Recap & Response: Measuring Poverty

On September 23, 2016, CAPP-USA and Fordham University co-sponsored a conference called “Pope Francis’ Call for Escaping Poverty: Practical Examples and New Proposals.” The conference examined the definition and measurement of poverty and proposed specific, practical efforts which operationalize Pope Francis’ insistence that people “be dignified agents of their own destiny.” What follows is the latest in a series of posts authored by graduate students in Fordham University’s International Political Economy & Development Program that offer a summary and response to a topic discussed at the conference.

When Pope Francis spoke at the United Nations in September of 2015, he delivered a powerful message on poverty calling all to action “to enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty [by allowing] them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.”

Professor Henry Schwalbenberg and his students at Fordham University answered this call.

Using Pope Francis’s speech as a guidepost, they developed a new tool to measure areas of human need, titled “Fordham’s Pope Francis Global Poverty Index.”

Dr. Henry Schwalbenberg.
Dr. Henry Schwalbenberg.

From the speech, they identified seven indicators across two categories: material well-being (water, food, housing, and employment), and spiritual well-being (education, gender, and religious freedom).

Unlike previous indices, such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), Fordham’s includes measures for both gender equality and religious freedom.

The index was created with easily obtained public data, focusing on impact indicators. This led to some interesting results—for example, the study found that literacy is correlated to graduation rates, but not to primary school enrollment, nor spending on education. This may suggest the importance of focusing policy to help students stay in school and get their diplomas.

The study also found that access to water was strongly related to several other indicators, especially housing and gender. This is an area where the index can be improved, with future work looking at different measures for gender and housing.

Fr. Elias D. Mallon expounded on the inclusion of religious freedom in the index, raising several philosophical questions with which the development field is currently grappling:

  • Does the right to religious freedom reside within the individual or within the corporate body?
  • When does the right to religion impinge upon the rights of other religions (intentionally or otherwise)?
  • At what point does one group’s right to religious freedom end?

According to Fr. Mallon, these issues become political when one group calls on the state to promote their own beliefs.

Fr. Elias Mallon
Fr. Elias Mallon.

The potential for these issues to unravel into myriad loose ends is great, but Fr. Mallon pulled everything back to the centrality of our humanity.

“When Pope Francis talks about, ‘goods,’” said Fr. Mallon, “he means more than just physical things. He means ‘the common good’ as well.”

“Thus religious freedom is a shared space, built with everyone’s participation. We are to regard all as brothers and sisters, with our work done in the service of the common good.”

Because Fordham’s Pope Francis Index strongly correlates with the standard Human Development Index (HDI), it provides a powerful new way to begin to not only address the material needs of people, but to identify ways to attend to spiritual well-being as well.

IPED Conference (Sept. 23, 2016) Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Luther Flagstad is a first-year student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.