Santa Monica applies for funds to measure residents’ well-being

Asked to compete in a grant contest, officials in Cincinnati responded with a proposal to reduce infant mortality. In High Point, N.C., they sought to reduce domestic violence.

And in Santa Monica?

The city where the sun shines and the waves beckon decided to establish the nation’s first municipal well-being index to measure just how well its residents are doing.

Santa Monica city officials and researchers at Rand Corp. have proposed tracking such measures as residents’ physical health, social connectedness and community resilience. They say the resulting index could be a first step toward changing the way city governments serve their residents.


“It’s not just some squishy idea,” said Julie Rusk, a city staffer leading the project.

The organizers of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ first-ever Mayors Challenge agreed. Last week the panel included Santa Monica among 20 finalists distilled from a field of more than 300 entries. Next spring Bloomberg will name one winner and four runners-up. A $5-million first prize and four $1-million runner-up prizes are at stake.

The seaside town is often associated with the progressive vanguard. But the idea of tracking well-being is catching on in other places too. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has launched the Community Disaster Resilience project, which will test resilience strategies across Los Angeles in the coming months. Gallup-Healthways introduced its Well-Being Index in 2008 and now doles out a national score that varies daily based on polling.

Santa Monica has already completed a Youth Wellbeing Report Card as part of its Cradle to Career Initiative, which gathers data from several sources to track youth in the city up to age 24. The study presented an array of findings including that 81% of students were physically healthy, 67% said they felt safe at school and 25% said they experienced “significant periods of extreme sadness” during the last year.

That project gave city officials a jump-start on data collection, said Anita Chandra, a senior policy researcher at Rand who has been assisting the city with its proposal.

Advocates say well-being measures can capture intangible factors important to civic life. For example, the more connected people feel to their community, the more likely they are to bounce back after a natural disaster, Rusk said. And people with better mental health tend to pay less for healthcare.

“No one has looked at well-being in a concerted, integrated way, and until we do, everything is going to be piecemeal and inefficient,” Chandra said. “This is the first time something is focused not only on stopping problems, but actually making people productive and thoughtful about their life course.”

Santa Monica and San Francisco are the only two California finalists for the Bloomberg grant. San Francisco’s proposal is to promote workforce development though volunteer work.

“We are extremely honored to be among the 20 finalists,” said Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, who remained locked in a tight state Assembly race Tuesday. “A broad range of our city priorities are encompassed in this. Now we’ll have a tool to track our progress.”