Where Is Grant Money Needed the Most? Here's a Nifty Tool That Can Tell You

Charities working to reduce poverty can now take advantage of a new online tool that goes far beyond federal statistics in providing both regional and national data on basic human needs among the poor—and how those needs change over time. 

Released today, the new Human Needs Index is the result of a five-year collaboration between the Salvation Army and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. It captures detailed, uniformly reported information collected by more than 7,500 Salvation Army centers providing social services nationwide.

The index compiles seven indicators of basic needs: meals provided, groceries distributed, shelter and other housing aid, furniture provided, medical assistance, and help with heating or other utility bills. With the new tool, users can examine data on the monthly or annual demand for those services in their state and compare it with nationwide averages. New data will be added quarterly, with information currently available from 2004 through the first quarter of this year. 

Presenting the new index during a press conference today in Washington, D.C., Indiana University officials said it offers both grant seekers and grantmakers more detailed and timely information than the unemployment, income, and supplemental nutrition statistics released by the federal government. It also offers a way for charities to assess whether new programs aimed at needy individuals and families in the future are associated with a subsequent reduction in demand for services at the Salvation Army, which annually serves some 30 million of the estimated 48.8 million Americans living below the poverty line.  

The index also offers insights about poverty in the aftermath of the Great Recession, with some states such as Nevada and Michigan still facing significantly higher demand for food, shelter, and other necessities than those states reported before the historic economic downturn, said Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

When unemployment benefits run out, she said, “we see needs persist long after the economic shocks subside.”  

The index and its findings, said Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services, "remind Americans that the recession is not over for tens of millions of people.”  

Indeed. A quick perusal of the Human Needs Index shows that many of the neediest Americans live right in the nation’s capital. Demand for Salvation Army services in Washington peaked in 2008, soaring much higher than the national average, with demand for services remaining stubbornly higher this year than it is nationwide.  

Ms. Osili also described other insights she and her colleagues gleaned from analyzing monthly data in the new index. For example, the researchers found a big increase in requests to help people pay their heating bills in April. Many communities, Ms. Osili said, have made it illegal to shut off heat during the winter months, making April the time when many Americans must pay overdue energy bills or risk having no heat the following winter.