Partnering to measure poverty

By November 13, 2017Feature

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Poverty in America. It’s a problem that has been analyzed and dissected by many sources. It’s been the subject of books, TV documentaries and combatted by a host of social services agencies.

But do we really understand the ins and outs of poverty?

A complete answer likely remains elusive, but a local university and a national nonprofit have been working together to get a better grip on the changing needs of America’s poor.

The resulting product is the annual Human Needs Index (HNI), a multidimensional report that stems from a partnership between IUPUI’s Lilly School of Philanthropy and Salvation Army USA. The index is a more comprehensive in-depth look at our nation’s poor, according to Una Osili, the Lilly School’s assistant dean for research and international programs.

Traditionally, poverty has been measured in a narrow vein: income level based on government figures. The HNI goes beyond that and uses data the Salvation Army has been collecting on its own since 2004 based on the services it provides.

The first HNI was released in 2015, but the project was seeded four years prior, when the Virginia-based Salvation Army invited the Lilly School to a conversation at its headquarters. While reading the latest U.S. poverty statistics in USA Today in 2011, one of the agency’s board members recognized that the Salvation Army had more up-to-date data on poverty than what he was reading, and together with the entire board, suggested a potential partnership with the Lilly School.

The meeting led to the partnership where both entities benefit: the Lilly School is able to disseminate information helpful to the nonprofit sector, and the Salvation Army gets validation that its data and work are valuable tools to better serve the public.

While often associated with urban work, the Salvation Army’s safety net programs have a presence in every ZIP code, including mobile outreach in rural areas. For years, the organization had amassed data from more than 7,000 sites. Four statisticians oversee the collection of its data, one for each territory. Most of Indiana is part of the Central Territory, which covers 11 states and has 2,342 operations centers; the exceptions are the seven counties that comprise Indiana’s northern border.

The HNI tracks need in seven areas: meals, groceries, housing costs, clothing, furniture, medical bills and energy bills.  The need is also compiled seasonally. A score is assigned to the nation as a whole in addition to scores for different regions. Scores were assigned retroactively back to 2004. Upward and downward movements in the scores often reflect economic conditions such as a recession or even natural disasters.

When first approached by the Salvation Army, Osili said the School of Philanthropy was intrigued but it was too early to tell whether the data was relevant.

First the university conducted a validation process, doing a rigorous analysis comparison of Salvation Army data with other local, state and national figures on poverty. In addition, multiple calls with the territorial statisticians helped the Lilly team understand the story behind the data. Working alongside the Salvation Army,  the Lilly team better understood its collection process and had the opportunity to raise lots of questions.

“I’ll give you one example. We noticed that energy orders that the Salvation Army was providing spiked in March, April and May. That was a bit of a surprise to us, because you would have expected that people would have needed assistance in the winter, not needing energy in the spring when temperatures tend to be more moderate,” said Osili.

What they learned, through conversations with the Salvation Army’s team, was that many cities and municipalities have ordinances that prevent winter heat shutoffs for low income or elderly residents. Even with unpaid balances, the heat stays on. But come March when temperatures were more moderate, the needs inflate, resulting in higher assistance requests from the Salvation Army.

“We wouldn’t have found that out on our own. Salvation Army had the data, and so that’s why the collaboration and the partnership made a lot of sense. Clearly, they were the content experts. It was basically taking all that information and then distilling into what we thought were the basic aspects of human needs,” Osili said.

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Sharing the knowledge

Filling an information void about local safety net programs, the Human Needs Index can be more just a cool data visualization tool or source of information inquiry into the measurement of need.

It can model how communities and philanthropy might collect, share, and use data to improve outcomes for clients, organizations, and community residents.

To that end, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy has begun to share the lessons of HNI through workshops and webinars.

And while encouraging, Osili cautions that an organization needs to have a process to validate the data, and compare to other figures in order to establish a benchmark.

Another challenge for some nonprofits is that some are just present in rural areas but not in urban.

“The other big lesson that nonprofits can take away is kind of the power of collaboration. We’re used to thinking about universities doing one thing, and national and local nonprofits doing another,” said Osili.

She said this is an example of how you can actually bring together different sectors together. Nonprofits don’t always have the expertise in-house.

“So it’s thinking about all of our resources whether it’s our own data as an asset or community around us as far as the power of collaboration.”

“I think it would be great to also do something locally, so that our local nonprofits here can better understand,” said Osili.


Natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, were another example. It wasn’t just the communities where the disaster occurred that needed assistance, but extended well beyond Louisiana, into Texas and Arkansas. With its boots on the ground, the Salvation Army was able to provide a detailed picture of needs, and expand the geographical need beyond the disaster.

Osili  agreed that we tend to look at poverty based on income. But that changed when Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel Prize-winning economist, noted that to understand poverty, it needed to also be looked at through a consumption lens.
“Basically that is, what are people having trouble with, where are families struggling, what kinds of areas are they needing assistance,” said Osili. “Because the HNI views things more through a vulnerability lens, you can actually see how households struggle to meet energy needs, get assistance in health care or access to clothing. Those are things that are general poverty and statistics aren’t really going to tell us.”

The tool can be useful both at the local, state and national levels to help determine if poverty is improving and how needs and access to services are changing.

Locally, Susan Solomon, the Salvation Army’s divisional social services director,  believes the index helps to give a broad picture of what is happening.

“There may be some things that we may miss in a given community, and then when we look at it collectively and have discussion, it raises awareness.”

Solomon said the Salvation Army, founded in 1865 in London, is a large old organization, and it is easy to continue to offer services because of tradition. With the reality of fewer dollars available, reviewing the data challenges the nonprofit to look at particular services to determine if they are still needed or perhaps duplicated by another agency. The result, hopefully, is to collectively meet more needs, she said.

“Has it had a fairly radical effect on the services we offer? I cannot say that’s happened, but it does raise our awareness of what do we do and do well and where needs are not being met as we plan and move forward,” said Solomon.

Spearheaded and funded by dollars raised by the Salvation Army USA’s board, the initial cost was designing and creating the infrastructure, and the annual upkeep is not as expensive. After each territory applies its checks and balances, the Lilly School receives quarterly data, releasing the HNI once a year.

Osili said while it would be easier to only report if the needs went up or down, the project teams decided to investigate more deeply to include what specifically was different in each wave of the data collection and to ask new questions. For this year’s index, they posed: What were the vulnerabilities that rural households were facing and how did the solution differ?

This year’s HNI has illustrated persistent pockets of poverty in rural America that might not have been apparent from traditional government measures like unemployment data, SNAP usage and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Poverty Report. Osili said things like Indiana’s low unemployment or what economists call full employment can mask poverty. For example, the state’s opioid epidemic has contributed and changed the levels of assistance and needs.

“How does that show up in the Salvation Army data? What we see is that even though other measures like unemployment are showing declining patterns, we also see that they’re starting to show up in health care needs. People are coming to Salvation Army for assistance with substance abuse and drug treatment facilities. What you can actually unpack is the particular challenges that households are facing,” she said.

Osili believes the HNI has been a bit of an inspiration for many organizations, leading many nonprofits wondering if they could do something similar. And while many nonprofits are starting to collect this type of data, not many have the comprehensive, historical and geographical reach of the Salvation Army USA, said Osili. Two — Catholic Charities and Feeding America — are starting to look at their own data footprint.

“I think there are a lot of lessons to learn. The first one is that nonprofits are often consumers of data and use data in making decisions, but they can also be part of the leadership on what data is collected and how we share that information. Data can be really powerful in helping to shape decision-making and then for policy makers, too, to better understand very complex issues facing a given community.

“The second take away is that nonprofits can be part of shaping how society understands the problem. You know just beyond the service delivery side, you can also be part of the generating new insight and knowledge,” she said.

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