New San Francisco Distress Index reveals continued economic struggles

Oct. 21, 2010, 3:04 a.m.

A “distress index” developed jointly by the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality and New America Media and released in September reveals the worsening economic state of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents and may shed light on where improvement in public policy can provide the most help.

According to the report, entitled “Measuring Economic Distress in San Francisco,” “since December 2007 (the first official month of the great recession), economic distress in San Francisco has increased a full 100 percent.”

The index was based on 11 indicators of economic hardship, including CalWORKS enrollment, CalWORKS homeless-assistance requests, bankruptcies, food-stamp applications, food-pantry visits, MediCal enrollment, Healthy San Francisco enrollment, foreclosures, unemployment and County Adult Assistance Program participation.

According to Chris Wimer, the lead researcher on the project and the associate director of the center, the new distress index is meant to address the limited scope of current poverty statistics, such as those released annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, that rely primarily on factors such as income and size of family.

“The official poverty stats are really flawed,” he said. “They don’t take into account the cost of living, all the things that people need to spend money on now in terms of food, clothing, shelter. These indicators are built around [a] basket of resources that people use now to make ends meet.”

Additionally, Wimer says, current poverty statistics are published a year after their collection, further limiting their usefulness.

“Right now we only know numbers for 2009,” he said. “It won’t be until fall 2011 that we know the numbers for 2010.”

All data in the index are up to date through June 2010, with plans to update the index as data become available. The San Francisco-based news site The Public Press published an early version of the index in June, when it was titled the “Misery Index.” Executive Director Michael Stoll notes that the trends revealed by the index suggest fundamental errors with the methods that policymakers use to track poverty.

“Ten of the 11 markers changed in the same direction,” Stoll said. “The Obama administration declared that the recession ended last year, but this measure argues the opposite–the recession, as felt by the most vulnerable amongst us, is getting worse.”

While 10 measures showed upward trends, indicating increased need for social service, CalWORKS enrollment has decreased in this “Great Recession.” These trends, Wimer said, might reveal the relative efficacy of various social programs and help communities determine where to direct resources.

“The index can determine which services are working and which aren’t,” Wimer said. “The food pantry, for example, is doing a great job to ramp up services. CalWORKS is not showing as much of an increase, maybe because that program isn’t being as responsive to underlying indication of need.”

The Distress Index project, underwritten by the San Francisco Foundation and the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, further reveals that current distress is 76 percent higher than the average level of distress during the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, and almost double levels at the start of the Great Depression.

Sandy Close, the executive director of New America Media, which co-developed the project, says the index has tremendous potential not only to enable journalists to understand historical trends but also make sense of economic facts and figures.

“We as reporters have a hard time unpacking the economic data and getting a real sense of what’s going on around us,” she said.

Though the San Francisco project made use of county data, since the city is coterminous with the county, Close called it a “provisional first step” and expressed hope that similar indicators could be collected in other counties and subsets developed for individual cities. Such indexes, she says, make it easier to gauge not only hardship but improvement.

“I would like to see the distress index turned into a hope index,” she said. “It would be exciting if the indicators showed improvement.”

Contact Samantha McGirr at [email protected].

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