Foundation Friday: Progress Out of Ignorance?

The Grameen Foundation deploys something called the Progress Out of Poverty Index to help assess candidates for microfinance support and measure the results being achieved by the foundation’s international microlending program.  Ordinarily the Nonprofiteer would be inclined to yawn–from her standpoint, there’s far too much measuring and far too little helping going on in the institutional giving world–but it turns out that an inability to construct or adopt a similar measure here at home interferes with efforts–all efforts, by anyone–to reduce poverty and economic inequality in the United States. 

Think about it: we understand the world based on a series of comparisons, today over yesterday, this month over last.  Every half-hour or more your local newsradio station tells you what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is, and if it’s higher than the last time you heard it you’re glad because, well, if the Dow’s up, "the economy" is good, right?  And though everyone acknowledges that the Dow is an imperfect indicator even of its own sector, the simple fact of its being reported constantly gives the figure a distorted power to shape discussions about how things are going in the United States economy and what we ought to be doing about that.

So (thought the Nonprofiteer), what if we had an Average American Family Average (or a Composite American Family Composite) that was likewise reported every hour, or day, or at least every week, that showed how much harder or easier it was for some archetypal group–a two-income family with two school-aged children, say–to get by?  Repeat it often enough, like the Dow, and pretty soon somebody will start saying to the President’s Press Secretary, "Does the President have any concerns that the Composite American Family Composite has dropped steadily for the past 3 weeks?" and maybe we could get some discussion going about things like our current system of treating health care as an individual problem instead of a failing public system.

Surely (she thought) someone has already done this: it’s just that corporate-owned media don’t want to publish it.  And then she fell into the statistical rabbit-hole, where there are poverty threshholds and poverty guidelines and a consensus among scholars that neither reflects the actual experience of families struggling to make it.  There’s the Human Development Index, one of a pair of daunting equations created by the United Nations to assess relative well-being in the world’s developed countries, which shows that the US is doing worse than Norway without explaining precisely how (though the possibilities are legion).  And of course there’s the Big Mac poverty index, a measure variously credited to Reuters, UBS and The Economist Magazine, which assesses the health of economies by the number of minutes it takes to earn a Big Mac–amusing but limited.

So: if the Grameen Foundation can develop a measure for microlending, couldn’t one of its fellows in the foundation world develop or publicize a measure for, well, how we doin’?  If today I’m twice as likely to lose my job as yesterday but today’s cost of child care is half that of yesterday’s, surely there’s an algorithm that can tell me if on balance I’m doing better or worse.

The Nonprofiteer is aware that modifications in the definition of poverty have been delayed indefinitely by constituencies for the current definitions–if you’re getting your programs funded under the current definition, no change is good change.  Happily, though, this is the kind of self-interested calculation from which foundations ought to be exempt.  And just as it’s easier to secure political support for programs that assist the non-poor, it ought to be easier to secure intellectual ammunition for conversations about the non-poor.

Let the discussion begin!

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