October 25, 2015  |  Insights

Mapping Initiative, Not Need

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David Henderson, Chief Data Officer, Family Independence Initiative – Analytics4

Social welfare policy has focused almost exclusively on the deficits of the poor, over time calcifying an image of poverty that stands in stark contrast to reality. Public policy is most effective when designed with both accurate information and stakeholder input. Historically, policy makers have relied on empirical datasets that show the distribution of where poor people live to inform their decisions. But poverty status is far less illuminating than stereotypes suggest. Indeed, knowing that an area contains a certain percentage of people living below the poverty line only tells us about the deficits in a community, not their strengths, like how neighbors and friends support one another to survive.

As a result, policymakers often conduct what are known as “needs assessments”. As the name suggests, a needs assessment is an investigation of what needs a community has. The problem with needs assessments is that they almost systematically focus on what is wrong < in a community. Logically, if you only ask people what is wrong with them, you will invariably conclude there is something wrong 100% of the time.

Crafting policy based on inaccurate or negatively biased assumptions of the poor not only impedes social progress, but also suppresses the potential economic returns of a strength-based, investment-oriented alternative. While middle and upper income households are generally viewed as economic contributors, with a myriad of policies designed to help those households succeed, policies targeting the poor fail to recognize the investment potential and ingenuity of low-income families.

At Analytics4, we partner with low-income households across the country to amass a strength-based dataset that can provide policymakers a window into the incredible initiatives families undertake to lift up themselves and their communities. Using our data, policymakers can leverage the initiatives already underway in low-income communities and invest directly in families running successful businesses and providing essential services like child care, transportation, and nutrition classes to their neighbors.

Imagine if instead of basing policy on where people are poorest, we instead invest in areas where people show the most initiative? By visually mapping pockets of initiative and opportunity instead of needs and deficits, the data we are collecting at Analytics4 can help shift social welfare policy away from the historically poor performing charitable model, to one instead based on investment. For example, the map below highlights areas of Boston where families are demonstrating high levels of entrepreneurial activity. This map could be used by policymakers to better deploy resources to microbusiness owners.

Middle and upper income households expect policy to work for them, to help them live better lives and achieve more. Conversely, social welfare policy is generally crafted as interventions that should be done to low-income families. Households living in poverty deserve to have public policy work for them. The data we are collecting at Analytics4 provides a key to unlock that democratic ideal for low-income families.

No one speaks for the poor except the poor themselves, as should be the case (that is after all the point of democracy). Analytics4 provides the window by-which policy makers can listen to and learn from low-income families across the country who are already hard at work providing essential community services and generating economic activity. There is no question about how investable low-income families are. The only question is if policy makers will listen.

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