Human Needs Index: Unusual Partnership Backs Real-Time Data Project on Poverty

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October 15, 2015; Next City

One challenge that faces many nonprofits is having access to current, up-to-date data that supports the needs they’re trying to address. The Salvation Army has partnered with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University to address this need through the creation of the Human Needs Index.

Since their early years, the Salvation Army has systematically collected data for their organization. As they grew and expanded, their system stayed intact, and they have been able to create common data collection practices across their 7500 centers, which serve every zip code in the United States and approximately 30 million Americans each year.

The Salvation Army collects a variety of data that aligns with the different services they provide. For the purpose of the Human Needs Index, researchers decided to focus on just seven indicators of need:

  • Meals provided
  • Groceries provided
  • Housing assistance
  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Medical support
  • Energy assistance

These seven factors combine to provide a more nuanced picture of need across America, rather than focusing on just the statistics related to the federal poverty line. The scale begins at zero, indicating a minimum level of need, and changes as determined through their statistical modeling.

The Human Needs Index website has resources that are freely accessible and provide data nationally and by state, beginning with 2004. The HNI also updates more frequently than other, similar resources provided by the government. The HNI scores are predicted on monthly data and then finalized at the conclusion of each quarter, providing almost real-time data. In comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 statistics on poverty were only just recently released in September 2015.

The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s researchers have written extensively about their findings and have made their report available via the Human Needs Index website. The report provides an overview of the project, its data collection and analysis methodology, along with insights they have discovered. They demonstrate how the HNI grants policymakers and nonprofits the ability to look at changing aspects of poverty and need across time and location, highlighting the ability to look at geographic need as well as needs related to local disasters.

An important aspect of the HNI is that it measures need and not the capacity to fill that need. The hope is that the HNI can be used to track changes in need over time and in specific communities so that human services organizations like the Salvation Army and other nonprofits can provide more targeted support through movement of resources in one location where the need is in decline in one area but on the rise in another.

Researchers hope to continue to disaggregate the available data to be able to “zoom in” to more specific levels, including counties and metropolitan statistical areas, as well as focus on unmet need.—Kari Thierer

  • Sarai Rice

    One problem may be that the numbers being looked at do not track need itself, but rather the Salvation Army’s capacity to meet need. In our community, for instance, the Salvation Army’s food pantry usage numbers are steady or declining over the last two years while pantry usage numbers community-wide are up 20% each year. I could speculate about why this is true, but the bottom line is that pantry users are choosing to go to other providers.