In the wake of the recent recession, which culminated in millions of consumers losing their jobs and their homes, the community development offices of the Federal Reserve System determined that it was important to supplement available economic data with information specific to the well-being of low- and moderate-income (LMI) populations. Shortly thereafter, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, along with several other Reserve Banks, initiated surveys to monitor the shifting landscape in these vulnerable communities.
In January 2011, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia launched the Community Outlook Survey (COS)1 in an effort to assess the economic conditions of LMI populations in the Third Federal Reserve District2 as well as the organizations that serve them. The surveys are completed by a senior staff member at a broad cross-section of organizations, including social service agencies, community development corporations, housing counseling agencies, food banks, government agencies, and other nonprofits that provide direct services to LMI populations.
Each quarter, leaders of these organizations answer questions on whether conditions affecting their LMI clients have improved, declined, or remained the same relative to the previous quarter. Respondents can also provide supplementary comments specific to their organization. The aggregated responses measure changes in LMI households regarding job availability, availability of affordable housing, financial well-being, and access to credit. Other responses measure LMI service providers’ demand for services, capacity to serve clients’ needs, and funding.
The data collected from the COS can serve as a useful resource for organizations that provide services to LMI populations. The economic indicators may help nonprofits confirm anecdotal evidence and transform these stories into data, which then can be tracked over time.
The respondents’ comments are also valuable because they provide service providers with insight into how their peers are most effectively overcoming obstacles such as funding cuts and reductions in staffing. Knowledge of best practices may help avoid loss of time and money.
The COS can also be beneficial to banks and government agencies. Knowledge of the issues facing LMI communities in the region may encourage banks to create new products that are more attractive and effective in meeting the needs of LMI consumers. Similarly, government agencies may use the data to craft programs to cope with changing conditions.
Because the COS is meant to be used as a tool by policymakers, service providers, and other groups, it is essential that the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia receives participation from a diverse group of organizations covering the entire region. High participation enhances the accuracy of the findings. For those who already receive the survey in their e-mail inbox each quarter, please remember that the survey takes only minutes to complete. If you do not receive the survey and believe you may qualify, register for the survey on the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s community development web page3 or send an e-mail to Daniel Hochberg at phil.COSurvey@phil.frb.org .
In the first two years of the survey, the data depict LMI communities that have faced persistent economic turmoil. Affordable housing availability, financial well-being, and access to credit have decreased for eight consecutive quarters, while job availability has only just begun to experience nominal gains.
Survey data suggest that service providers for LMI populations have struggled to stay afloat in the troubled economy. Reductions in funding, particularly due to cutbacks in government spending, have damaged organizations’ ability to assist those in need, and the situation is further exacerbated by steep increases in the demand for their services. While the deterioration of conditions affecting LMI households appears to be slowing, conditions affecting LMI service providers continue to worsen.
Although still in its infancy, the COS should be viewed as a helpful tool to gauge changes in the financial condition of the Third District’s LMI communities. By converting qualitative data into quantitative data, the Philadelphia Fed makes the survey valuable to organizations seeking additional sources to influence data-driven funders. The Philadelphia Fed encourages organizations serving LMI people to engage in the survey to further enhance the initiative.
Daniel Hochberg can be contacted at 215-574-3492 or firstname.lastname@example.org .