In an effort to better measure the needs of nearly 47 million Americans living in poverty, one non profit and university are taking a different approach.
The Salvation Army partnered with Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy to unveil Wednesday the Human Needs Index, an instrument which tracks state and national data online monthly since 2004.
The HNI uses seven categories that represent human needs; including assistance for meals, groceries, housing, clothing and furniture, as well as medical and energy bills from data collected by the Salvation Army in thousands of communities.
“As we move forward, it will help us get even better at ensuring that we have the right resources at the right time, in the right places.” said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, the national secretary of community relations and development for the Salvation Army.
Busroe adds that each data point represents a human story. “The Salvation Army has 30 million of them. The Human Needs Index provides an objective way to aggregate all the stories of the people we work with every day so we can better address poverty and vulnerability,” Busroe said.
One of the benefits of the Index is less lag time than traditionally collected government data, updating on a quarterly basis with new information.
For example, right now one measure of the nation’s poverty rate is the annual release of Census Bureau figures in September from the previous year. Whereas, the Index can measure changes in “need-based demand” month by month. The two other mechanisms used for tracking poverty in the U.S. are monthly unemployment rates and the number of individuals using the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance program.
“The Human Needs Index is an important complement to other established measures that rounds out the picture. It is unique in its timeliness and multi-dimensional approach, tracking variables that the government does not provide.” said Una Osili, director of research at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Amir Pasic, dean at Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy, added that it was the first time researchers were capturing this kind of data from a very large non-profit. The research will be used “to advance practices that the Salvation Army implements,” Pasic said.
So, how does it work? The HNI scale combines the seven categories to come up with a number, starting at 0, showing level of need. There is no upper limit because there may be an increase in need due to instances like natural disasters, Osili said. The HNI can be seen at both state and national levels.
Perhaps what’s more interesting is from January 2004 through March 2015, the HNI showed similarities with economic trends nationwide. The HNI score gradually increased at the beginning of the Great Recession in December 2007 to reach a height of 2.8 in 2012, according to the Index. It identifies that need levels continued to rise for several years after the recovery started in June 2009 which coincides with the realities of sluggish job growth and underemployment in the USA.
The Index also finds that Nevada, Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Minnesota have not come back from pre-recession levels of need.
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