderson project learned a great deal from the pioneers in the field of social indicators.
The authors of the Calvert-Henderson Indicators also relied upon the solid research and analysis on economic indicators in the United States, mainly through the vast Federal government statistical system put in place in the 1910s and further developed in the mid-1940s. Scholars, business people, and citizens have come to rely upon these economic statistics, which are reported on a consistent basis. The monthly Economic Indicators, prepared by the Council of Economic Advisors for the Joint Economic Committee, provides a summary of these data.
The fourth source of knowledge upon which the Calvert-Henderson Indicators grew was the growing body of information on socially responsible investing (SRI), which now represents an estimated $2 trillion in the United States alone. Over the past 15 years, SRI analysts have struggled to develop reliable metrics on company performance. The annual review by the Environmental Information Service, a unit of the Investor Responsibility Research Center, is a good source of information on measuring company social performance.
Historical and contemporary efforts to assess the nation’s progress and well-being thus informed the design and development of the Calvert-Henderson Indicators. We believe the results provide a well-developed next step in the collective effort to measure quality of life from a holistic perspective. It is now common to describe the GDP as a less-than optimal measure of the progress of a nation or community. Numerous groups are developing alternative measures of progress and collecting many bytes of data. Missing at this junction, however, is a methodology for organizing, synthesizing, and analyzing these myriad statistics in ways that allow the bytes of data to be transformed into meaningful “indicators” to help citizens understand and influence complex socio-economic phenomena. The Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators provide such a methodology to add transparency and traction to the current efforts and advance the thinking about quality of life indicators.
III. The Calvert-Henderson Approach
There is no existing indicators project that rivals or duplicates the Calvert-Henderson approach, which is unique in several ways. First, the approach was designed and implemented by a multi-disciplinary group of researchers, scholars, and practitioners with considerable expertise in creating and using indicators in their respective fields of study. The 15 authors who contributed to this study worked intensively with the editors to design the conceptual models and concurrently frame the issues. This process greatly informed the rigor and innovation of this study.
Second, the indicators unbundle central social, economic, and environmental issues into 12 distinctive domains of quality of life. This contrasts with macro-economic indicators or recent “green GDP” analogues that collapse the elements into a single composite index, mask how figures are calculated, and cancel out countervailing forces. Third, the indicators reveal the underlying trends and deeper processes that accompany the daily reported news events. Fourth, all of the indicators identify inter-faces with other domains, allowing a systemic overview of our society often concealed by aggregation of traditional indices.
The Calvert-Henderson Indicators include traditional components of macro-economic indicators that directly affect Americans’ quality of life, including Employment, Incomes, Shelter, and Infrastructure. We include an indicator on the natural Environment, which has emerged as a separate field of indicator research and strongly influences overall quality of life. Energy use is included as a focus, since it has a major impact on environmental and economic quality. Traditional socio-economic domains include Health, Education, and Public Safety. We expanded our purview to include Re-creation, as leisure activities, art, culture, and humanities can also contribute to a high quality of life. Finally, we include the domains of Human Rights and National Security, which address fundamental rights we enjoy as Americans. They incorporate our basic political rights and our collective need to secure and maintain our way of life in a changing world of complex, geopolitical forces.
Each indicator provides a road map into its subject, explaining leading concepts, and detailing national trends through time series data. National statistical information is presented on a host of variables included in each indicator. Data are primarily from the federal statistical system. Where federal data gathering is lacking, the authors make note and, in some cases, input data from private sources. The information is presented in a language that is accessible to those not necessarily schooled in the respective fields examined.
Also unique to this project is the development of a model for each indicator that serves as a frame through which the underlying phenomena can be clearly organized, examined, and understood. The model outlines and prioritizes key concepts and relationships that are central to understanding each domain. The models immediately reveal to the reader what is and is not in the indicator, the type of data presented, and how to expand upon the information. As described in more detail in Chapter 3, the models provide the cornerstones through which time series data can be viewed and analyzed in order to provide meaning and context when dealing with complex issues.
For example, assessing the quality of the environment is a huge task given its all encompassing domain. The Calvert-Henderson Environment model focuses on economic and industrial processes and their contributions to environmental quality through the lens of two key indicators – air and water quality – that can be monitored over time. Similarly, within the Income and Employment domains, there is a plethora of data and categories available for measuring economic activity. Thus the challenge was to develop conceptual models that would limit the purview and quickly identify what the respective authors viewed as key to understanding the phenomena today. In contrast, data on National Security and Re-Creation were not as readily available, thus the models are more theoretical, whereas the Human Rights Indicator is grounded in the U.S. Constitution and case law. In these ways, the Calvert-Henderson models reflect the unique nature of scholarly research and data collection in each field of study.
IV. The Calvert-Henderson Indicators
Brief descriptions of the 12 Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators are as follows:
- Education Indicator summarizes the quantity, quality and distribution of education in the U.S. defined as life-long learning and contributes to the broader dialogue on who learns what, where, when, and how throughout the life cycle.
- Employment Indicator describes the structure of employment in the U.S. as developed by the government and amended by private research efforts and helps clarify basic questions as to what constitutes “employment” and “unemployment” and what it means when figures fluctuate over time.
- Energy Indicator describes how much and how efficiently energy is consumed in the U.S. and provides feedback to the public on what can be done to reduce the environmental impact of energy consumption.
- Environment Indicator presents detailed information on the health of our environment with a special emphasis on the production-consumption process. A research focus on water and air quality offers data of primary interest to the general public.
- Health Indicator initiates a discussion on what constitutes “health” and examines the overall state of health of the people in America by age, race and gender.
- Human Rights Indicator examines the degree to which the Bill of Rights is protecting U.S. citizens and the level of citizen participation in the electoral process
- Income Indicator focuses on changes in the standard of living as reflected in monetary measures of family income. The indicator examines and explains trends in the level and distribution of family income and wealth along with stagnant and unequal wage growth over the past 25 years.
- Infrastructure Indicator explains the importance of the physical infrastructure to our economy and provides an example of how to supplement our national accounts with an improved asset account to monitor our physical stock.
- National Security Indicator explains the process our nation takes to achieve a state of national military security beginning with the President’s National Security Strategy through the Congressional Budget Process. This includes both a diplomatic strategy and a military strategy, all of which are affected by public opinion and the perceived threat to security.
- Public Safety Indicator examines how effectively our society promotes private and public safety when faced with complex interrelationships between personal decisions, public actions, risks, and hazards in the environment that result in deaths from injuries.
- Re-creation Indicator provides a novel approach to identifying the myriad ways that Americans chose to re-create the self, to be revitalized in body and mind, and to reestablish social contacts through leisure and/or recreational activities.
- Shelter Indicator explores the type of housing Americans have access to, the level of affordability of that housing, and how housing in turn affects broader social outcomes.
In sum, each quality of life indicator includes a unique conceptual model, national statistical trends, and analysis to bring the reader up to speed on the subject. Our intent is that the indicators serve as sophisticated primers on the respective topics. We do not attempt to unify the information or devise a new theory to measure or explain how society is doing overall. Further research will explore the relationships across domains and build on the foundation we have laid to define what constitutes quality of life for the core indicators and provide reliable, consistent, and verifiable statistics from which the reader can come to their own conclusions about quality of life.
We envision multiple audiences using and benefiting from the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators and the underlying models and data. For example, we hope that the models can become a starting point for community groups who want to quickly get a handle on an important issue and do not have the resources to fund such research locally. We invite groups to customize the models by adding components that are unique to a given community and/or deleting elements that are not applicable to the situation at hand. We offer the findings to professional journalists and reporters who are searching for reliable, consistent and verifiable data on key issues of concern to Americans coupled with a story to put the data in context. We envision this volume serving as a desk reference for social scientists and practitioners who are seeking in-depth analysis and statistics on a given topic. We also invite elected and appointed leaders to use the indicators to help reframe debates about what constitutes growth and quality of life in a locality, state, or the nation. We expect to continue researching and updating the indicators, and we welcome participation by other research institutes and foundations in this work.
Council of Economic Advisors. Economic Indicators. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office (monthly).
Land, Kenneth. 2000. “Social Indicators.” In Encyclopedia of Sociology. Edgar F. Borgatta and Rhonda V. Montgomery (eds.). Revised Edition. New York: Macmillian.
U.S. Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators. 1998. Sustainable Development in the United States: An Experimental Set of Indicators. Washington, DC (December).