For those who help the poor, a bit of math is exposing a kaleidoscopic view of poverty.
By Andrew Eder
On the wall of economist James Foster’s office hangs a painting of blossoming roses, connected by a stem. Woven into the dark background is a repeating string of letters and symbols—a piece of a mathematical formula.
Muted and gray, the equation would seem a strange accompaniment for the vibrant red roses. But like the roses, it hints at a brighter future.
The formula—developed by Dr. Foster, a GW professor of economics and international affairs, and Sabina Alkire of Oxford University—is redefining the meaning of poverty and, with it, reshaping our understanding of how to ease that burden. It’s used to measure “multidimensional poverty”—the concept that poverty and well-being are defined by factors such as education, health, and housing, not just income. The United Nations Development Program has made use of it, as have the governments of Mexico and Colombia, and other organizations looking to extend their definition of poverty beyond the traditional “dollar-a-day” measure.“Education, health, sanitation, asset-building, quality of jobs—these are all dimensions of poverty,” says Dr. Foster, who is director of the Institute for International Economic Policy (IIEP) at the Elliott School of International Affairs.
That kind of data, he says, can generate a comprehensive, three-dimensional image of poverty capable of helping policy hit its mark.