Columbia Helps Robin Hood Foundation Offer Better Support to the City’s Poor

An expanded poverty tracking survey will now look at early childhood poverty and the experiences of Asian-American New Yorkers.

Sonia Huq and Georgette Jasen
November 21, 2019

What’s it like to be poor in New York? What does it take to get out of poverty and stay out? Which government programs make a difference? What is the effect of poverty on children?

These are some of the questions that researchers at Columbia School of Social Work’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy consider as they assemble data from the Poverty Tracker, a quarterly survey of some 4,000 New York households produced for the Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to fight poverty in New York City.

To date, researchers have only been able to collect data on New Yorkers who either speak English or Spanish. Now Columbia researchers are expanding the survey to include a Mandarin-speaking sample as well as launching an Early Childhood Poverty Tracker (ECPT), which is an extension of the original study that will provide more data on families with children ages three and under.

The Mandarin-speaking sample will rely on the expertise of the China Center for Social Policy at Columbia University headed by Dr. Qin Gao.

"The Chinese population is the largest and one of the fastest growing Asian ethnic groups in New York City. Yet we still know little about this group, especially in terms of poverty, hardships and service needs,” Dr. Gao said. “This new addition in the Poverty Tracker survey will enable us to learn a lot about this population and offer suggestions about how to better meet their needs."

The ECPT takes a closer look into the issue of childhood poverty.  The longitudinal study hopes to shed light on the challenges and resources that shape the development of children throughout their early years. The first of its preliminary findings were recently released.

“Almost a quarter of children ages 0-3 live in poverty and nearly half of the city’s young children live in lower-opportunity neighborhoods where the poverty rate is at least 20 percent. These conditions are especially concerning as disadvantage in the early years can have such a profound effect on children’s subsequent health and development,” said Jane Waldfogel, professor at the School of Social Work and co-director of the Columbia Population Research Center.

When the project began in 2012, Robin Hood approached Columbia seeking a better understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty in New York City beyond the once-a-year snapshot that existing data sets provided. The foundation also wanted to get a more nuanced view on the many forms of disadvantage New Yorkers face on a daily basis.

Together Robin Hood and Columbia set out to study local poverty and to help identify anti-poverty strategies through the Poverty Tracker. The survey follows the same households every three months, asking about income, health problems and material hardships, which are defined as inabilities to meet such routine expenses as rent, food and utility bills. The households surveyed are a representative sample of New Yorkers in all five boroughs, at all income levels.

“We are proud to work with Columbia,” said Wes Moore, Robin Hood’s chief executive director.  “Our partnership creates a greater understanding of the multidimensional nature of poverty and hardship across New York City and informs our investments.”

Survey questions will be added over time to leverage research opportunities of policy relevance. Last year, for example, the survey asked about forced moves and evictions and concluded that more than 100,000 New Yorkers are forced out of their homes every year due to eviction, foreclosures, building sales or building condemnation. Others need to move because they can no longer afford the rent. This research highlighted the toll that displacement takes on families and neighborhoods for lawmakers in Albany and New York City as they considered changes to rent-stabilization laws and the city’s “Right to Counsel” eviction program.

“The Poverty Tracker is part of our strategic planning process,” said Sarah Oltmans, managing director for health at Robin Hood. Information from the survey, for example, helped Robin Hood identify neighborhoods where food insecurity is a problem, where funding for food pantries, food banks and other programs would be most effective. “We want our programs to be grounded in real data,” Oltmans said.

For years the Poverty Tracker has been an important tool in shaping policy for New Yorkers, and including new data sets will make it even more effective. Christopher Wimer, a senior research scientist at the School of Social Work and co-director of its Center on Poverty and Social Policy, noted, “Expanding the scope of the survey to include young children and Mandarin-speaking people all comes down to improving the lives of even more New Yorkers."