A Conversation with Boston Indicators' Luc Schuster

Measuring What We Value

TBF News Winter 2020

Boston Indicators logo

Boston Indicators was launched in 2000 by the Boston Foundation, the City of Boston and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to democratize access to data through a website and biennial reports. Today, as the Boston Foundation’s research center, it is working to advance a thriving Greater Boston by analyzing key indicators of well-being and by researching promising ideas for making our city more prosperous, equitable and just. Luc Schuster joined the Boston Foundation in 2017. Today, he is Senior Director of Boston Indicators.

What Is an Indicator?

It’s a data point or a number that is a simple, digestible signal of something bigger happening in our world. For instance, “median household income” (the amount a family brings in over a year), is a common indicator that we and other researchers use. It’s not perfect—no single measure is going to tell you the whole story—but if median household income is not increasing, it indicates that something is not working in our economy. And that’s a good example in our context, because Boston has a booming economy when you look at it in aggregate, but median household income is flat, or even down, while incomes at the top have gone up considerably.

Luc Schuster
Luc Schuster

Tell us a little about the evolution of Boston Indicators.

My understanding of the nexus of the Boston Indicators Project 20 years ago was that there just wasn’t good access to data on some key measures of community well-being. It’s not that the data didn’t exist, but it was very hard for the general public to access it. Now, while data is still not perfectly available, it is more accessible and I think increasingly people are searching for sense-making.

Is there such a thing as objective analysis?

Kids Today (2020)

It’s really important to us to be faithful to the research and to what the numbers show. But there are times when digging deeper into the numbers—and also the broader body of academic research around the issue—changes our thinking. One example of this is related to the Kids Today report. Early on when we were researching the decline of the number of children in the city, we were primarily focused on housing costs and the public perception of school quality as the leading causes. But my colleague Peter came across something that mentioned declining birth rates as a cause. Up to that point, we had looked at it primarily as a phenomenon in high-income coastal cities, but it turned out that the school-age population nationwide was down markedly in the same time period; not as much as Boston, but it was quite dramatic. So, that was a case where we followed the numbers and the declining birthrate story moved up the ladder of importance. We also sent the report to some colleagues outside of Indicators and one person in particular thought that we were not emphasizing the declining birthrate story enough.

Do you always seek outside feedback?

Yes. Every major report we do is read by a number of people externally and internally and every single time, we get useful thoughts and the product is improved. That process can be time consuming and kind of frustrating sometimes because you think you’re done. But it’s great to be in an area that is so rich with other researchers.

What are the larger trends that you see in your recent reports?

Boston's Booming... But For Whom? (2018)

Two themes that come across is a focus on demographic change and economic factors; analyzing how well the local economy is really doing. The Boston’s Booming report looked at economic issues, although with lots of analyses about how it’s playing out by race and by income. Changing Faces highlighted demographic change, but, again, there were a lot of crosscuts around economic disparity among groups. And then Kids Today completes what could be considered a trilogy of reports because it focuses on demographic change with a particular focus on age, but also has data on race and income, showing how much the city is losing our middle class.

There was a time, in the 1960s and ’70s, when Boston lost a lot of its middle class to the suburbs and it became a place of very wealthy people and low-income people. Do you think we’re in danger of repeating that?

Changing Faces cover Changing Faces of Greater Boston (2019)

Yes, the data shows that that trend has just continued. That’s partially a local story, where we just don’t have many middle-class housing options within the city of Boston, but then it’s also the case nationwide that our middle class is hollowing out. So we see growth in low-wage work and growth in the high-income sectors of the economy and very little in between. And that can be daunting because we want our research to be action-oriented and if a lot of the cause is that there is something broken about the national economy, it can be discouraging. But, there are lots of things we can do locally to move the needle, such as increasing multi-income housing production and public investment.

Is a community foundation a good home for this kind of research?

I think so. We have a program team here that is doing the actual work out in the community. That gives us a ready-made set of partners and collaborators. We get to be this three-person team within a community foundation where you have experts in program and policy and then can tap into the resources of the communications team and the program team and the public affairs team. It’s perfect for us.

Luc Schuster leads a team of three, including Research Manager Trevor Mattos and Senior Research Associate Peter Ciurczak.