Series| Catalysts

Investing in families to escape poverty

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Can a simple investment lift families out of poverty? The greatest investment of all may be in people’s strengths and initiative. This nonprofit is doing just that, and it’s working.

We’ve Been Wrong About the War on Poverty

As a country we’ve been fighting a “war on poverty” for 55 years. Over that time, we’ve made living in poverty more tolerable but have not made it easier to escape. And today, we have 40 million Americans at or below the poverty line.

Think about this: around 75% of low-income families rise above the poverty line in four years. But half of them fall back into poverty within five years.

So what’s the problem?

In this country, we’ve built a really strong narrative that the working poor can’t be trusted. That when I was struggling with poverty, if my mom was given a hundred dollars, somehow she was gonna blow it. When my mom could make a hundred dollars stretch out further than anyone.

Jesus Gerena CEO, Family Independence Initiative

When you look around at programs available for families, you quickly realize that it’s all founded on distinct and dangerous stereotypes, that low-income people don’t know how to manage money, are takers, and a drain on society. It’s focused on people’s deficits. People in low-income communities are forced into hiding their assets and strengths. Because if you show those things, you may lose support.

There needs to be a paradigm shift in our approach to economic mobility that completely transforms the way we approach this problem. We need to recognize and invest directly in people. When you do that, you give choice and control back to families; you trust them to set their own goals, then equip them with the capital to achieve them.

“The problem with a social sector in general is that they are guessing at a problem rather than lifting up what the solutions are which are being created every day by people experiencing those problems. The alternative is pretty simple, stop. And put the money in the hands of people who are actually creating those solutions.”

Jesus Gerena CEO, Family Independence Initiative

Family Independence Initiative Introduces a Radical Idea

That’s where Family Independence Initiative comes in. FII decided to ask the question: what if we gave money directly to families and trusted them to solve their own problems without interference of programs and services?

That’s exactly what they did. Today, FII invests directly in low income communities, and the results have been stunning.

FII partners with families across the county to co-create an environment where they can access financial capital and form deep connections with a community of families on the same journey. They enroll with a group a six to seven other families and together, they meet monthly to share experiences and advice. Here, they can crowdsource solutions and set goals.

“People are trying to get to a better place, but to be able to sustain that mobility, we need to recognize it and to drive more investment towards it.”

Jesus Gerena CEO, Family Independence Initiative

Then through an online platform called UpTogether, families track data around things like income and savings, health, education and skills, and housing. Based on that data, they’re given access to up to $3,200 to apply to whatever they need to hit their goals. It’s a direct investment, no restriction on those dollars.

Stunning Outcomes for Families

That seems radical to a lot of people – giving money away without any strings attached? But what FII has learned from this experiment is that people are better able to determine what will make the biggest impact on their lives than we are.

We saw a woman whose kids’ grades went up and we really couldn’t explain it. And she was just like, oh yeah, no, that’s simple – I got a car. And we’re like, huh? And she was like, yeah, no, I got a car, I no longer have to rely on public transportation to be able to bring all four kids to school. And one of those kids suffers from chronic asthma, so any time he had an episode, they all had to stay home and now we don’t have to do that anymore.

Jesus Gerena CEO, Family Independence Initiative

The purchase of a car didn’t just solve a transportation issue, it also solved an education issue. And now, those children have a better chance of staying out of poverty once they reach adulthood.

In the social sector, people typically try to solve things in silos and in actuality, when you just give people money, they come up with really creative solutions that ripple through their lives.

That direct investment piece, letting people have their own agency to choose what success is, and how to drive for it. To us, that’s the alternative.

Jesus Gerena CEO, Family Independence Initiative

On average, families who partner with FII have seen their income increase 20 percent, with savings rising from $100 to $1,000 on average within two years. Savings is crucial for moving to a place where unexpected expenses are manageable instead of devastating. Kids do better in school. Use of government subsidies drop. And the community of families that has formed gets stronger over time.

Out of the $3,200 that we’re investing over two years in these households, we see a macroeconomic effect of about $15,000 over that two years.

Jesus Gerena CEO, Family Independence Initiative

Anyone who works in this space will tell you how crucial relationships and connections are to families’ success and social mobility. Families overwhelmingly report stronger community connections and have built a strong network of relationships to help them stay out of poverty.

Thinking Radically

Family Independence Initiative made it clear that they don’t believe $3,200 is the silver bullet to eradicating poverty. Their goal is to create an environment where they are fully trusting and allowing families the choice and control to make decisions, and matching the investment that they’re already taking in their lives.

At their heart, FII is about asking and inviting people and institutions to think about a radically different approach. It clearly works. And it’s time we all start seeing the best in people, and investing directly in that. Then, we can finally begin to empower people on their journey to a better life.

This episode of Catalysts, a Freethink original series, was produced with the Stand Together Foundation. For more about the social entrepreneurs who are exploring bold new solutions to big social problems, join us on Facebook on our page, Catalysts.

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