Measuring social progress reveals the true wellbeing of populations
On the 125th anniversary of Charles Booth’s pioneering work on London poverty, measuring social progress is as crucial as ever
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Charles Booth’s masterwork, Life and Labour of the People in London, an investigation into the social conditions faced by ordinary Londoners during the Victorian heyday.
Modern measures of social progress, including the Social Progress Index (SPI) launched last year, build on the work of Booth and the other great Victorian social reformers. But thanks to modern data collection, the SPI – which launches its second index this April – goes further and evaluates the social progress of nation states. By providing analysis across a wide range of social indicators as well as producing overall country rankings, the SPI offers governments, businesses and civil society organisations data analysis that could help drive improvements.
The SPI owes a great debt to Booth’s formative work. A product and beneficiary of the industrial revolution, Booth experienced the riches it brought, using his large inheritance to expand a family merchant shipping business. But he also witnessed its corollary: unprecedented social challenges caused by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. In London in particular, extreme poverty and terrible living conditions had become the norm for the working poor.
As data collection was embryonic at the time, the lot of the working poor went largely unmeasured and Booth was unconvinced by the accuracy of prevailing estimates of poverty. So he began what would become a 14-year vocation to determine poverty levels in London.
Starting in the East End and supported by a small team of researchers, Booth spent his weekends and spare time speaking to the working poor. He and his team accompanied policemen and London School Board visitors (who travelled the city ensuring that the poorest children received an education), interviewing factory owners, workers and trade union representatives. He produced surveys which for the first time quantified poverty – it was Booth who first coined the phrase “poverty line” – defining what he believed to be the minimum acceptable wage for a family of four or five to subsist in London.
His findings were stark: of the people he initially surveyed, 35% were living in poverty. This finding that motivated him to take his surveys and data collection to a wider audience; between 1889 and 1903, he published three editions of his findings, the last of which ran to seventeen volumes.
Booth also charted philanthropy, education, health, housing, local government, family life, crime and policing. He produced one of the most comprehensive assessments of social conditions in the capital ever attempted, and it’s the only major work of its type whose complete records survive to this day. While Charles Dickens may have been responsible for popularising the plight of the poor it was Booth and his contemporaries whose work first quantified their living conditions. Along with reformers such as Joseph Rowntree and Henry Mayhew he did much to pressure the government to take responsibility for the social wellbeing of its citizens.
A century and a quarter on, in a globalised world and an age in which data collection is greatly facilitated by advances in technology, we are starting to see the creation of new measures of social progress on an international scale, which can undoubtedly trace their origins to Booth’s work.
The Social Progress Index launched last year is the most comprehensive global measure of social progress ever created. Excluding economic indicators, it asks the questions that are fundamental to the wellbeing of a population: does a country have the capacity to satisfy the basic needs of its people? Does a country have the infrastructure and the instruments to allow its citizens and communities to improve their quality of life? Does a country offer the proper environment for each citizen to have the opportunity to reach their full potential?
The 2013 index showed, as would be expected, a correlation between high gross domestic product (GDP) and social progress, but more interestingly, it also revealed significant anomalies. For example, Costa Rica and South Africa have similar GDPs yet register wildly different scores on the SPI ranking, with the former 27 places above the latter. The same is true of other countries whose economies would be comparable, but their social progress score would be anything but.
Looking at individual indicators (the SPI measured 52 last year), it is possible to discern even greater discrepancies in social progress. For example, despite spending the most on healthcare per capita of any country in the world the US ranked just 11th overall in terms of health and wellness (which measures variables including obesity and cancer deaths) – comparing unfavourably with many countries whose per capital health care spending is far lower than the US.
When the second annual index is published in April this year it will measure social progress in more than 120 countries, covering more than 90% of the world’s population. Just as Booth mapped social conditions by street in London, the SPI is mapping social progress by nation. The 2014 Index presents an opportunity not dissimilar to that provided to the City of London following the publication of Booth’s findings: to understand more fully the social wellbeing of specific demographics and to help policymakers frame responses to issues that require urgent redress.
By covering so much of the world’s population it is our hope that policy-makers will start to attach increasing importance to the annual index findings. How refreshing it would be for future chancellors of the exchequer to assess government activity based not just on GDP growth but on social progress growth. This might seem like an alien concept to many people, but social progress measures are being taken more seriously by government every year.
Moreover, in the same way that Booth led social reform, the Social Progress Index is being supported by philanthropy, including the Skoll Foundation created by eBay’s first CEO Jeff Skoll, and businesses such as Cisco and Deloitte. As William Eggers and Paul MacMillan describe in their recent bestselling book, The Solution Revolution, it is businesses, private philanthropists and social entrepreneurs who will be taking more of the strain in solving tough social and environmental problems in the 21st century. The Social Progress Index has been designed to create a common frame of reference to help government, business and civil society to collaborate on solutions.
In both the developing and developed world, particularly against the backdrop of the current global economic downturn, measuring social progress is just as relevant and important as it was when Booth and his team pursued it in east London. We all owe a great debt to the work of a single industrialist who first began the process of data collection all those years ago.
Michael Green is the executive director off Social Progress Imperative
Image: Industrialist and philanthropist Charles Booth charted London social conditions 125 years ago. Photograph: Science & Society Picture Librar/SSPL via Getty Images
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted by Guardian Sustainable Business. It has been posted here with the author’s permission.