For the most part, I endorse Thomas Carlyle’s description of economics as the dismal science. I have to add the “most part” qualifier after meeting and working with an economist who with her husband – also an economist – has developed the Family Prosperity Index. Measures like gross domestic product have value, but fail in themselves to measure prosperity in all its dimensions. FPI brings together data on fiscal and social well-being.

What is authentic prosperity, in terms of families? Where’s the objective data to evaluate prosperity? How do public policies help or hurt families? Explore the Index for yourself, and see how Dr. Wendy Warcholik and J. Scott Moody demonstrate how economic and social policy affect each other and in turn affect families.

As Mr. Moody told me in a recent interview, “We need to take a longer perspective, not election to election, about problems [affecting families]. That’s something the Family Prosperity Index is trying to do: break that vicious cycle of jumping from election to election with policy, and instead put into place programs that are going to be there long term, that will actually make a difference.”

It was my good fortune to work for Dr. Warcholik a few years ago when she served as executive director of a New Hampshire nonprofit organization. Today, she and Mr. Moody are senior fellows at the American Conservative Union (ACU) Foundation, where they are working on their Family Prosperity Initiative. I met with them at CPAC 2017 to learn more about what they’re doing and to follow up on some recent research they’ve published about the opioid crisis in my home state of New Hampshire.

Q. How did FPI come to be connected with the American Conservative Union?

WW: We met the executive director, Dan Schneider, and that’s how the partnership came about. We’d been working on the idea for the Index for the last five years. We had known Dan for awhile before that. We knew he was very interested and passionate about building out the foundation side of American Conservative Union. He was the first person who really saw the big vision for the Index and its data-driven capability to capture and measure what is truly prosperity.

Q. You look at more data than the typical economic analysis.

WW: We do. We’ve spent most of our career looking at the fiscal side of things, the economic side of the equation for prosperity. Through our many years in the free-market arena, doing the research and looking at different measures of prosperity indices, we really felt it needed to be a broader measure that takes into consideration the entire person. We wanted to go with an economic index with variables that truly measured human choices, not statutory measures. We wanted actual socioeconomic data that show the choices people are making.

Q. Regarding my own state, you titled a 2016 report “New Hampshire’s Suicide and Drug Use/Overdose Crisis.” Why are those two things – suicide and drug use – in the same title?

SM: The strength of the Family Prosperity Index is that it’s grounded in the academic literature. We were going through the literature on drug overdoses, and there’s a growing body of evidence that our medical examiner system is deficient in its ability to discern a drug overdose from a suicide. It’s very important that we understand this linkage. You might be able to effectively tackle drug overdoses through law enforcement and drug treatment facilities. But if we’re talking about a public health situation like suicide, then that is a truly different problem altogether.

Obviously, there’s mental illness [as a factor in some suicides]. We know that treatment, whether it’s for substance abuse or mental health, pays huge dividends down the road, even though they can be very pricey upfront. We need to take a longer perspective, not election to election, about these problems.

Q. Your studies have found a strong linkage between drug use and religion. You point out in your New Hampshire report that we are the third-least religious state, as measured by weekly religious attendance. At the same time, we have a relatively high rate of illicit drug usage.

SM: We want to bring to light [via FPI] all of these linkages that exist within the data or the academic literature, so that policymakers can discuss them in a neutral setting. Data doesn’t take sides. The literature doesn’t take sides. We need to have this discussion to fundamentally solve the opioid drug overdose problem in New Hampshire.

When we held a heroin crisis leadership summit in New Hampshire [in 2016], we purposely included members not just of law enforcement, but of the religious community and other important segments of our state that are all going to play a role in fighting the opioid problem.

From an economic perspective, religion brings to a society or state a much longer-term level of thinking.  [Religious faith] extends your time horizon, and makes you other-people-centered.

WW: From the public policy perspective, there are no silver bullets for solving this issue. That’s part of the point we’re trying to make with the index: you have these complex relationships between these social variables that impact economic outcomes. We’re so focused on the economic side of the equation. Until our public policy leaders turn their heads to the other side of the equation, the policies that we put together aren’t as durable as they could be. 

Q: Are you working in particular states now?

WW: We’re working with Governor LePage in Maine. He’s six years into fighting the heroin and opioid crisis. He’s putting some practices into place with the drug court there. He’s been very active in some of the laws passed to be very hard on drug dealers, as well as laws to open up more beds [for inpatient treatment of substance abuse]. It’s a very slow process. He’s put more money into law enforcement, but he knows that’s not the full answer. We’re working with him to develop an educational campaign about those other factors that are causing people to abuse. We’ll be up there in Maine to do a forum in late April or May. We’re also doing a legislative forum where we’re going to be bringing the FPI to all the legislators and the governor.

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Note: the complete 2017 Family Prosperity Index, with information from every state, is available for download

Ellen Kolb blogs about New Hampshire life-issue policy at Leaven for the Loaf and looks farther afield in ellenkolb.com

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