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Study Suggests Anti-Poverty Programs Save Lives

By | Jul 15, 2011

The problem of trying to quantify social impact has received a lot of attention in the social sector lately. Those who argue in favor of quantification believe that proper metrics will allow us to better identifying programs that are effective, thus guiding donor dollars toward higher impact services.

Opponents of quantification argue that the work of the social sector is unique and that social value is not necessarily measurable.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, which is why I have long believed that if we are in the business of reducing poverty, then changes in poverty status is the most important (although not the only) social impact metric. However, a new study suggests that poverty reduction might best be measured by the number of people saved from poverty related deaths.

Poverty Related Deaths

The study, published in the American Journal of Health, was a meta study of several reports that tried to determine the number of people whose deaths were attributable to poverty.

Of course, establishing just what poverty related death means is a complicated, if not impossible undertaking. Indeed, the lead author of the study conceded that  “Any time you try to say that death is attributable to a single cause, there’s a problem — all deaths are attributable to many causes. But what we did is just as valid as what was done to establish smoking as a cause of death.”

Considering the now wide spread acceptance that smoking does affect mortality, if the methods used by this study are analogues to the evidence used to link smoking to death, then the researchers might actually be on to something.

Using data from the year 2000, the study indicated that 133,000 people died from poverty related deaths. Compare that to 156,000 deaths from lung cancer in the same year and you start to see where the researchers are headed.

Death is the Common Metric

The social sector gets flack for not having a common unit of measurement. In the business world profit serves as the equalizer across organizations. But if we can measure poverty in terms of death, what can possibly be more equalizing than that? Not all people or organizations achieve profit, but all of us will die.

By framing poverty in terms of death, and if the estimate of poverty related death ranks up there with more celebrated causes like lung cancer, then perhaps we should consider reframing the work that we do.

In this framework, changes in poverty level become intermediate indicators instead of ultimate outcomes.  Instead, the ultimate outcomes metric is the number of lives saved (or lost to) poverty.

But as much as I find the idea intriguing, I’m skeptical of the approach.  I wonder what this exercise really teaches us. Anyone who has been poor or worked directly with people struggling with poverty knows first-hand that being poor increases risk of death.

Furthermore, even if death does make sense as final outcomes metric, it is not useful as an intermittent indicator for planning programs for once someone is dead; there isn’t much you can do for them.

So while this study might have revealed an interesting factoid and possible new way to frame poverty alleviation work to donors, it does not offer anything of value to help improve the impact of poverty interventions. Instead, we’ll have to stick with more tried and true indicators that reveal the trajectory an individual or family is on, rather than their final destination.

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