‘Poverty-free life expectancy’ proposed as new global metric

Reducing poverty can play a key role in improving the health of people around the world. But few measurement tools have been available that enable global health experts to assess the combined effects of poverty and health on people’s lives.

Now, researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have developed a new metric—“poverty-free life expectancy,” or PFLE—that could help more accurately measure health and economic wellbeing around the world. In an August 2018 Lancet Global Health study, the authors wrote that while most monitoring and benchmarking efforts are focused on a single dimension, such as healthy life expectancy or poverty prevalence, “PFLE brings focus to health and wellbeing of populations in a way that encourages policy makers to consider the broad benefits of decisions, policies, and reforms.”

The researchers developed a population-level measure of PFLE based on data from 90 countries. For each of the countries, they produced a PFLE estimate—the average number of poverty-free years a person could expect to live if exposed to current mortality rates and poverty prevalence in that country.

The average PFLE in the 90 countries in the study was 66 years for women and 61.6 years for men. But PFLE varied widely between countries—for example, the average in Malawi was only 9.9 years, while in Iceland it was 83.2 years. In 67 out of 90 countries, the difference between life expectancy and PFLE was greater for women than men, suggesting that women generally live more years of life in poverty than men.

Differences in PFLE between countries are substantially greater than differences in life expectancy, the authors wrote. They urged the use of the PFLE metric to “help establish accountability for policies that aim to end poverty and promote wellbeing at all ages.”

Harvard Chan School authors of the study included Joshua Salomon, adjunct professor of global health, and David Canning, Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Sciences and Professor of Economics and International Health. Lead author was Carlos Riumallo-Herl, SD ’17, now with the Erasmus School of Economics.

Read the Lancet Global Health study: Measuring health and economic wellbeing in the Sustainable Development Goals era: development of a poverty-free life expectancy metric and estimates for 90 countries