How Well GDP Measures the Well-Being of Society

Does a Rise in GDP Overstate or Understate the Rise in the Standard of Living?

The fact that GDP per capita does not fully capture the broader idea of standard of living has led to a concern that the increases in GDP over time are illusory. It is theoretically possible that while GDP is rising, the standard of living could be falling if human health, environmental cleanliness, and other factors that are not included in GDP are worsening. Fortunately, this fear appears to be overstated.

In some ways, the rise in GDP understates the actual rise in the standard of living. For example, the typical workweek for a U.S. worker has fallen over the last century from about 60 hours per week to less than 40 hours per week. Life expectancy and health have risen dramatically, and so has the average level of education. Since 1970, the air and water in the United States have generally been getting cleaner. Companies have developed new technologies for entertainment, travel, information, and health. A much wider variety of basic products like food and clothing is available today than several decades ago. Because GDP does not capture leisure, health, a cleaner environment, the possibilities that new technology creates, or an increase in variety, the actual rise in the standard of living for Americans in recent decades has exceeded the rise in GDP.

On the other side, crime rates, traffic congestion levels, and income inequality are higher in the United States now than they were in the 1960s. Moreover, a substantial number of services that women primarily provided in the non-market economy are now part of the market economy that GDP counts. By ignoring these factors, GDP would tend to overstate the true rise in the standard of living.