Cynthia M. Allen

Catholic Charities' long-term approach paying off in fight against Fort Worth poverty

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan talks with Heather Reynolds, CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, on Tuesday at a private town hall in Fort Worth.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan talks with Heather Reynolds, CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, on Tuesday at a private town hall in Fort Worth. rmallison@star-telegram.com

"This is the biggest thing that's happened here," one of the employees of Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW) told me.

She was referring to the visit by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who met with clients and employees of CCFW during a recent swing through Texas.

Ryan had long been hearing about CEO Heather Reynolds and the great strides her organization is making in fighting poverty in Fort Worth.

The top-down federal approach to fighting poverty — $1 trillion spent on 80 different and often overlapping programs — has yielded little measurable long-term success. There might be something to learn from a local organization whose audacious goal is not to reduce poverty but to eradicate it; an organization whose novel approach includes tracking its clients, personalizing assistance and adjusting as needed to ensure success for each one.

House Speaker Paul Ryan uses private town hall meeting at Catholic Charities Fort Worth to talk talks about his vision for helping people in poverty and administering welfare and social services.

Instead, CCFW works from the bottom up. "We use the tool of long-term case management because we know it works better than slicing and dicing who can receive help based off of predetermined requirements and time lines," says Reynolds.

Reynolds will be the first to tell you that tackling poverty is no simple task. There are so many little factors that contribute to a person or family finding themselves in a dire financial situation. No two people have exactly the same story. But Reynolds and her staff believe they each deserve a voice and the employees of CCFW are listening.

This approach is time-consuming and takes the long view; there are no quick fixes and most clients will need support for a while. But that's worth it when there are strong indicators that it's working.

Case managers don't shun the safety net — they make sure clients apply for whatever benefits are available to them. But success for CCFW occurs only when their clients are off of public assistance, holding down jobs that provides them living wages, carrying no inappropriate debt, and beginning to accrue savings.

That's a high bar. As an agency, CCFW has helped 29 families rise up and stay out of poverty, which is a much bigger victory than that number might suggest.

In one initiative, the Padua Pilot launched in 2015 , an unusually high 60 percent have remained enrolled in the program and working towards their goals of financial freedom for at least a year. While it is too early to tell the exact impact of Padua, CCFW has promising evidence that participants are more likely to be employed, work more hours, and earn higher wages as a result of participating in the program. That means more of them are on track to rise out of poverty than their counterparts who just receive government assistance.

CCFW is tackling poverty in other ways, too.

Stay the Course, a program started in 2013 that matches community college students with mentors, has helped 217 community college students graduate or remain enrolled and working through their degrees. Independent analysis of the initiative has shown that program participants were 25 percentage points more likely to remain enrolled in school than their counterparts which equates to a doubling of community college persistence rates. And since two-and-four year degrees usually lead to better jobs, early indicators suggest that program participants enjoy higher earnings upon degree completion.

These programs constitute only part of CCFW's poverty fighting efforts. It has helped resettle more than 1,000 refugees and has been an integral part of efforts to revitalize low-income areas in the Las Vegas Trail neighborhood.

"The goals of CCFW align with many of the efforts that the City is working on in the effort to address poverty and homelessness," says District 9 Councilwoman Ann Zadeh who attended the Ryan event. But it's hard to find a government program that can match the dynamism and success of what CCFW has been doing.

Undoubtedly, that is why Speaker Ryan made the trip to Fort Worth. While it's true that his visit was a big deal, big things have been happening at CCFW for a while now. And we can expect more to come.

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