Commonwealth Magazine
Helping low income families out of poverty 

Building a pathway that leads out of poverty and into economic self-sufficiency requires hard work, resilience and persistence. However, low-income families will do all it takes to reach economic independence if given the means. To create that opportunity, service providers, philanthropy, and government must come together as partners to create the necessary supports needed to escape poverty.

Poverty is harder to escape than ever before as jobs that can support a family continue to require increasing levels of education. This is particularly hard on single mothers who, as the sole heads of 39 percent of low-income families, face the overwhelming challenges of juggling childcare and jobs, while working to gain the post-secondary education credentials they need to improve their lives.

To address poverty head on, we must develop comprehensive, multifaceted approaches focused on simultaneously improving family stability, well-being, education, financial management, and employment. To make such approaches successful, corresponding government-sponsored supports must provide the temporary help with things like child care or transportation that low-income families need as they strive to get ahead.

Social service programs are doing their best to help low-income families transition out of poverty. Crittenton Women’s Union has successfully worked with low-income women to address all parts of their lives, improve decision-making skills, and develop the persistence and resilience needed to stay on the pathway out of poverty. Seventy-four percent of Crittenton program participants are in school or working, and, after three years in the program, 65 percent have a technical or college degree, 57 percent have a savings account, and a third have secured a job with a living wage.

With these results, we are seeing more city, state and federal programs adopting similar comprehensive coaching approaches to move families out of poverty.  However, at the same we are seeing cuts both locally and nationally resulting in fewer resources for single mothers, homeless families, and struggling low-wage workers. These supports are imperative to help the social service providers and state programs achieve lasting success with low-income families who are willing to work hard and build skills to move ahead on the path out of poverty.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, over the past decade, funding has been reduced for adult education, job training, child care subsidies, housing, and many other programs that help those in poverty cover the basic expenses and pursue the education and training needed to become economically secure.  Since the largest user of these services are women looking to improve the lives of their families, they and their children bear the brunt of these budget cuts.

Now, the federal government has an opportunity to be a stronger partner with social service providers and low-income families who are working together to end dependence on public assistance.

Congress is currently working through a reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, a federal grant program that gives states resources for temporary assistance for families living far below the poverty level. TANF empowers state governments, social service organizations, and families to work together toward self-sufficiency and financial stability. The reauthorization gives Congress an opportunity to revitalize a program that can be a critical lifeline for vulnerable families, especially those who are seeking opportunities to exit poverty through education and training leading to better jobs. The addition of case management as well as career, educational, and life-skills coaching, coupled with the financial and child care assistance already available to some families, would lead to successful transitions off TANF and other public assistance programs.

Congress also has an opportunity to evaluate outdated policies in TANF, such as restrictions that make it difficult for participants to complete post-secondary training programs and requirements on states that emphasize job placement in any job, even those that cannot financially support a family, over development of skills leading to higher paying careers.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Reauthorizing the TANF grants and including new provisions that will help low-income families help themselves move out of poverty permanently will truly be an act of “reform,” making government a stronger partner in our combined efforts to end poverty.

Congresswoman Katherine Clark represents the 5th District of Massachusetts. Elisabeth Babcock is the president & CEO of Crittenton Women’s Union.