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Guest Blog #4: Introduction to the Family Independence Initiative | Can we Help Pittsburgh Families Beat Poverty?

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By: Vanessa Buffry | Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

The Family Independence Initiative (FII) trusts and invests directly in low-income families so they can work individually and collectively to achieve prosperity.

Meet Vanessa. She is a Social Entrepreneur at the CMU’s Heinz School of Public Policy Management. Inspired by her early work in the Denver Public Housing Neighborhoods and four years teaching abroad, she leverages a financial and data-driven skillset toward building and supporting sustainable ventures that target inequality, particularly through financial literacy.

Her background in financial planning makes her a perfect fit to assist Neighborhood Allies with initiatives designed to improve the financial wellbeing of Pittsburgh residents, such as Financial Opportunity Centers and Family Independence Initiative. 


Guest Blog #4 | Can we Help Pittsburgh Families Beat Poverty?

A common idea united the crowd brought together by Neighborhood Allies at The Pittsburgh Foundation on Friday December 7: Pittsburgh’s low-income families already have what it takes to defy poverty but are underserved by a system that focuses on deficits instead of strengths.

Two representatives from the Family Independence Initiative (FII), Executive Director Jesús Gerena and VP External Affairs Ashley Connors-Sherwin, introduced the idea at the core of FII’s ground-breaking movement to the audience:

“Too many policies are designed with an image of low-income individuals as lazy or helpless victims in need of a professional intervention. To break the cycle, FII trusts and invests directly in low-income families across the nation so they can work individually and collectively to achieve prosperity. We do this by providing families with a technology platform that they use to strengthen existing and create new social networks, access financial capital and incentives, set goals and monitor progress, and support one another in achieving mobility.”

FII focuses on those families who are at the border of exiting the poverty cycle. The task is formidable, because this is the most challenging place to financially survive in America. “Seventy five percent of people move above the poverty line in their lifetime, but fifty percent of those will fall back under,” Gerena explained.

Consider the chart below: benefits for the lowest-earning Americans are phased out the more money they make. At the next stage, families making between the poverty line and $70,000 exist in a “gap” where they don’t qualify for welfare and don’t have enough capital to benefit from government incentives like tax breaks and advantaged savings plans. The equation flips the wealthier one becomes: above $70,000, people increasingly benefit from growth incentives like tax cuts and affordable access to capital. In other words, we incentivize our wealthiest to do better, yet appear to incentivize our poorest to do worse. Why don’t we extend positive incentives to the low-income families trying to break out of the poverty cycle?

This is where FII steps in. Their UpTogether Fund provides capital based on proven initiative. On FII’s state-of-the art reporting platform, an “Initiative Score” (unofficially dubbed the “Hustle Score”) is generated for each family based on their reported achievements. This tally operates like a FICO credit score, but takes into consideration additional aspects, like social capital, which make someone investible. This score determines how much a family is eligible to withdraw from the “UpTogether” Fund—a pro-rated pot available over two years up to a maximum of $3,200. There are no restrictions on how the money can be spent, only that the family must record what it was used for.

The platform’s real power lies in how seamlessly it integrates reporting with social networking. FII families can connect not just with their local cohort, but also with those participating in the eight other partner cities across the nation. This has inspired participants to share successes, opportunities, and support. Mr. Gerena and Ms. Connors-Sherwin ran through a litany of family-led social organizations: financial health groups like “Wall Street Warriors,” women’s associations like “Moms on a Mission,” and skill-sharing marketplaces “Local Talent” and “Find/Be the Expert.”

The combination of these financial and network-driven incentives has resulted in incredible outcomes. The average FII family reported an increase of $1,959 in savings every month, with a 22% overall increase in income and a 55% decrease in reliance on federal assistance. Further, FII was able to estimate that about $6,066,515+ in social capital was exchanged in the form of inter-family services, such as child care and lending pools. Finally, the economic impact on the local economy was a $15,180 increase in spending. All these benefits come for the cost of a family’s $3,200 Up Together Fund balance.

Host cities can also delight in the non-financial benefits of FII membership. Adding over 400 data points every month to their database of over 10 million entries, FII benefits from a rich data trove to shape and inform their anti-poverty agenda. Cities who adopt FII can access their analytics on convenient apps built into the platform.

No stranger to data and driven to lift up our communities and neighborhoods, Neighborhood Allies is spearheading the initiative to bring FII to Pittsburgh. In the next few months we’ll be drawing together a Pittsburgh FII Steering Committee to explore bringing the movement to the Steel City. You can email sarah@neighborhoodallies.org to find out more about the movement and how you can get involved.

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