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Purse Strings & Heartstrings

This blog post appeared as an Exclusive Commentary in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity on November 28,2012. You can access the original article here. 




Since 1970, the size of the U.S. prison population has grown more than 600 percent. If all the Americans currently in jail or prison today lived together in one city, it would edge out Houston as the country’s fourth largest, after only New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. 

Policymakers have finally begun to question this incarceration boom. What’s motivating this re-examination is not mounting evidence showing that incarceration isn’t the most effective way to increase public safety. It’s not the disturbing fact that the U.S. locks up more of its citizens than any other nation on earth. It’s not even growing awareness of the prison boom’s disproportionate impact on African American men and their families.

What finally got through was the cost. With today’s strained budgets, mass incarceration is getting a second look because the price tag is just too high. The economic argument succeeded where effectiveness, moral, and social justice arguments all came up short. What lessons can those of us working on issues of poverty and opportunity learn from this?  

First, we need to do a better job of making the connection between government spending in the abstract and the ways in which those investments are essential to the concrete services and infrastructure all of us rely on every day. This includes obvious investments such as roads and schools as well as less evident public services and systems. For example, the legal system allows the market to function through contract enforcement and protection of private property, and regulatory frameworks keep food, toys, and babies’ cribs safe. These collective investments may not be as apparent on a day-to-day basis, but they’re just as vital as roads and schools.

Fortunately, the payoff of these investments is fairly easy to demonstrate. Years of robust research tell us that prevention—in health, education, criminal justice, environmental protection, or infrastructure—can save hundreds of billions of public as well as private dollars annually. Among some clear examples:
• For every $1 invested in repairing our aging physical infrastructure and maintaining public health and emergency response systems, we would save $7 in natural disaster response in the form of property protected, response quality and time improved, and potential deaths averted.

• If America invested more in nutrition and exercise programs and created more walking and bike paths, we would reduce the staggering $116 billion spent every year in diabetes treatment.

• According to the 2012 U.S. Peace Index, for an expenditure of about $1,000 on prisoner education, taxpayers receive roughly $2,500 in benefits thanks to decreased recidivism and its associated costs to government and crime victims.

Second, we need to better account for both the cost of what we are already paying for our failure to invest in people as well as the benefits that accrue to people and communities when we direct our resources to human well being.

With just a little data, this is possible to do. For example, according to the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state spends $47,000 a year to keep a single prisoner behind bars. Head Start, in comparison, costs an average of $7,600 per child annually. Studies have shown that at-risk children who participate in high-quality early education programs are significantly less likely to spend time behind bars as adults than those who do not. In the long run, investment in early childhood education decreases incarceration rates and creates a cascade of measurable savings in education, social welfare programs, law enforcement, and more.

The legacy of public investments is all around us—so much so that we tend to take it for granted. Just as we need to make the economic case for investing in people, we also need to do a better job of showing how collective investments benefit all of us. Indeed life as we know it would be impossible without a functioning government funded by tax dollars. In the aftermath of large-scale disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the essential role of government is abundantly clear—but memories fade surprisingly fast. We need to make the case clearly and consistently ourselves, rather than waiting for hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes to make it for us.

Few of us started our work on issues of poverty and opportunity with the goal of making the case for efficient government expenditure. We did it for moral, ethical, spiritual, humanitarian, and social justice reasons. But when we make the case for investing in people only on those terms, we are preaching to the converted and failing to convince a significant share of our fellow Americans.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps are co-directors of Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council. 

MOA Data Featured in CaliforniaCampaign

Last year, Measure of America published A Portrait of California, which examines the well-being of California residents using the American Human Development Index (AHDI). This research was supported by a consortium of organizations hoping to stimulate dialogue and action to address challenges facing California today.

The study, which has already been well-received within the academic and philanthropic communities and is a frequently quoted source for the media, has now become the basis for a California-wide public health campaign.

Research from A Portrait of California is appearing on billboards all over the state, as part of the Health Happens Here campaign, a community-based health initiative supported by The California Endowment, one of the sponsors of A Portrait of California.

One of the first steps involved in calculating the AHDI for California was to determine the life expectancy for people living in each and every neighborhood and county group, using raw data from the California Department of Public Health. Measure of America’s life expectancy calculations are the only ones available for small geographies in California and as such, were among the novel and unique contributions of A Portrait of California

The Health Happens Here campaign uses poignant images of young Californians alongside life expectancy estimates from A Portrait of California to powerfully illustrate the wide gaps in health outcomes that exist between communities within the state. This video, produced by the California Endowment, speaks to how the campaign is using data from the report to motivate people across the state to see connections between social and environmental conditions in their communities and the kinds of health challenges they face as a result.

In the public health community, understanding of these “social determinants of health” is growing. The World Health Organization defines this term as, “the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness.” It is now important to find ways of conveying this concept to the general population. The Health Happens Here campaign holds great potential to raise awareness among communities throughout California that although doctors and medicines are vital once you are sick, the conditions of our daily lives hold the key to better health and greater longevity. Furthermore, these images draw public attention to inequalities in living standards and health outcomes among California residents, thus encouraging policy makers to target and ameliorate these disparities.

Measure of America is proud to have been involved in The California Endowment’s Health Happens Here campaign through their work on A Portrait of California and is looking forward to the positive impact it will have within the state of California.

A Portrait of Marin’s Widespread Local Impact

A Portrait of Marin, a county-level human development report produced by Measure of America and commissioned by the Marin Community Foundation (MCF), uses the American Human Development Index to assess well-being and needs in Marin County, California. The report compiles and analyzes data from official U.S. government sources to provide accessible, quantitative information on racial and ethnic demographics, economic conditions, health, and education within the county.

The report facilitates interaction between citizens, the public sector, and the private sector by providing a single source and a common language with which to deliberate community issues. A Portrait of Marin is also being translated into Spanish to enable the county’s growing Latino population to better understand aspects of the report that discuss this community’s needs and to take action to address them.

At a a community forum sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and the Marin Interfaith Council on May 23rd, MCF president and CEO Dr. Tom Peters stated that the Foundation commissioned the report “to promote equity and diversity through the process of engagement”— a way to turn statistical data into tools of empowerment. When we spoke with MCF this June, they discussed how the report has catalyzed both discussion and action in Marin since its publication in January 2012. More specifically, A Portrait of Marin:

    • INCITES PUBLIC DEBATE: The report engaged residents by creating a rare and nonpartisan space for them to discuss pertinent issues affecting their everyday lives. After the release of A Portrait of Marin, a lively back-and-forth between impassioned Marin residents emerged in local papers and online, and drew attention to issues of concern such as housing, child care subsidies, immigration, and education.
    • INFLUENCES HOUSING POLICY: Experts and advocacy groups within the county are using the report to effect policy change. One such group, Action Coalition for Equity, evoked the report to argue the need for further economic opportunities and housing for low-income families in Marin. The Marin Workforce Housing Trust even remarked that the report offered the most convincing argument for the increase in affordable housing yet. In fact, as reported in the New York Times, a private citizen of note, George Lucas, (while perhaps not directly inspired by the report) will turn his property, Grady Ranch, into affordable housing with MCF’s assistance.
    • INFORMS BANK INVESTMENTS: The report brings to light socio-economic gaps within the county, and banks such as Wells Fargo and Union Bank are using the report to fulfill their obligations under Community Reinvestment Act, an act approved by Congress to reduce discriminatory practices in low-income communities.  

These examples demonstrate just some of the wide-ranging impacts that a comprehensive human development report can have on local communities. Reports such as A Portrait of Marin are designed to be statistically robust yet clear and accessible, and to help communities identify areas of need and develop policy agendas.

Learn more about Measure of America’s impact and accomplishments, and visit our Publications page for a full listing of human developing reports.

Touring NYC With Marketplace Radio

You might have recently heard an interview on Marketplace with Measure of America co-director Sarah Burd-Sharps. The segment focused on the highs and lows in New York City—more specifically, on Manhattan’s East Side and the South Bronx. These two locales are at both extremes of the distribution of median personal earnings in the entire nation; quite a startling statistic considering they are only six subway stops apart.

Photo Credits: Diana Tung.


Measure of America led a tour of these areas for Marketplace, pointing out how government investment in differing areas is sometimes very uneven. The way the pie is divided has large implications for individuals and communities, as is evident in the quality of local infrastructure and services. We made sure to visit public facilities within the same system in both areas to explore how public resources are allocated. The tour included two branches of the New York Public library system, two parks in the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, a waste transfer site in the Bronx, as well as a proposed site in the Upper East Side.

East Side, Manhattan

Congressional District 14Annual Median Personal Earnings: $51,507

Sites visited:
– John Jay Park – Carl Shurz Park – Webster Library – Waste Transfer Site

South Bronx

Congressional District 16Annual Median Personal Earnings: $19,043

Sites visited:
– Rainey Park – Dawson Playground – Woodstock Library – Proposed Waste Transfer Site

Six miles and five hours later, plus many more in the recording studio, here you have it: a four-minute clip on Marketplace!With sincere thanks to Marketplace, David Brancaccio (@economy4_0) and Ann Heppermann. Also, stay tuned for more on our Tale of Two’s series. We’ll be following up on this post with examples from other places across the nation.

What do you think about these disparities? Do you see them within the places you live? Leave us a comment below.

You can also visit these sites on Google Maps:

MOA Responds to A Portrait of Marin Public Debate

As co-directors of Measure of America, we are gratified by the lively exchange of ideas among citizens we have seen in Marin County, California over the last two months in connection with A Portrait of Marin, our first-ever county-level American Human Development Report. As always, we aimed to stimulate fact-based dialogue by providing easy-to-use, methodologically sound tools for understanding the distribution of well-being and opportunity.

Commissioned by the Marin Community Foundation, A Portrait of Marin looks at how Marinites are faring by place and by gender, race, and ethnicity using the American Human Development Index, a measure of life expectancy, education, and earnings. 

In other words, we combined official statistics on how long people are living, the proportion of children and young people who are in school, the highest academic degree adults have attained, and the salaries of typical workers into a single number that falls on a scale from 0 to 10.  GDP tells us how the economy is doing. The American Human Development Index tells us how people are doing.

The Index is based on a methodology developed at the United Nations that has been in use for over 20 years in 150 countries. This work became the international gold standard for measuring well-being because it provided a much-needed diagnostic tool for policymakers and the general public to understand where they were succeeding in creating opportunity and where more effort was needed. And rather than focus only on economic metrics, the human development approach offers a way to address health, education, and living standards in the interconnected way that people actually experience them and opens a space for developing comprehensive and lasting solutions to challenges in these areas.

Our experience from Mississippi and Louisiana to California has been, somewhat counter-intuitively, that people who find themselves in the top spots on the Index often argue that they don’t actually belong there. We are not asserting that people in high-scoring locales—from Ross in Marin to the Upper East Side of Manhattan—have no problems or poverty. A high score on the American Human Development Index does not inoculate a place or group of people from the challenges inherent in the human condition; hearts break, cancers take hold, and life disappoints in affluent and struggling communities alike. But there are very concrete differences that matter for people’s lives and life chances—such as a 13-year life span gap between high and low-scoring communities in Marin, or the fact that Asian Americans in New Jersey live, on average, an astonishing 26 years longer, are 11 times more likely to have a graduate degree, and earn $35,610 more per year than South Dakota Native Americans. Life is not perfect for Asian Americans in New Jersey, but the typical Asian American in New Jersey nonetheless has a far more robust set of capabilities for living to their full potential and investing in themselves and their families than the typical Native American in South Dakota. Likewise people living in Ross as opposed to people living in the Canal area of Marin.

We invite people who have not yet had a chance to read A Portrait of Marin to do so, and to explore the interactive mapping program that allows users to map several dozen indicators by census tract in Marin and across the country.

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Poverty Kills. Better Policy, Not Better Medicine, Is the Solution.

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