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Getting Americans Out of Poverty Requires More Than Money

April 20, 2018

When Pennsylvanian Marrea Walker-Smith explained why she returned to the public housing development of her childhood to provide job training to its residents, she said she came to "invest in the community because they invested in me."

The comment from Walker-Smith — who went on from the Chester Housing Authority in Chester, Pa., to earn multiple degrees and have a successful career — echoes one of three important principles discussed in the Measuring Mobility from Poverty report by the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, Urban Institute, and Stanford SPARQ: Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions.

That principle, being valued in community, joins power and autonomy and economic success to inform a more holistic and effective way to assess people's passage out of poverty. As the Mobility report explains:

Although measures of economic success such as income and assets are foundational to upward mobility, they do not fully capture people's experiences.

Just as important as material wealth are power and autonomy — people's sense of control over the trajectory of their lives — and being valued in community — their sense of belonging.

Many philanthropies, government agencies, service providers, researchers, and evaluators are familiar with standard measures of economic success. If these organizations and people also began to measure power and autonomy and being valued in community, they could create a seismic, positive shift in access to the American dream.

SPARQ curated and described dozens of social psychological measures of being valued in community, power and autonomy, and economic success. Later this year, a free interactive website will deliver these measures to anyone looking for help with fighting poverty.

The need for new tools to solve this social problem is clearer than ever. Tens of millions of Americans live in poverty. Nearly half of the people answering a survey from the U.S. federal government said they would struggle to come up with $400 for an emergency. And the country suffers a $1 trillion cost due to childhood poverty, not to mention the non-financial tolls on people's health, relationships, and opportunities. With these three principles in place and clear ways to measure them, perhaps significant and lasting progress can finally be made on getting and keeping more Americans out of poverty.


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