November 8, 2004

Professor tackles predicting poverty

About 15 years ago, Robert Mogull needed poverty information for a research project.

But the professor of business statistics was surprised to discover that there were no forecasts of poverty. People dedicated to helping the poor had little idea whether to expect greater percentages and counts of people falling into poverty in upcoming years or what demographic groups could be impacted.

That just didn’t fit with Mogull's methodical, detail-oriented approach to solving problems. So, after publishing a dozen studies on welfare expenditures at various jurisdictional levels, he moved on to finding a reliable gauge of future poverty.

He eventually developed a unique approach for modeling forecasts of poverty by demographic group and has published 20 studies on estimating and forecasting poverty over the past decade and a half in highly regarded peer-reviewed journals. Although most of previous poverty studies focused on the state of California, his latest estimates and forecasts extend to out-of-state jurisdictions and are forthcoming in major professional journals.

“I see my work as filling the gap between what the government has been able to gather, and what we need,” Mogull says. “This is information that legislators, public administrators, health departments, housing agencies, social service groups and others really need in order to do their jobs well.”

Mogull created a statistical model based on the 10-year Census data. It’s intended to provide policymakers and others with accurate, annual poverty predictions for the sub-national level.

“I’ve been contacted by people all over the country asking for copies so they can replicate the studies in their own areas,” Mogull says.

Those who have called include state legislators and local policymakers. State Treasurer Phil Angelides and his staff have asked Mogull to brief them on a continual basis. Mogull also provided data for the group that eventually succeeded in getting a living wage ordinance passed in the City of Sacramento.

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee has also interviewed him on several occasions for his columns.

“It’s very interesting—different politicians have a totally different take on what the evidence suggests,” Mogull says. “For instance, liberals think that it demonstrates the need for more social services, while conservatives think that it shows that we need to curtail immigration.

“I’m not political myself. I do the research in a very objective way, because I’m interested in the data and in the trends.”

Part of the problem, as Mogull initially discovered and that social service planners all over the country have faced, is that detailed Census data comes out only every 10 years. The government’s annual Current Population Survey uses a national sample, but not one that is of much use at the state or local level. In the Sacramento area in year 2000, for instance, the Current Population Survey included just 275 of the more than 450,000 households. That’s not nearly enough to reliably gauge poverty demographically and regionally.

But the larger problem is that both offer only a snapshot of current poverty—not poverty three, five or 10 years into the future. So it has been difficult to plan for future needs.

Mogull’s work on poverty has been published in some of the top business, economic and social policy journals in the country. Most recently, a detailed look at Sacramento County poverty was published in the spring 2004 issue of the Journal of Applied Business Research, and he has made several presentations at conferences. In addition, Mogull has a slew of studies about to be published: including one on poverty in New York City in The American Economist and one on national Hispanic poverty in the Journal of Applied Business Research.

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