Data is History

If one had the time, she/he could probably tell the history of women since 1980, when President Carter recognized women’s history week, through 35 years of data and research studies. Modern women’s history is in part the history of creating new information to create a wider “circle of concern,” and to soften old, ossified notions of how women are faring, and what women can be.

The past two decades have produced generations of more accurate measures of financial well-being. Demand for metrics is broad-based, coming from advocates, progressive decision makers, and a public increasingly expecting to see numbers driving policy change and demonstrating impact. Both supply and demand of metrics have also increased in response to the advent of social media, which have created an expectation that pithy professional and political information will be regularly dispatched and responded to by political leaders, opinion leaders, advocates, academics and constituents. What used to be true for academics is now true for policy professionals: Publish or perish. This new compulsion is a curse to those who fear obsolescence, and a blessing for those on the lookout for new ways to break through the noise, to overcome “issue fatigue” and old conceptions of poor and poverty.

Over its 50-year history, WOW has sometimes led and sometimes joined the field in equipping those who care about women and families. In 1996, the Self-Sufficiency Standard became one of the first well-being measures developed within the American non-profit sector. WOW subsequently published the Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index)—a  measure of the incomes older adults need to meet their basic needs, protect their health and age in their own homes—and the Basic Economic Security Tables Index (BEST Index), a contemporary investigation of the annual income and savings workers require for economic security across the lifespan. These budget standards ask and answer questions about what basic needs are and how much income modern households need. They can also be used to answer any number of questions so many of us want to answer in helping women, questions about “good jobs,” economic development, gender equity, the cost of abuse, public assistance programs, personal development, etc. Such questions lie at the intersection of so much good work and good data being produced by our sister women’s organizations and researchers across the country. It should also be noted that the Obama Administration’s recent devotion to data and drive to answer such questions is historic (see executive orders, the DOL Women’s Bureau, Middle Class in America).  

Frankly, sometimes women’s history month can seem passé, like on old concept, like more noise. But if we want women and families to continue to occupy a small portion of decision makers’ minds, we need to better arm ourselves with improved understanding of security challenges and facts on the ground, to better reflect the realities of more and more kinds of women, and to connect data to the personal narratives of those who suffer insecurity and petition for policy responses.  

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