Moving Beyond Metrics, Moving Beyond Poverty




Imagine a region where 14.6 percent of the people are poor – meaning a family of four makes no more than $23,550 per year. Now imagine the same region where 44 percent of the people do not have enough money to stay afloat for three months. What do these two indicators say about the economic stability of the people who live there? While both point to measures of income, they each account for two very different populations and suggest that a single economic indicator may not be accurately capturing the needs of the community.

This disconnect is highlighted in a recent report by the Insight Center for Community and Economic Development, “Measuring Up: Aspiration’s for Economic Security in the 21st Century.” The report scans twenty indices of metrics on economic security and finds a consensus among practitioners and experts for new and improved metrics that can improve policy and practice for vulnerable Americans. On July 17 and 18 in New York City, my colleague Melanie Hudson and I joined the Insight Center and over 30 thought leaders from around the country to explore and discuss the measures, metrics, and methodology used to assess economic security in America. 

There are a number of indicators that point to our financial health, health and well-being, and connections to family and community, including: annual income, birth weight, and volunteerism. When we consider the economic health of vulnerable children and their parents in America, we need to ask: what are the measures that will accurately capture the realities of families’ lives? How do we ensure the indicators we use assess the true impact of social and economic policies on children and families?

For the field of professionals working on economic security, including the Kresge Foundation, the Center for American Progress’s Half in Ten Campaign, and the Center for Public Policy Priorities, last week’s convening helped to expand an important conversation on the collaboration necessary to move more families toward economic security. I joined a panel moderated by Jodie Levin-Epstein of CLASP and featuring Tse Ming Tam of the United Way of the Bay Area and Jorge Blandon of the Family Independence Initiative. The panel highlighted how two-generation approaches and metrics were important to promoting economic security for all, and raised important questions around family narratives and tracking progress for multiple members of the same family. 

As a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security, Ascend at the Aspen Institute identifies and elevates policies that support a legacy of economic security passing from one generation to the next. We are seeking ways to assess the impact of child-focused programming on the emotional and mental health of parents.  We are looking at the impacts of workforce development programs for parents on the educational outcomes for their children.

To help address these questions, Ascend will identify and invest in solutions that tap the creativity, knowledge, and assets of all sectors of our society to create a cycle of opportunity for children and their parents through the $1 million Aspen Institute Ascend Fund.  We hope this unique funding opportunity will equip the field with better tools that accurately capture the experience of vulnerable families in America.  The measures we use to assess our work will inform and shape the policies and private investments we support for years to come.  Metrics help create narratives, campaigns, and public service announcements. They create the stories that inform our understanding of the world around us. It is more important than ever to challenge our thinking on traditional indicators – to better support low-income families, and to better support America.