Cynthia M. Allen

Catholic Charities Fort Worth takes its poverty-fighting solutions to Austin

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.

Each Sunday after leaving mass, my children run to the church parking lot in search of “Mr. Charles,” the homeless man who usually is waiting there. They greet him with smiles and sometimes a gift card to the sandwich shop.

We don’t know Mr. Charles’ story — in our brief exchanges he hasn’t seen fit to tell us — just that he sleeps in the shelter or under the overpass, and gets by on the charity of others.

One thing is certain: his circumstances are not unique. There are thousands of people and families on the cusp of poverty and homelessness, and the current structure of our vast, often ineffectual social safety net doesn’t make it easy to break the cycle of dependency.

But we know that breaking the cycle of poverty is possible, because we’ve seen innovative organizations like Catholic Charities of Fort Worth (CCFW) — through its Padua Pilot — help hundreds of local families eliminate their need for public assistance and gain the confidence, dignity and freedom that comes with financial independence.

Currently, when a wage earner from a family receiving a public benefit has begun work or receives a small raise, they often make too much money to continue receiving public assistance.

Essentially, they are “penalized for taking ownership and lose more than they can afford to,” says Shannon Rosedale, an opportunity assessment project coordinator for CCFW. “So they end up not taking a higher-paying job or working as many hours as they could because they will be set back by the benefit.”

Sometimes they stop working all together, creating deeper dependency. That’s the opposite of what the social safety net should do.

If benefits are reduced gradually, so that recipients have the opportunity to reduce debt, build savings, and perhaps even increase their income, they are far more likely to stay off assistance in the future. That isn’t just theoretical; it’s a beautiful reality for many participants in the Padua Pilot.

The program does more than just supporting the gradual reduction of assistance. It provides clients with comprehensive case management — offering constant support, from child care assistance to emotional support, during the often-difficult transition to economic independence.

And when strategic financial assistance is combined with intensive case management, the results are remarkable. According to CCFW, participants in the Padua Pilot on average increased their liquid assets by over $5,000, reduced their debt by over $2,000, and experienced a 23 percent increase in full-time employment. In two years’ time, 73 percent of those who entered the program not housed were stably housed and working toward self-sufficiency, and those who came into case management stably housed had a 36 percent increase in full-time work and a 34 percent increase in monthly earnings.

No government program can achieve such dramatic results in so short a time frame.

At least not yet. But that could change.

Rosedale and a colleague gave testimony this week before the state Senate Finance Committee in favor of HB 1483, a bill in search of long-term solutions to the “benefits cliff.”

The bill, which has passed the House unanimously, would replicate the Padua Pilot at the state level, creating three study groups: a treatment group with gradually reduced benefits, another with gradually reduced benefits and comprehensive case management, and a third control group with access to current government benefits and their limitations.

After 60 months, the state will study the results. But the folks at CCFW have a good idea of what they’ll reveal — that gradually reduced benefits paired with comprehensive case management will help more people rise and stay out of poverty.

Assuming that’s the case, more legislation will be needed — at both the state and federal levels.

While it will be years before a permanent program can be implemented, passing HB 1483 will take Texas one enormous step closer to a truly effective solution to ending poverty. And the state will have the pioneering folks at CCFW to thank.

The Senate should not hesitate in sending the bill to Gov. Abbott’s desk.