Program aim: enrolling families to end poverty
"Sometimes having people in your circle to support you can mean the world of difference," said Joann, who talked with me in Madras at the United Methodist Church, while discussing the new initiative Jefferson and Lincoln counties are rolling out. "I think my circle of support has given me invaluable emotional and material support not found anywhere else."
The new gig for me is with Family Independence Initiative, a nonprofit started 18 years ago through the research tools and impetus of the founder, Mauricio L. Miller (author of the book, "The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong").
For 450 households in Jefferson County, the chance to be part of a networking and peer support pilot could change the face of how social services staffing and funding are delivered in Oregon. The project is jointly supported by the Oregon Department of Human Services, and the goal is to engage with people who go in and out of poverty and give them networking tools to end that cycle.
FII is a successful model in other cities — Oakland, Austin, Cincinnati, Boston, Albuquerque and a half dozen other cities. What has occurred in those cities is nothing short of miraculous.
Jorge Blandon, executive vice president of Family Independence Initiative, was out here in Newport at the end of May and talked with a dozen households about the project — basically getting a household to form a cohort web of five or six other households to learn and share the value of social networking.
The 12-month participation process is pretty simple: register the family through a website, Up Together, and then each month, the household records progress and goals and challenges.
"For me, this sounds like a win-win," said Jewel, a secretary for an antipoverty program in Lincoln County. "It makes sense that people are their best supports, their best avenues for networking."
My job is to get in front of households and present the steps of joining this Lincoln County pilot, which is ultimately about learning directly from the community. Members receive $100 for signing up, and then $700 is paid out quarterly.
I presented the project to groups in Madras last month, and we will be at the Latin Festival Sept. 14, at Sahalee Park. Individuals at the community event in the park were able to ask the questions most people are concerned with: "Where does this information go? Is my private journaling and family budget kept private?"
We are in the process of hiring an on-the-ground site director for Jefferson County.
"Building networks for struggling families is really the key to their self-sufficency," said Pastor Nancy Slabaugh Hart, of the Madras United Methodist Church.
Family Independence Initiative uses sophisticated language learning tools. The information people put on the Up Together site is looked at as aggregate data, meaning those data points from individuals are put into algorithms that help FII determine what families are doing to get out of poverty. All information is anonymous, and secure. Then FII reports back to DHS about the findings.
Part of the attraction for me to undertake this half-time job is that I have been working in and around communities living through many forms of poverty and life challenges. From educator in gang-prevention programs in El Paso and Spokane, to social worker for Portland homeless and within a transition facility for veterans and their families facing homeless in Beaverton, I have had years working with courageous and resourceful individuals and families.
My role is to introduce the project, get people enrolled and let the families (this could be a single parent, a couple with no children, single individuals, married or not) develop the web of communication and support. I have a complete hands-off role in terms of assisting families with their goals and needs, or locating resources. I do offer up support for the online journal writing over the 12 months of networking.
We all know about American communities which participated in so-called barn-raising events. Those events were people-powered, community-based, with no government or nonprofit involvement.
How Chinatowns across this country were founded is illustrative of peer support, peer networking and social capital: families, friends, businesses and churches came together to provide jobs, micro-loans, community space, spiritual and education support. Again, no government or social services agencies were called upon.
In 2019, families in Jefferson County have multiple challenges — single-parent households with that parent working two jobs, but still not getting ahead; families that get some form of support (food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing vouchers) but want to get out of the cycle of multigenerational poverty; seasonal work; expensive housing.
The FII web page states, "As a nation, we have missed an opportunity to invest directly in the initiative and strength of low-income families working toward economic mobility. Seventy-five percent of low-income families move above the federal poverty line within four years. Yet, 50% slip back under within five years. Under the current approach, families struggle to build the necessary assets to weather the next crisis and aren't rewarded for their initiative in doing so. FII is changing this resource gap for low-income families by partnering with, learning from, and investing directly in families."
What FII wants is data and stories from the enrolled families or households. From there, a hundred data points are recorded and then mapped in graphs and charts so the heads of DHS can see what social services are missing and what families are really doing to rise out of poverty.
For Blandon, the mission at FII and for any family living in poverty is clear.
"At its core, what FII is doing is trying to bring (connections, choice, and capital) back to families," he said. "We know that families are the experts. How else would they survive certain conditions? They're coming up with creative ways to support each other."
"FII is trying to push for a new system — a system that looks at working poor communities in a different light. They are not moochers or takers. They are not poor because they're lazy; quite the opposite," said Blandon. "We're trying to shed that light by leveraging technology and data."
Paul Haeder is a writer and site director of the Family Independence Initiative for Lincoln County.
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