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Our subjective well-being deserves policy attention too

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  • We need to go beyond objective economic measures and also weigh people’s self-perceptions of well-being as we formulate policy. It matters whether people see themselves as better off.
  • A study reveals that factors such as age, caste, schooling and social affiliations tend to influence how Indians evaluate the quality of their lives. Such findings can guide our approach.

George Bernard Shaw was often right but always witty and provocative. He wrote, “The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation" (Misalliance, 1910). Perhaps, but it is not the only important reason for well-being. Economists’ overriding concern for objective measures of well-being, defined in terms of real income, has been questioned by Kahneman, Deaton (both Nobel laureates) and others.

Although subjective well-being (SWB) measures are controversial, Deaton (2018) offers robust support to self-reported measures of well-being. If decision utility differs from welfare utility, and if people sometimes behave against their best interests, the direct measurement of well-being might still give an accurate measure, and might even enable people to do better, simply by providing information on the circumstances and choices that promote well-being.

There is just one study of SWB in select North Indian states (Spears, 2016). The findings: lower-caste people in rural North India evaluate their lives to be worse than the higher-caste, and this difference is not explained by poverty. We have carried out a more detailed all-India study based on the India Human Development Survey (IHDS 2015).

The question asked in the IHDS was: Compared to seven years ago (2005), would you say your household is economically doing the same, better or worse today (2012)? So the focus of this SWB is narrow. Yet, as it is based on self-reports, it connotes a broader view that is influenced by factors other than income, assets and employment. Indeed, as corroborated by econometric analyses, this measure of well-being is also associated with age, gender, caste, health, schooling, affiliation to social networks, and crime. Last but not least, perceptions of economic well-being are influenced by estimates of the gap between aspirations and achievements. The wider the gap, the greater the sense of well-being loss.

In 2012, the proportion of India’s worse off was found to be 9.70%, of those just the same 50.34%, and of the better off, 37.90%. Those who reported no difference were the most numerous, with fewer better off and considerably fewer worse off.

The association between being worse off and age is negative, as also with being just the same; but it is positive between being better off and age. Contrary to a widely reported U-shaped SWB-age curve, we find high SWB in the age group of 25-50 years, a sharp fall in the 50-60-years bracket, and a plunge after 80 years. Flattening of income between ages 50 to 60 and the financial burden of higher education for children (and their marriage) partly explain the drop; the plunge among the elderly can be pinned on the high risk of destitution, terminal illness and loneliness.

Affluence is measured in asset quartiles. The first quartile includes the least wealthy; the second, the moderately wealthy; the third, the wealthy; and the fourth, the most wealthy. Relative to the first quartile, higher quartiles are less likely to be worse off and more likely to be better off.

The relationships between SWB outcomes and employment are not surprising either. The larger the number of adult male workers in a household, the lower the probability of being worse off and higher the probability of being better off. Similar but weaker results are obtained for adult female workers, presumably because of restrictions on employment and discriminatory wages.

Relative to Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Brahmins do not show any significant association with any SWB outcome. In sharp contrast, high castes are more likely to be worse off as well as just the same than better off. ‘Others’, a proxy for high castes, are associated positively with both being worse off and just the same, but negatively with being better off. It’s the same pattern for Dalits, but there is a reversal among Adivasis. They are less likely to be worse off and just the same, but more likely to be better off. So, the caste hierarchy is not manifested in well-being outcomes.

Two health indicators were used: whether household members suffer from non-communicable diseases or NCDs (eg. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer), and whether someone is disabled. Compared with households without any NCD, those with NCDs are more likely to be worse off and less likely to be better off. Similar results are obtained in a comparison of households without and with disability.

Men and women who are regularly exposed to mass media are less likely to be worse off and more likely to be better off, compared to those who are not. That access to timely information is vital to well-being has substantial policy relevance.

Crimes such as theft instil fear. That thefts vitiate the local environment and lower well- being has been corroborated by the study.

Policy imperatives include a major macro stimulus, a restructuring of healthcare to promote healthy ageing (specifically, primary healthcare should be the responsibility of a strengthened public care system with a clearly-defined role for private actors), a strengthened rehabilitation programme for the lonely and disabled elderly; enhanced access to digitized information; and behavioural interventions to stop discrimination against women, the elderly and lower castes.

The policy challenges are daunting, but not insurmountable.

Vani S. Kulkarni and Raghav Gaiha are respectively, lecturer of sociology and research affiliate, Population Aging Centre, University of Pennsylvania

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