News and analysis
October 07, 2015

New Tool Aims to Pinpoint Human Needs to Help Fight Poverty

Andreas Fuhrmann, The Record Searchlight, AP Images

The new Human Needs Index will track demand for human services to help nonprofits and policy makers implement long-term solutions.

A new tool designed to track demand for human services aims to help nonprofits and policy makers implement long-term solutions to poverty, according to its creators.

The Human Needs Index will combine information about services provided to help with meals, groceries, clothing, housing, furniture, medical assistance, and energy bills into a single score. Initially, the tool will provide data nationwide and by state, but eventually researchers hope to focus also on local areas, like counties, and specific areas of need, like energy and housing.

Researchers at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy developed the index, using data from the Salvation Army’s 7,500 service centers from 2004 through March 2015. Information about referrals made to other organizations was also included.

"Those of us who have been working at the local and the street level are all very familiar with the real impact that poverty has on people in terms of needs going unmet," Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, spokesperson for the Salvation Army, said at an event announcing the tool in Washington on Wednesday. "Now with this Human Needs Index, we have a very powerful, objective tool to assist with our work."

Complements Other Measures

The researchers at the Lilly School see the index as a complement to traditional poverty measures, which they say have limitations. The U.S. poverty rate published by the Census Bureau every September, for example, draws on income figures reported to the government in the previous year. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program reports usage each month with a three-month lag but addresses just one aspect of human need.

The new index is more comprehensive, and it will be updated quarterly. But it has its weaknesses, acknowledged its developers. For example, it does not provide demographic information about the individuals and families who need services. Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly School, says they are interested in digging deeper into demographic data as a next step.

To attest to the tool’s accuracy, a report released in conjunction with the index found that the data mirrored overall economic trends, citing the lowest level of need in 2004, then gradually increasing in 2008 as the recession took hold, and reaching a high in 2012.

"Over the years we’ve collected a tremendous amount of data related to the services that we provide that reflect the level of need we encounter," said David Jeffrey, national commander of the Salvation Army. "Thanks to this unique partnership with Lilly, we’re able to finally put this treasure trove of data to use, we think for the benefit not only for ourselves but for others and those that we serve."

Send an email to Eden Stiffman.