An “intangible” dividend?

So here’s a curious narrative: in the early 1990s, 4,600 poor families in LA, New York, Chicago and Boston were moved from very poor neighborhoods (more than half the residents living in poverty) to wealthier (less than a third of the residents living in poverty).  The hope was this would result in better jobs, higher incomes, and better educational outcomes.

After rigorous, scientific testing, the initiative failed to deliver the desired results.

And yet, in what was described as an “intangible dividend” by the NY times, the recipients ended up significantly, quantifiably happier.  “The improvement [in happiness] was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year.”

This is the dividend that’s called intangible.  Happiness.

Of course it’s hard to measure, of course it is squishy and self-reported, but if we’re ever going to get anywhere we have to have the comfort and confidence to say out loud that things like human dignity, pride, and yes happiness are the whole point, the only point really, and that everything we’re doing is aimed at loose proxies to those results – what could be more real or concrete than that?

Just think how much we’ve punted on this issue, if we’re really honest with ourselves.  We’ve come to a point where we’re saying with a straight face that if we put a lot of money into the impact investing sector and that money realizes a healthy level of financial return then we’ve had success.  That puts us about seven degrees removed from actually understanding if anyone is better off, happier, freer, more proud or connected or more able to realize their potential, if someone is more likely to realize justice if they’re wronged or less likely to fall back into poverty if they get sick.

As a sector we have to have the courage to say out loud that happiness is not an “intangible” dividend, it’s not a silver lining in a program that otherwise failed to raise people’s incomes.

Would that we lived in a world in which the NY Times headline could have been: “large-scale government program a huge success, making 4,600 families happier, healthier, even without increasing incomes.”

It feels like looking at the sun, saying out loud that the whole point is happiness or pride or dignity.  It’s so much easier and safer to look away.

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