Francis Koster: What gets measured gets managed

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 7, 2021

When I was in school, one of the most dreaded sentences my teacher uttered was, “Close your books, we are going to have a pop quiz.” Over the past few months I have written a number of columns each teaching little known facts. Have you been paying attention?

Surprise! Here is your quiz:

1. How much more does the average American adult weigh now compared to 1960? 28 pounds.

2. What percentage of American school buildings have unhealthy levels of indoor air pollution? Nearly half.

3. How much invisible microplastic does the average American eat each week? Equal to one credit card.

4. Is our life expectancy getting longer or shorter? Shorter

5. Of all the nations of the world, where does America rank on the happiness scale? 35th.

One of the major obstacles to improving our society is that a large number of things that need fixing (as you saw above) are not well known. We have to make the invisible visible. One way to do that is to measure indicators of quality of life.

Let me tell you a story: Harvard University professors have demonstrated the link between this kind of indicator and the ability of poor families to protect their children, become economically secure and upwardly mobile.  The professors reviewed trended data about lower income families who were receiving taxpayer funded housing vouchers. Everyone in the study group had about the same annual income and the same number of kids.

These families were sorted into two different groups, one that continued living in a low income neighborhood, and the other which moved to a less-poor (not rich) neighborhood. Research revealed that when low income families with children move from a low-income neighborhood to a neighborhood closer to average income, their kids were more likely to go to college, and they earned 31% more than their age-mates who did not move.

A second Harvard study did a similar analysis on the children of 5 million lower income families who moved to nicer (not richer) neighborhoods. Their income did not rise.  Those children had lower teen pregnancy, more college attendance, and higher incomes.

The success of these children was not due to an increase in welfare payments, or other government subsidy. It was due to the quality of life in which they lived.

In the late 1980s, Charlotte civic leaders were wrestling with several problems related to low income housing, poor student performance, poor mental and physical health, high unemployment, and crime. They created a working group of inner city residents, policy makers and neighborhood leaders to guide them. Out of that effort a quality of life dashboard (now called the Quality of Life Explorer) was created that gathered trended data. They now regularly update profiles of 462 very different neighborhoods in the city.

When low income families locate among neighborhoods that score higher on the dashboard, our entire society benefits. This does not necessarily mean the families move to neighborhoods with higher income — it may mean that the new neighborhood is on a public transportation route (so the resident can travel to school or work), has supermarkets and public recreation space in walking distance, low air pollution, and a number of other positive indicators of quality of life.

One of many areas that changed due to the increased use of data was how and where low income housing was subsidized or constructed.  Using the community dashboard, Charlotte officials changed the scoring system they used to award builders subsidies to construct housing for lower income residents, restricting its investment in housing to smaller projects (so as to not change the character of the destination neighborhood) located in areas with the kind of characteristics that raise healthy achieving children. This has unleashed the entrepreneurial builders who now have a clear set of rules to follow, and lowered the stress on elected officials about what builder would get what subsidy.

This project became a national role model, and is a major contributor to why Charlotte is now ranked as # 6 for Quality of Life in America.

There are 1,521 incorporated cities and towns in America with over 25,000 residents – but only around one in five have created Quality of Life Dashboard. Here in North Carolina we only have two dashboards — Charlotte and Durham.

Why don’t we? There will be a pop quiz.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, spent most of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.