Determining a deprivation index

Posted on April 19, 2008 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – GTA – Determining a deprivation index: Daily Bread Food Bank using survey to develop ‘economic strain’ guide for poverty in Ontario
April 19, 2008 Laurie Monsebraaten, Staff Reporter

Opal Sparks dreams of the day she doesn’t have to walk in somebody else’s shoes. Second-hand clothes are second nature for the 56-year-old former office administrator whose mobility problems forced her out of work four years ago. And for her, a constant reminder that she is poor. “Everything I’m wearing today, except my coat and my underwear, are used,” she says. “Even my shoes.” If you can’t afford new clothes, are you poor?

It’s a question a group of low-income Torontonians debated recently as part of a focus group to help determine what it means — in real life — to be poor in Ontario. Their answers, along with the views of about 2,000 others living on low incomes, are being collected by the Daily Bread Food Bank to help the provincial government design a made-in-Ontario definition it can use to set goals and track progress in its promised poverty reduction strategy due by year’s end.

“One of the big jobs is going to be how we measure our success,” Children and Youth Minister Deb Matthews, chair of the provincial cabinet committee drafting the plan, said this week. “We’re looking at different measures that really reflect the complexity of poverty.”

The Daily Bread process involves coming up with a list of between eight and 10 necessities of life — things poor people feel they need, but are unlikely to have. Those who are missing two or more of these items because they can’t afford them would be considered poor. The poverty rate would be calculated by counting those people.

Kyle Vose doesn’t believe clothes make the man. The 35-year-old, HIV-positive activist struggles to survive on Ontario’s $999 monthly disability support program, prefers second-hand clothes.
“I would rather wear used,” he says. “It’s better for the environment. But I guess I’d like to have a choice.” “What about socks?” asks Charles Jergl, 37, who has lived on just $560 in welfare payments since he lost his hotel job in January. “I’d love to have a new pair of socks.”

The food bank’s efforts mirror work pioneered by Ireland in the late 1980s and now underway in Europe, the UK and Australia, to develop so-called “deprivation” or “economic strain” indexes to help policy makers define poverty in a way that is more meaningful and accurate than looking at income alone. But some social justice advocates believe this new way of looking at poverty will divert the province’s attention from actually doing anything about the problem. And since fewer people in Ontario may be considered poor under this measure, they worry it could be hijacked by right-wing groups to argue against the need for any government action to fight poverty.

But Michael Mendelson still believes passionately this is the way to go. “Every country looking at poverty reduction is looking at this concept,” says the senior scholar for the socially progressive Caledon Institute of Social Policy, and one of the country’s leading experts on measuring poverty. “Other provinces like Nova Scotia and Manitoba are also very interested in this idea. There really is a consensus building around it,” he says.

Mendelson and others believe a deprivation index will resonate with the general public more than arbitrary income measures because it is concrete. Items in the index are things the average person can see and feel and when taken together describe a quality of life most would agree is substandard or poor. “One of our objectives is for 95 per cent of the general public to accept our definition,” he says. “It means we will very likely under-count. But that’s a trade-off we are willing to accept to get public buy-in.” No country expects this kind of index to tell the whole story when it comes to something as complex as poverty, he says. But when used in conjunction with income and other measures, it helps to provide a fuller picture.

Ireland developed what it calls a “consistent poverty” measure in 1987. The eight-item list was updated last year to 11 items. It includes such things as being able to afford two pairs of sturdy shoes; meals with meat, chicken, fish or vegetarian equivalent every two days; and sharing a meal or drinks with family or friends every two weeks. In Ireland, those who live on less than 60 per cent of the median income and who don’t have two or more items on the index are considered to be living in “consistent poverty.” Ireland’s “consistent poverty” rate of 6.5 per cent in 2006 is significantly lower than its “at-risk-of-poverty” rate of 17 per cent, which is derived solely from the number of people living below 60 per cent of the median income.

Back at the Daily Bread Food Bank, research director Michael Oliphant and survey co-ordinator Richard Matern take their focus group participants through a list of 29 possible necessities of life in Ontario.
It’s not easy to pare it to 10. “It would be nice to get my hair cut,” says Thomas Canning, 46, grabbing a strand of his shoulder-length blond hair as the group debates the importance of being able to get a professional haircut every couple of months. “When it gets too long, it gets unmanageable,” says Canning whose undiagnosed learning and speech disabilities as a child, combined with partial hearing loss, has left him illiterate and reliant on provincial disability supports. “It’s a part of your self-esteem,” agrees Jergl, the unemployed hotel worker who’d also like new socks. “If you don’t feel good about how you look, how are you going to go out there and get a job?”

Some items, like owning a food processor, seem like an easy frill to eliminate — at first. “I don’t have one and I don’t think it’s necessary,” says single mom Monica Mendoza, 29, who hopes her training in Daily Bread’s industrial kitchen will help her leave welfare for a job in the food industry. But what if you have arthritis and you can’t chop your food, asks Vose, the HIV-positive activist.

So far, the food bank has analyzed 1,000 surveys and has come up with a list of 10 items that most respondents said were necessary but didn’t have because they couldn’t afford them. Topping the list was regular savings of at least $20 a month for a rainy day followed by fresh fruits and vegetables every day and a small amount of money to spend each week on yourself. “These are just preliminary results, but I think they are very interesting because they show what people in low-income feel are important,” says Oliphant.

Next, the food bank plans to distribute the survey to social service agencies across the city to ensure a broad range of ethnic and cultural groups are also tapped for their thoughts, he says. And it will conduct another 15 focus groups, including five in cities outside Toronto, to determine if they have left anything out, if the questions are clear and if any items reflect an unintended cultural or geographic bias. From those results, Daily Bread hopes to partner with pollster Ipsos Reid to produce a refined list of between 15 and 20 items to test on the general public next September.

“We don’t want to include any items that middle-income people say they can’t afford,” says Oliphant who hopes to have a final deprivation index ready for release by October for the province to consider.
But a deprivation index isn’t a proxy for poverty, Mendelson warns. “You don’t pull these people out of poverty by giving them the items they lack,’ he says. “It’s just a set of symptoms of a poverty-level standard of living.”

So, poverty in Ontario won’t be eliminated by giving Opal Sparks a new pair of shoes or Charles Jergl new socks, or Thomas Canning a haircut. But at least the government will have a way to measure how many are like them in Ontario, Mendelson says. And the public will have a way to keep track of society’s efforts to help.

Take the Daily Bread Food Bank’s poverty survey at

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