A flawedyardstick, but astart

Quality of Life 2

It was the increase in the number of underweight babies thatcaughtmyeye. Across Ontario, between 1990 and 1994, the numberjumped by 18.9 per cent.

In Hastings and Prince Edward Counties, whichinclude Bancroft, Tweed, Trenton, Picton, and Belleville, the increasewas 36.4 per cent. In Halton County, whichincludes Burlington, Oakville and Milton, itwas 21 per cent. In Kingston, 51 per cent.

In Peterborough, in an exception to the general trend, therewas a 17 per cent drop in lowbirthweight babies.

Lowbirthweightcanindicatemanythings. It can point to poverty and family stress. It canindicatepoorhealth. It’s a fairlyreliablepredictorthatchildrenwill have difficulties in school, and thatcanresult in everythingfrompooracademic performance to trouble with the law.

The connection to povertyis important to overallsustainabilitybecause, as the World Summit for Social Developmentdeclaredin 1995, « The problem of environmentaldegradation has social roots, and povertyalleviationis a prerequisite for sustainabledevelopment.’’


The lowbirthweight figures pop up in quality of life indexes published by the Ontario Social Development Council, and by social planning councils in Ontario municipalities.


The Ontario councilproduced the first index last October. Sincethen, several municipal social planning councils have produced local indexes. The intent of the councilsis to encourage a continuing dialogue by publishing indexes every six months.


The Ontario councilrecentlyreleasedits second index, but notedthat no new data wasavailable on lowbirthweights. So all westill have to go on are the 1994 figures — and thishighlights one of the problemswith the indexes.


The choice of the 12 indicatorsthatmake up the indexeswasrestricted. That’sbecausesomemunicipalitiesdon’tcollect data on certain indicators. And publishingevery six monthsrequiresindicatorsthat are based on data thatisfrequentlycollected.


Lowbirthweight figures are an exception to the frequencyrule. But they are so important theycouldn’tbeignored.


The other 11 indicators are: people receiving social assistance, children in the care of children’saidsocieties, people on waitinglists for social housing, the local unemployment rate, the proportion of the local labour force working, the number of bankruptcies, the number of suicide deaths, the number of elderly on waitinglists for long-term care, air quality, the number of toxicspills, and the number of tonnes of wastedivertedfromlandfills by blue boxes.


Two of the environmentalindicators are especiallyunsatisfactory. Blue box figures couldmeanthings are gettingworse, not better, as the figures rise. It couldmeanthatwe are producing more waste, not thatwe are reducingwhatgoes to landfills.


And toxicspills are accidental, whichsaysnothing about cutting back on continuingemissions of the kindthat have afflicted the Great Lakes.


But evenwiththeirproblems, the indexes are vital becausetheycertainly do offer a focus for dialogue.


Indexes are a single numbercalculatedfrom the 12 indicators, and 1990 waschosen as the base year and given a value of 100. The provincial index in May stood at 90.1, a 10 per cent decline in quality of life.


In Kingston, the index was 41.12, a decline of 58.9 per cent in the quality of  life. That’sastonishing, and shouldsparksomeanxious soul searching. The number of people receiving social assistance went up by 258 per cent. The number of people waiting for social housingwas up by 138 per cent. The unemployedhadrisen by 21 per cent. Air qualityhadworsened by 117 per cent.


The Peterborough index, on the other hand, stood at 98.45. But that’sdeceptivebecause the unreliableenvironmentalindicatorswereso positive. Blue box tonnage went up 119 per cent. And toxicspillswent down 41 per cent. Subtractthem out and Peterborough isaround the provincial average.


And so, the indexes provide lots to talk about. And that’s a greatbeginning.

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