“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”

Mark Twain’s famous line exposes the alarming potential of numbers to be misinterpreted or misused. At the same time, clear measures can serve as beacons in the fog of messy misinformation that seems to surround us these days.

The problem with statistics is less their accuracy than the gap in perception they can create. If surveyed populations don’t see their personal, lived experiences reflected in the numbers, they can be quick to discard information that may be helpful.

Quantitative accounts of our well-being provide the vigour necessary to guide policy decisions – but they don’t paint a complete picture. Our perceptions count for something too. A recent two-part study by Angus Reid looking at  “The Lived Experience of Poverty in Canada” is a great example of how looking at the same problem with a couple of different lenses can deepen our understanding of a complex issue.

Most measures of poverty are numerical calculations based on income level and cost of living. This study took a different approach. Essentially, it asked how people felt they were doing financially.  

By that measure, 30% of Canadians feel pessimistic about the state of their finances over the next few years. More Canadians feel that their children’s generation will have it worse than they do (43%) than those who feel the opposite (32%). A total of 27% of respondents identified as either ‘The Struggling’ (16%) or ‘On the Edge’ (11%) – contrast this with an estimated low-income measure (LIM) hovering around 14% since last recorded by Stats Canada, and we can see that there is a significant gap between the way the numbers define financial hardship and the way the average Canadian experiences it.

Part two of the report asked participants how they felt about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The result was striking.  A vast majority of respondents (72%) believe that low income Canadians are in that position because of circumstances beyond their control, rather than through lack of effort. Attitudes are similar towards the wealthy – 65% believe that well-off Canadians have amassed their wealth through life advantages, rather than a superior work ethic.

The diverse partners driving the Nova Scotia Quality of Life Initiative are taking a hybrid approach. We think that by looking at both objective and subjective measures of wellbeing, we will capture a truer reflection of how we are doing across a range of indicators. Our hope is that the resulting insights will help us build better strategies for improving the quality of life of all Nova Scotians.