Tag Archives: social indicators

A better measure for a better system

How should we measure ‘well-being’?

One of my intellectual interests relates to how evaluation and social indicators can focus our collective attention on the problems that need to be addressed, setting better benchmarks toward which we should aspire.

And one of my great passions is around reducing political, economic, and social inequality, to build toward a more just future.

And, here, these two worlds align.

Because we need some better measures of how we’re doing.

I don’t mean the U.S. poverty line, although clearly that needs to be revamped.

But, here, I’m thinking more of the underlying issue, not poverty but what creates the conditions for it.

We need a better measure than Gross Domestic Product per capita, because, clearly, an increase in GDP doesn’t always translate to an increase in well-being.

Look at how much more we spend on incarceration today, which is tied to an increase in GDP, when it’s clear that people aren’t benefiting from that particular outlay.

We have the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, although, perhaps not surprisingly, it doesn’t hold much cachet with policymakers or even pundits in the U.S.

Something like the 20/20 ratio, which compares how well the bottom 20% are doing, compared to the top 20%, would be even more helpful, I think.

Or the Hoover index, which calculates how much redistribution would be needed to achieve total equality.

I’m certainly no economist–or mathematician–but an indicator that could clearly indicate a person’s likelihood of leaving poverty, or leaving the bottom 20% or so, could, if inserted into our understanding about our economic system, help to crack the myth of ‘rags to riches’.

So why do we use GDP per capita, when it so clearly fails to capture so much of what we really need to know, and distorts so much of the picture?

There are better measures out there, and we certainly have the technical capacity to shift to them, or even to develop something else, if we really wanted.

I can only conclude that our stubborn clinging to something woefully inadequate has much to do with how we come out looking relatively good according to that measure, and pretty blatantly unequal according to others.

If we’re not winning, after all, we can always move the goalposts.

But I think that, while metrics are surely not everything, having better measures would really help.

You manage to what you measure, after all, and, if we had some consensus about what we were working toward, we’d at least have a shot at getting there.

Social indicators and social change


I love it when I find something, online or in a journal, and I think, “THAT is what I’m going to show to my students!

Especially if I know that it’s going to give me license to say (or at least think in my head), “I was right!”

Every year, my advanced policy students have to do a social problem and social indicator paper. They like the social problem piece just fine; it’s a pretty standard problem analysis and, certainly, there is no shortage of interesting social problems they can study.

But the social indicator piece usually trips them up, because I ask them to really think about how we know what we think we know about a given problem and that, well, gets a little confusing.

I prod them to think about the ways in which the definitions and measurements we use to understand social problems distort them, and how those distortions can be problematic when it comes to trying to solve the problems. I use the example of unemployment, often, to get them thinking about how our definition of ‘unemployed’ (not working and actively looking for work) doesn’t capture nearly all of those who would consider themselves ‘unemployed’. The same is true, certainly, for our definition of ‘homeless’. Many of those technically defined as ‘obese’ today don’t consider themselves such. And we could go on and on. There are areas where we don’t track nearly the entire scope of a problem (child abuse and sexual assault are particularly under-captured), and other problems that we don’t try to measure at all, really (until fairly recently, we didn’t measure asset poverty, for example, or wealth inequality).

And what we measure matters, I tell them, so, together, we study not only what we know about the problem, but what we really should know, in order to have the best chance of harnessing our social policies to fix it.

Enter Beth Kanter’s post about social media within nonprofit organizations, where she makes the point that, when it comes to metrics of engagement and reach of social media efforts, “what gets measured gets better”.

When organizations see, visually, that their emails are mostly going unopened or their advocacy alerts result in bounce-offs their website, they tend to be motivated to do something about it. When they see that their Facebook connections have been flat for months, they institute strategies to improve.

Measuring matters.

Which is the whole point of the social indicator assignment, and of my stressing to students that we have to pay attention to what we’re measuring–and how–and what we’re not, because that understanding (and lack thereof) is key to why we are and are not comparatively successful in solving the problem.

If what gets measured gets better, what should we be measuring–or, at least, measuring better–to give ourselves the best tools with which to combat the problem? How can pushing for data, sometimes, be the catalyst for bringing about change (think about progress around racially-motivated policing practices)?

And what should we be measuring, within our organizations (client satisfaction, recidivism, impact), in order to model what we want to see in social policy and to hone in on the areas of our own work that need improvement?

What gets measured gets…better. So let’s get measuring.

Why the Census Matters II: Social Indicators

If only I could get him to come to my class. In Philanthrocapitalism, Bill Gates tells the story that what turned him into a large-scale philanthropist was a World Bank report on global health that exposed him to the global injustices to which he had been largely blind.

That’s the power of a stark social indicator, folks. Worth billions of dollars. Literally.

Okay, so even someone as pro-social indicator as I am can’t promise that you’ll see that kind of response to all of your data. But it’s important to remember that the 2010 Census, the results of which will start flowing soon, matter for more than just federal allocations of dollars.

U.S. Census data help us know our communities, plan our programs, justify our needs (and our very existence), and tell our stories. They provide the backdrop to the grassroots, participatory research that we’re doing, and they can help us to identify trends that demand our attention or signs that we’re making progress. They put new issues on the agenda, focus media and public attention on the status of our society, and (if we play it right) give voice to problems and populations that might otherwise be overlooked. You’ll turn to them dozens of times over the next 10 years, weaving them into grant applications and referencing them in your reports and citing them in policy briefs and projecting them in dramatic maps.

So they need to include the people with whom you work, those who populate your community, those whose lives need to count. Not just because it means more highway dollars for your MSA, but because, otherwise, all of the decisions and conclusions that flow from these data (do we need to translate government documents into Spanish?, should we invest more in services for young families or older adults?, which populations need the most attention in terms of educational attainment?, where have we made the biggest gains?) will be made without them, too.

We don’t know, yet, who might be watching those social indicators, looking for something to catch their eyes, needing the right piece of data to convince them that a problem deserves their attention. But we know that the U.S. Census continues to be the leading source of the indicators we’ll count on to guide our work on our most vexing challenges in the decade to come, so we know that we all need to count.

Why the Census Matters I: Redistricting

We are nearing the midway point in the year in between when Census 2010 forms first arrive in American households (March 2010) and when the U.S. Census Bureau will deliver redistricting data to states (March 2011).

And it’s a really big deal.

Much of the discussion of the importance of the U.S. Census within the nonprofit sector (and, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that there is so much) centers on how Census data are used in federal funding decisions. That’s undoubtedly important, as population figures are used to apportion community development and community services block grants, some funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other critical dollars that support essential state and local government and private nonprofit programming.

But, since we know that who’s elected matters a great deal for the kinds of policies that we’ll be able to win, no pass-through grant impact is as great as the potential electoral consequences of the Census. As social justice advocates, we have to care about the Census and its import for redistricting both so that we can impress upon our communities the importance of their participation AND so that we can stay engaged in the processes that will ultimately result in the redrawn maps.

Although it relates to the 2000 Census, this guide by the Asian American Justice Center features commentary from the Latino, Asian, and African-American communities about how redistricting affects them and includes a quite extensive overview of the redistricting process that is almost entirely still relevant in 2010.

While the impact of an undercount of traditionally undercounted communities is easier to quantify in the fiscal aid realm than in electoral redistricting, there are clear trends about which communities are most often undercounted and, of course, clear patterns about where they live. The precise extent of the undercount is always in dispute, but everyone acknowledges that it’s harder to count low-income communities, communities of color, and new immigrants, in particular. In addition, there is some evidence that areas hit hard by the current economic recession may be harder to count, both because state Census outreach budgets are so restricted and because people may have become more transient to cope with housing crises and job losses.

Hopefully your nonprofit organization is already actively engaged in Census outreach with those you serve; nonprofit social service organizations are such a critical link in the Census outreach effort that their shortage in some of the most devastated of our communities is spurring even greater concerns about inadequate Census participation there. You have a critically important role to play in communicating the importance of Census participation (and how it connects to subsequent political representation) to those you serve, and in advocating on behalf of that community with the U.S. Census Bureau, to be sure that privacy protections and language accommodations and other essential efforts are made to bridge the gaps.

What often doesn’t receive attention, often, is the work that must be done after all of those Census forms are filled out and sent in and even analyzed and returned to the states. It might surprise you to know that redistricting based on new Census figures is not an entirely apolitical process, that data can be made to ‘say’ different things to different people, and that the same kind of effort that goes into making sure that marginalized communities are counted in the Census needs to be mounted to ensure that their ‘count’ really counts.

While there are those who optimistically hope that the ascendancy of more sophisticated mapping technologies will make redistricting conclusions so foregone that even the most polarized politicians can’t dispute them, don’t count me among them.

There are several factors that influence the process of redistricting in one’s state, and I’m by no means an expert on all of them. In most states, the legislature begins the process, which gives a decided advantage to the party that controls it. There’s obviously a different dynamic when a state will lose, rather than gain, representation; and many years, a majority of state redistricting plans (in 1990, it was 41/50) end up in court. Some states require that the plans be approved by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure that they comply with the Voting Rights Act.

So what does this mean for social justice advocates who are likely to be somewhat worn out from the effort of reassuring people about the safety of participating in the Census and convincing them that it should be a priority for their harried lives?

We’ve got to bring our A game to this one, folks. We need to:

  • Work now with the political parties in our state to let them know that this is a priority and that we’ll be closely monitoring the process from the beginning
  • Raise the issue with media–we need to raise the specter of what an unfair redistricting would mean for our communities and explain the process, especially around the windows of opportunity that arise due to interest in the Census generally
  • Develop a lobbying strategy around the legislation that will be advanced to support the preferred redistricting plan, especially targeting legislators from the majority party who may be vulnerable to pressure from our allies
  • Plan for a potential legal challenge, including lining up possible representation and assistance crafting our arguments
  • Organize, agitate, and mobilize our base, to make what can seem like a totally esoteric issue come alive for their daily realities

    Let’s make sure we close the loop on this one, and really get our communities what they need for the next 10 years.