Monday, January 26, 2009

Progress Board /08 report highlights B.C.'s chronic challenges

Left to my own devices, I’d have a heck of a time trying to take the measure of B.C.’s economic performance. I get that it’s a really important thing to pay attention to, but my brain just doesn’t go there easily.
So I’m grateful for the yearly analysis done by the B.C. Progress Board, a non-profit entity set up eight years ago by the Liberals specifically to track key performance measures in the province.
The annual report certainly doesn’t give you everything you need to know to gauge whether things are improving in B.C. But the economic and social measures it gathers at least provide a partial picture of how B.C. is performing, both over time and compared to other provinces and countries.
The 18 business leaders and academics who form the Progress Board piece together things like hourly wage rates, exports, tax levels, productivity, and long-term employment, then work in social/health indicators like air quality, land preservation, people living below the low-income cutoff, and life expectancy. (Find the 2008 report at http://www.bcprogressboard.com/2008docs.html)
The reports are valuable for what they tell us about B.C., including the challenges that continue to elude us. The 2008 edition finds the Liberals enjoying considerable success on some fronts and spinning their wheels on others, most often on issues that have gotten the best of B.C. for many years now.
The Liberals were elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes, and have seen success on both those fronts. We’ve had four consecutive years of budget surpluses, ending a nearly 13-year stretch of deficits.
If you’re well-paid, you’ll also appreciate that B.C. now has the second-lowest income tax rate (14.7 per cent) in the country for people in the top income bracket. We’re also top of the charts when it comes to producing university graduates.
But the progress report also reveals that some of the tough issues dogging B.C. when the Liberals took office continue to bedevil the province today.
A couple examples: B.C. had one of the lowest productivity rates in Canada when the Liberals formed government in 2001, and some of the highest rates per capita of people living below the national low-income cutoff. We still do. We also have one of the highest crime rates in Canada.
Productivity is essentially a measurement of how many hours of work it takes to produce all of B.C.’s goods and services. It’s important because higher productivity rates mean better wages, a more competitive workforce, and increased revenue for government to fund health care, education, infrastructure, and so on.
But it’s clearly something we struggle with in B.C., and not only because we’re laid-back West Coasters.
“While we are concerned about whether employees in British Columbia are reaching their full potential,” writes the Progress Board in its 2008 report, “of equal importance is the need for governments and private industry to create ‘winning conditions.’ Are we making sufficient investments in infrastructure and innovation? Our benchmark results suggest the answer has consistently been no.”
In terms of people living below the low-income cutoff (a somewhat flawed standard used to estimate poverty), the 2008 report wonders whether there’s something unique about B.C. that explains why it has a high number of “less well-off” people even when the economy is booming. The board promises more study into B.C.’s consistently poor ranking on this front for more than a decade.
Social conditions in B.C. get a “middling” ranking of six from the Progress Board, which came to that conclusion after factoring in things like life expectancy, long-term employment, low-income households and number of income-assistance recipients.
A six isn’t exactly stellar, but it’s still an improvement over the nines and 10s that predominated from 1999-2005. However, I wonder whether the higher welfare caseloads in those years skewed those figures, and disagree with the board’s assumption that any decline in welfare rolls is automatically “good.”
As for crime rates, they’ve fallen dramatically right across the country in the last decade or so, including in B.C. But we’ve still got one of the worst rates in Canada. Yes, the incidence of reported crimes has dropped 14 per cent in B.C. since 1998, but rates have dropped even faster in other provinces.
What does it all mean? That B.C. has seen some successes but still has significant work to do if it really wants to be “the best place on Earth.” Whoever forms government after the May election needs to put aside ideology-based theories of governance and just get the job done.

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