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To better fight poverty, Robin Hood needs a deeper understanding of exactly what it is to be poor in New York City. Official poverty measurements are overly simplistic and previous studies only offer data from a snapshot in time. So in 2012, Robin Hood, in partnership with Columbia University, launched the Poverty Tracker, a multi-year fixed-panel survey of 2,300 New York City households at all income levels.

The ongoing initiative — now expanded to 4,500 households — checks in with respondents every three months. Michael Weinstein, Robin Hood’s Chief Program Officer, shared the key learnings to date.

Why do this study? What’s the big idea?

We are creating the first dynamic picture of poverty in New York City. We wanted to learn how people deal with living in poverty over time.

We are going back to the same people quarter after quarter after quarter. If someone tells us they are under stress in January, when we talk with them again in April we ask them questions to uncover what they did. Did they look for solutions or not? Did they get a job? Go to school? Did they have any clue where to turn for help?

This is significant. If we find that unemployed people don’t know where to find a training program, for example, that’s incredibly useful to us as we fund training programs. Or, if we find that the unemployed don’t find jobs after training, we need to pursue a different solution. Or, if people don’t even make it through the training, it’s clear we need to support them differently. We’re getting a much better picture of what’s really going on and ultimately we’ll be able to tailor programs accordingly.
This detailed information is in contrast to many other measures of poverty: other surveys are done annually, so they only tell you how things change on average.

What’s the most important finding so far?

There is an astronomical number — more than 60% of households — that are unable to make ends meet. That’s over half the population of the richest city in the richest country in the world who are in dire need of many necessities, but simply can’t afford them on their own.

What has surprised you?

People experienced persistent disadvantage — either some severe form of deprivation or poor health — more than they experienced persistent poverty. There is a surprising amount of fluidity to income measures of poverty. We found that 25% were poor at some time during the year, but only 9% were consistently poor — at the beginning and end of the year.

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How are the findings changing Robin Hood’s definition of poverty?

Poverty is a somewhat arbitrary line. For example, roughly $12,000 per year is the official poverty level for a single individual. Robin Hood can help move someone’s income from $11,990 to $12,001 and they will technically be out of poverty, but I don’t call that poverty fighting.

Looking beyond income, we wanted to explore the concept of wellbeing, which is an element we have long incorporated into our poverty measurement. That’s why we also ask about the material hardships or the inability to make ends meet and not solely about income. Material hardships are deprivations like hunger, eviction, cutoff of phone or electricity, or unaffordable prescription drugs.

The Poverty Tracker is going to allow us to go beyond health and income and explore all the ways families cry out for help. We’re polling people to find out if they are afraid of running out of money, not being able to afford prescription drugs, or getting evicted so we can better assign dollar values to the different ways of helping them and then intervene most effectively.

Does the survey shed any insight on the question of prevention versus intervention?

Very tentatively. It appears that people who receive assistance before they slipped into poverty are less likely to become poor, while those who received help after they were already poor didn’t escape it, even after the assistance. We need to do a lot more work to understand this, which is one of the beauties of the Poverty Tracker. We’ll ask more and more nuanced questions again and again to get at the heart of this.

What’s next for Poverty Tracker?

We’d like to get at the cause and effect, that big question about prevention versus solution. If someone got all the services they needed, did it lift them above poverty? Did it lift them to a substantially higher level of wellbeing? We’ll refine the questions over time and do a lot more of these surveys.

Could the findings ultimately shift Robin Hood’s investment strategy?

One inference we are drawing is that families place a tremendous value on getting rid of hardships, like running out of food at the end of the month.

If this is the case, Robin Hood can address these hardships for a fraction of what we now spend on programs that are designed to increase household incomes. We are just at the beginning of thinking this through, but it may be much less expensive to ensure that families don’t run out of food at the end of the month, perhaps with a food voucher, than it would be to support other types of interventions that are addressing income, such as traditional job training.

Families are also very concerned about running out of money to pay utilities and getting their electricity shut off. We might write a check to ConEd instead, or float them a short-term loan. We already do some of this, but we can do a lot more.


Learn more about the Poverty Tracker from Fast Company & NPR

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