*This article was written on behalf of Alliance for the welfare economy at the launch of theirs Guide to the design of policies for the economics of well-being, and originally published here*
Those of us who work in public health are interested in the causes of ill health and well-being, but also the “causes of causes”. Consider, for example, someone with coronary artery disease, for which the cause is blockage of the arteries. But what caused the arteries to become blocked? Often, it is an unhealthy diet. But what did it cause? That?
It is a more difficult concept to understand, but even what many consider purely individual behaviors – what we eat, whether we smoke, stay active, drink too much – are themselves caused (or at least strongly influenced) by the circumstances in which they are born, grow up, live. , they work and age.
Whether we have a safe and secure home, access to good quality education and meaningful jobs, transportation, sufficient income, and connections with others all have a huge impact on our well-being. However, access to these health and happiness needs, which many of us take for granted, is uneven.
Many people, through no fault of their own, simply don’t have the same opportunities to be healthy and happy as others. It is much more difficult to eat healthy if you are forced to choose between food or rent.
Poverty and inequality underlie many of our most pressing social and health problems. What is so insidious about them is the lack of long-term control over their life they lead to. The constant struggle just to get by, to afford the basics, to get to work, to keep your kids clean, fed and happy. It’s exhausting and humiliating and Of course it can end up making you stressed out, unhappy and unwell; or take you to smoke or drink or despair.
Without effectively addressing poverty and inequality we will not make any real social progress. For a long time I considered poverty and inequality as the ultimate “causes of the causes” of poor health and well-being, but then I began to wonder: what are the causes? they?
I have become more and more convinced that our economic system is the ultimate cause of so many of our problems. Our fixation with constant growth for its own sake, with growth at all costs, is the root of poverty and inequality and provides justification for the damage we do to our planet.
Economics is often discussed as an abstract and intangible thing that stands above all else, too big and important to be understood by mere mortals. We advocate doing things that actively harm people and our environment by saying that they are “good for the economy”.
But the economy is not omnipotent and unknowable, like a god we must appease; it is just a system that we have created. What if it doesn’t work as it should – and it isn’t! – then, like all designed systems, it can be redesigned.
The idea of a welfare economy – one in which the ultimate goal of the economy is to improve the collective welfare of people and the planet, and not just add zeros to some ethereal spreadsheet in the sky – is compelling, and a common sense so blinding it makes you wonder how it might seem so radical to some.
One reason must be that we have not been able to make a coherent thesis against the current system.There are so many branches of progressive economic thought that can seem esoteric and disparate and make it difficult to communicate a coherent counter-argument. The economics of well-being combines them all into one easy-to-understand narrative.
In my role as Head of Health Policies at the Combined Authority of the Liverpool City Region I have observed that economic strategies for well-being were being developed before people had even heard the term. Our “health in all policies” approach means that improving the health and well-being of our residents is central to any strategy, including those in areas that traditionally would not have considered it: investment, transportation, land development and economic recovery. We are now working on developing more holistic success measures and new approaches to creating participatory policies, but there is always more we need to do.
Our Subway Mayor, Steve Rotheram, has a vision for the Liverpool city region as “the most inclusive, equitable and socially just economy in the country” and I was delighted when the combined Authority demonstrated that commitment by becoming the first government body in the world to join the Alliance for the welfare economy (We all). Working with WEAll, sharing ideas with members around the world, will help make Liverpool City Region a model of how we can make the economy work for people, and not the other way around..
The new Guide to the design of policies for the economics of well-being it will be a valuable tool in this endeavor. The Guide is both an excellent handbook for those new to the idea of wellness economics and a tool for those of us looking to develop our economic policies that put the wellbeing of people and the planet first. It provides a framework for policy development at any level, from local to global, while being flexible enough to adapt to local needs.
Working with WEAll and contributing to the Guide has been one of the most fun and uplifting jobs I’ve been involved in. It made me realize that while progress can often be frustrating and slow, the world is heading in the right direction. There are too many good people and too many good ideas out there not to.
Our current economy is the cause of so many of our problems, but a welfare economy can be the solution. Please share the new guide widely, use it frequently and if necessary print it (on recycled paper …) and slap politicians with it.
As always, agree or disagree, you can let me know on Twitter.