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New poverty-tracking tool quantifies physical needs

A Salvation Army volunteer helps a client in Portland, Ore. Associated Press/Photo by Rick Bowmer

New poverty-tracking tool quantifies physical needs

The Salvation Army is best known for offering charitable relief to those in poverty. But for years it has also kept meticulous records of how many people came through its doors, what sort of needs they had, and the cost of their relief.

“It is time to put all that data to use,” said David Jeffrey, national commander of the Salvation Army USA.

The Salvation Army partnered with researchers at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy to develop the Human Needs Index, (HNI) a real-time measure of poverty based not on income or comparative wealth, but on consumption. The group hopes this new index will provide a more detailed picture of poverty that better informs service providers about the needs of the poor. But one prominent Christian expert on poverty notes even the new poverty index doesn’t track what matters most: relationships.

The Indiana University researchers looked to answer the age-old poverty-fighting question: What needs are most essential for human flourishing? They came up with seven: meals, groceries, clothing, housing, furniture, medical assistance, and help with energy bills. The HNI keeps track of these seven services people use at Salvation Army locations around the country in a given month, both at national and state levels, dating back to 2004. The seven variables are combined to produce a single HNI score.

The HNI can track with the economy. The pre-recession national HNI score in 2004 indicated a comparatively low need for assistance. The score gradually increased with the start of the recession in 2007 and peaked in 2012, but it remained high in several states even after the recession ended, indicating a slower recovery in those states. By March 2015, the national HNI score was below the previous lowest point. But while unemployment improved, Salvation Army Community Relations and Development Secretary Lt. Col. Ron Busroe cautioned more jobs didn’t necessarily mean less need.

“We have seen some needs like housing and medical assistance decrease, but more folks are asking for help with food. The cost of living remains high, with fewer pay raises,” Busroe said. “The HNI can track that.”

Although states may have similar scores, they can have very different needs. For instance, Jeffrey told that in March 2015, North Carolina and Minnesota had almost identical HNI scores. But North Carolina had more than 12 times the per-capita energy assistance than Minnesota, while Minnesota registered a higher need for groceries. Information like that could enable organizations to offer the right kind of aid to the right location.

While many Christian relief organizations would agree poverty is not defined by income, they also believe the poor need more than goods and services to thrive.

“Are people actually being empowered and restored?” asked Brian Fikkert, professor of economics and president of the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. “Human beings are fundamentally relational and not just material.”

Fikkert noted none of the seven needs in the index assessed a person’s wealth in terms of friends and family, but he acknowledged building relationships is much harder to measure than the number of meals served or the dollar amount paid on heating bills. What makes alleviating poverty difficult is that people must have both gospel-drenched relationships and relief, Fikkert said.

The Salvation Army, too, has begun to think more long-term.

“We got so caught up in helping with short-term needs,” Busroe said. “But now I think we need to be outcome driven, not output driven. I can say 28,000 people stayed in our shelters last night. That’s output. But we know now that effective compassion needs good case management. The HNI is helping us to take a closer look at our community and ask, ‘what is most needed and where?’”

Gaye Clark

Gaye is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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