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  Measuring Poverty: Ontario's Deprivation Index

Deprivation Index questionIn the third seminar of the “Measuring Community Change” series, Liz Weaver interviews Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute for Social Policy about the Ontario Deprivation Index. The “deprivation index” lists items which are widely seen as necessary for a household to have a standard of living above the poverty level.

Learning Objective:

  • To become acquainted with the concepts of measuring community change efforts through indictors, indexes and other approaches. 
  • To learn about the Deprivation Index as a tool for measuring less poverty.
  • To become acquainted with other resources for measuring poverty and how the Deprivation Index differs.  

On this page you'll find:

Meet the Thought Leaders

Michael MendelsonMichael Mendelson - Michael Mendelson is Senior Scholar at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. He has held senior public service positions in both Ontario and Manitoba: Deputy Secretary (Deputy Minister) of Cabinet Office in Ontario; Assistant Deputy Minister in Ontario’s Ministries of Finance, Community Services and Health; Secretary to Treasury Board and Deputy Minister of Social Services in Manitoba.  He has published many articles on health, social, housing and fiscal policy, as well as books on the issue of universality and the administrative cost of income security programs.

Liz WeaverLiz Weaver - Liz Weaver, Lead Coach of the Vibrant Communities Canada team, provides coaching, leadership and support to Ontario community partners, including Opportunities Waterloo Region and the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction.   As lead coach, she helps initiatives develop their frameworks of change, supports and guides their projects and helps connect them to Vibrant Communities and other comprehensive community collaborations. Read more here.

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Roots of the Index

From his years working in government, and influenced by approaches in Europe, Michael became convinced of the need for a measure of poverty that was more intuitively understandable than measures based on income levels. Designating a certain income level as ‘poor’ can seem arbitrary.  He wanted a way of measuring that was relevant and believable to politicians and ordinary people .

The Daily Bread Food Bank, in partnership with the Caledon Institute, began looking at a different way to measure poverty, by asking a very large sample of people what they saw as necessary to have a standard of living above poverty, and secondly, what they have and do not have.   

The deprivation index is not a list of basic necessities, but is based on prevailing social and economic conditions in a certain area. For example, ‘clean running water’ does not distinguish poor from non-poor households in Ontario, with some exceptions, though it might in developing countries.  But being able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables every day could distinguish poor from non-poor households, even in a wealthy place such as Ontario.

The researchers used a three step process:

  • They surveyed about 1,775 users of food banks, as representing a group likely to be in poverty.
  • They held a number of focus groups in Ontario with targeted groups such as new immigrants, or those who did not speak English as a first language, who were not as represented in the survey. 
  • Finally, they engaged a professional firm  to poll over 2000 households in Ontario,

The result was a list of activities or items that distinguish households who are widely seen as poor from those who are not.

Listen to Michael explain how the Deprivation Index is different than the market basket measure,  by making an analogy between diagnosing poverty and diagnosing  flu - you determine who has the flu  (or is poor) by determining who has a certain set of symptoms.

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What is in the Deprivation Index?

Researchers found that Ontario households that answered 'no' to at least two of the questions listed below are likely to be poor.

  1. Do you eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day?
  2. Are you able to get dental care if needed?
  3. Do you eat meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent at least every other day?
  4. Are you able to replace or repair broken or damaged appliances such as a vacuum or a toaster?
  5. Do you have appropriate clothes for job interviews?
  6. Are you able to get around your community, either by having a car or by taking the bus or an equivalent mode of transportation?
  7. Are you able to have friends or family over for a meal at least once a month?
  8. Is your house or apartment free of pests, such as cockroaches?
  9. Are you able to buy some small gifts for family or friends at least once a year?
  10. Do you have a hobby or leisure activity?

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How is the Deprivation Index Different?

This index is based on the real life experience of the poor and non-poor as identified through focus groups and surveys. Other measures of poverty are a way of selecting an income level and calling that ‘poverty.’  Using income levels means we have not been able to research the relationship between income and poverty, taking into account factors such as assets, help from family, real housing costs and so on, none of which may be reflected in income levels alone.

In this clip, Michael explains how the incidence of poverty seems to be the same when measured by the deprivation index, but who is likely to be described as poor is different than those who are poor using income level measures.  He suggests that analysis of these differences will be helpful in pinpointing factors that contribute to poverty.

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Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy

As the Daily Bread Food Bank and the Caledon Institute were developing the index, the Ontario government was in the process of developing a strategy for poverty reduction for the province. The Ontario government came to adopt the deprivation index as one of the measures for the strategy, and  financed a Statistics Canada survey as part of the labour market survey, of more than ten thousand households in Ontario, likely the largest deprivation index survey ever undertaken in North America. The baseline data from this survey, called the Public Use Micro Files, is expected to be public in February or March of 2010.

Michael tells the story of how the deprivation index started as a community initiative, but came to be adopted by the Ontario Government.

International Links

The researchers were influenced by the use of similar indices in Ireland, the UK and the European statistical agency, as well as by research in Australia.

The international work helped them compile the preliminary list of questions to include in the index, and they worked with sister research agencies in the UK to get a sense of what they did right and wrong. However Michael believes the Canadian work is more empirical and rigorous and represents an advance on the European work.

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Next Steps

The initial research to validate the index has been very positive. Once the full survey results are publicly available, Michael hopes that many will use them for their own purposes, and that interest will continue to grow among researchers and governments.

Michael encouraged anyone interested in learning more or working with the data when it becomes available to read the Caledon papers and contact him at the email address on the Caledon site.

Michael expects to have a continuing partnership with the Ontario government and is very happy with the relationship. There is interest from researchers from other governments, for example, from Quebec.  Michael expects that as Caledon stars to publish more material, there will be greater interest from other governments.

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Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent does the Deprivation Index provide a resource to measure less poverty in communities?
  2. What are the challenges of implementing a new type of measurement tool and working with multiple partners in the design and development phases?
  3. How might communities use the baseline data that led to the Deprivation Index to advance their own poverty agenda?

To reflect on these and other important questions, refer to the Resources and Links below.

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Links & Resources

Developing a Deprivation Index: Presentation - This November 2009 PowerPoint presentation outlines how the index was developed and what is in the index.  Access the presentation here.

Developing a Deprivation Index: The Research Process - This paper tells the story of the development of the Ontario Deprivation Index by the Daily Bread Food Bank and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy.  A ‘deprivation index’ is a list of items which are widely seen as necessary for a household to have a standard of living above the poverty level.  Access the paper here.

Testing the Validity of the Ontario Deprivation Index - This paper is a preliminary test of the validity of the Ontario Deprivation Index using the results of a Statistics Canada survey of 10,000 Ontario households.  It looks at the performance of the index against 6 variables: income, education, employment status, immigration, family type and housing tenure.  Access the paper here.

Daily Bread Food Bank -  The Daily Bread Food Bank is a non-profit, charitable organization that is fighting to end hunger in our communities This section of their site contains research and  reports on Canada’s first deprivation index. Visit the Daily Bread Food Bank website.

Breaking the Cycle: Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy - This is the site of the Ontario government's poverty reduction strategy. Click “Targets and Measures” to read an overview of the indicators in the strategy. You can read more about how the Ontario government is using the Deprivation Index here.

Measuring Less Poverty  – While poverty in communities is often measured through income rates or percentages of low income households, broader measures include elements such as social inclusion, community development and well-being. This paper provides an overview of different approaches which organizations and governments have used to measure “less poverty”. Access the paper here.

Understanding Poverty - This section of the Tamarack website provides resources that frame poverty as a complex - rather than simple - issue,  and offers research and techniques related to definitions of poverty, selection of strategies, and how success is measured, evaluated and communicated. Access this action-learning topic here.

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Measuring Poverty: Ontario's Deprivation Index

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The Ontario Trillium Foundation