Poverty has a disparate impact on communities across the United States, often affecting individuals’ ability to access transportation, health services, and employment opportunities.
But because the dynamics of poverty include a multitude of underlying factors, it can be difficult for communities and states to effectively address these concerns on their own, or for individuals experiencing poverty to access needed resources.
To gain a more accurate understanding of the needs of their local communities, address some of the indicators of poverty, and empower individuals to take steps to support themselves, organizations across the U.S. have partnered with regional nonprofits and other stakeholders to utilize a self-assessment tool, known as Poverty Stoplight, to identify and overcome some of the barriers to personal well-being.
The underpinning of Poverty Stoplight is the concept that poverty is mutli-dimensional, encompassing a variety of factors beyond just income—including health, access to housing and transportation, and societal well-being. By reframing poverty as not just an income issue, the tool is able to take a more holistic look at the strengths and needs of individuals across a community to better address and overcome societal gaps.
How the Poverty Stoplight tool works
The Poverty Stoplight tool was created by Dr. Martín Burt, the founder of the nongovernmental organization Fundación Paraguaya, which works to address issues surrounding poverty and unemployment through the use of entrepreneurial solutions. Poverty Stoplight was first used by Fundación Paraguaya as part of a micro-financing program designed to support rural farmers in Paraguay, but it has since expanded across the globe to engage individuals around issues of poverty and personal well-being. More than 400 organizations in 46 countries have adopted the tool to better understand and address the social needs of individuals experiencing poverty.
The self-assessment survey tool uses Poverty Stoplight’s software and can be conducted on mobile phones, tablets, or computers. It takes around 40 to 60 minutes for individuals to complete. The tool helps identify some of the less visible manifestations of poverty, and then works to address these micro-level indications of poverty through more direct and targeted approaches.
The tool looks at poverty across six different dimensions to define what it means for individuals to be—and not to be—poor, including: income and employment; health and environment; housing and infrastructure; organization and participation; education and culture; and interiority and motivation. Each of these dimensions includes a series of questions for participants, known as “indicators,” that are used to measure varying components of that specific area.
With a baseline of approximately 50 total indicators—which can be expanded or reformatted depending on the needs and makeup of the local community—organizations that use the tool are able to delve deeper into some of the factors causing poverty, thereby gaining insights into the resources and services that the community needs.
The indicators themselves are divided into three color-coded measurement levels to present participants with a “life map” of their responses. Green signifies no poverty, yellow highlights poverty, and red identifies extreme poverty. These maps, shared with participants following the survey, help them visualize the barriers they face, while at the same time highlighting the resources they have that they could potentially leverage. Alongside a coach, participants can then choose three to five of the identified priority areas and then work to create an action plan for overcoming these barriers. Some of the indicators are issues that the participants themselves can take steps to address; others, meanwhile, are more systemic and require some outside intervention or support to tackle.
Building a sense of resilience and personal well-being
One of Poverty Stoplight’s 15 hubs around the world is the Community Aspirations Hub, an initiative of the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SIE) Lab at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work.
Dr. Gary Nelson, director of the SIE Lab, said he first became aware of the Poverty Stoplight tool several years ago and intuitively liked its multi-dimensional approach to addressing poverty. After deciding to adapt it for North Carolina, the SIE Lab held focus groups with residents and worked to modify the survey’s indicators to better meet the realities of the community. In order to remove the stigma of poverty that some individuals might feel when taking the survey, they changed the name of the Poverty Stoplight tool to Aspire. Dr. Nelson said part of this was out of a desire to make participants feel more comfortable speaking about their aspirations, rather than reinforcing the notion of poverty.
The SIE Lab is using the Aspire tool to help individuals build a sense of resilience, while also empowering them to take the steps needed to improve their own well-being. The Aspire tool uses an expanded set of 55 indicators under the six dimensions of poverty to gain further insights into the lives of participants, including prompts about their access to transportation, their experiences with discrimination, their engagement with their communities, and their self-confidence levels.
“I like to think of it as like a graphic novel,” Dr. Nelson said. “You have pictures and words, and you can look at a visual representation of their situation. If you’re talking about housing, you can look at the housing indicators and the red, yellow, and green coloring to see how it mirrors the person’s felt experience. So it’s different in the sense that it captures how they see themselves, rather than how we see them.”
The Aspire pilot first launched in 2020 with the support of several organizations, including the Cabarrus County Department of Human Services (DHS) and Telamon Corporation, that helped to adapt the tool for use in North Carolina. Dr. Nelson said Cabarrus County DHS initially used the Aspire tool for prevention around child welfare “and found that it changed the conversation with families and the nature of engagement.” Cabarrus County DHS is now working to implement the Aspire tool across their agency. Telamon, a nonprofit organization supporting families in need, also launched a second pilot program to work on engagement and outcomes with Head Start families in Sampson County, North Carolina.
Dr. Nelson said that Poverty Stoplight and Aspire are more than just self-assessments, but important tools for helping participants build relationships with coaches to address their situations, learn more about themselves, and figure out the best ways that they can better themselves and their communities.
“After they get a life map, they choose what area they want to address first,” Dr. Nelson said. “And it’s also helpful because they’re able to see that their life is not all reds and yellows, and that there are places where they have strengths and assets. So they’re able to pick the most pressing or actionable things that, to them, are the most important to address, and then we develop a coaching model to work with them to achieve those goals.”
Working with community partners to address poverty
Other organizations working to implement the Poverty Stoplight tools say that it has helped them better engage with stakeholders and other nonprofits in their communities, while also helping to better understand the needs of local individuals and families.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chemung County (CCE-Chemung), which includes the city of Elmira, New York, received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission in 2017 to develop and implement the Poverty Stoplight tool in a pilot focused on the poorest census tract of the city. CCE-Chemung’s Poverty Stoplight initiative, known as Move Forward, works to help individuals take the steps needed to improve their quality of life.
“We saw that Elmira had a higher percentage of people living in poverty than the state, and that these levels were higher among people of color,” said Andy Fagan, Move Forward’s program leader. “As we talked among ourselves we saw there were all of these resources available, but they weren’t being effectively communicated. So we wanted to leverage the power we had, including a Cornell University Listserv, to help streamline communication about available resources.”
Move Forward received an additional grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission in 2019 to expand the pilot to Elmira’s three poorest census tracts, and Cornell University has also provided a small grant to help expand the tool to ten other counties in New York. Since Move Forward’s initial rollout of the Poverty Stoplight tool, the assessment has been slightly modified to include 52 indicators that best mirror the region’s needs. Fagan said that Move Forward has collected 259 Poverty Stoplight assessments from respondents, with the majority of those coming from Elmira and a smattering of others coming from other counties as the initiative continues to expand.
While access to transportation is one of the indicators that Move Forward tracks, Fagan said survey responses have indicated a need to streamline transit services for the region—particularly in the rural communities surrounding Elmira. Fagan said one individual who took the Poverty Stoplight assessment shared that he was excited about an upcoming job interview at a large local business, but was concerned because he lacked his own transportation. Although Move Forward’s partners identified that a bus did stop near the business, it was not accessible during shift changes at the job. As a result, the individual did not get the job.
“We had an opportunity to see that the bus goes near this business, but doesn’t go at the right time for workers,” Fagan said. “So there is a potential to identify some of these issues for transit providers and employers as well.”
Fagan said Move Forward is continuing to work on bringing in partners who can help expand out the tool’s use across the region so other counties and regions have an effective model for implementing Poverty Stoplight initiatives.
“We know the power of this is with the numbers,” Fagan said. “The more people who complete this, the more information we will have. And that will help us identify the areas of need, including when it comes to accessing transportation.”