Bridges to Success
- Action for a Better Community- Rochester, New York
“I believe Bridges to Success could improve economic opportunities for participants in Rochester through the mentor/participant relationship. In this relationship, the mentor establishes trust, support, and positive reaffirmation, and provides knowledge of resources, reliability, and dependability for participants over time.”
Managing the constant stresses and crises of poverty is exhausting. From balancing childcare and multiple jobs to inconsistent work schedules and unreliable transportation, living in poverty means navigating a complex web of uncertainty, logistics, and competing demands.
And while many social service providers seek to alleviate these complexities and lower the barriers to self-sufficiency, their services are often temporary, siloed, and restricted. Which makes finding a permanent path out of poverty even more difficult for those whose lives are already stretched thin.
Take program eligibility standards. How we define poverty in our nation and in our social programs is arbitrary and inconsistent. In 2018, the Census Bureau reported that 38.1 million Americans were living in poverty. For a single-person household, the national poverty threshold defines “poverty” as an annual income of $12,760 or less. For a family of two adults and two children, it’s $26,000. But this threshold only accounts for a basic food budget, and it doesn’t include the very real costs of childcare, taxes, or healthcare. Individuals and families who make even twice the poverty threshold often have trouble making ends meet.
And while many social service organizations use national poverty guidelines to determine whether or not someone is eligible to participate in their program, these standards vary from organization to organization. This means an individual may qualify to receive needed assistance from one program, while they’re ineligible to receive assistance from another—leading to many dead-end appointments and frustrations that people living in poverty can’t afford.
In addition to navigating wide-ranging eligibility standards, people in poverty also lack access to the kinds of services that will allow them to escape poverty for good. While our nation is full of individuals who are working on the front lines to solve poverty and provide quality services to those in need, their services are often siloed. And they treat singular, short-term symptoms of poverty, not its causes. But the causes of poverty are complex and co-occurring.
Consider an individual often in need of rental assistance. While providing a housing voucher may keep them from falling into homelessness this month, it won’t help them find a steady job and income that will enable them to make their rent next month. And they may be unable to land consistent employment in the first place because they lack important skills. So, their ability to successfully pay rent requires that they earn a GED or certificate that will help them qualify for a job that pays a consistent, living wage. But where can they access a GED or certificate? Who will watch the kids as they attend night classes?
Poverty is rooted in deep, co-occurring issues that individuals can’t solve alone, even if they receive assistance from one or two programs. And so poverty is as much about place as it is about people. The strength of a place, or the strength of its social fabric, is a major determinant of whether poverty can be avoided, escaped, or solved.
Community organizations, neighborhoods, and people form the backbone of anti-poverty initiatives, and the collaborative extent of their work contributes to the quality of residents’ lives and their opportunities for integration, growth, and fulfillment. While many towns and localities have strong social fabrics—meaning opportunities for support are manifold, coordinated, and compassionate—others lack the level of coordination and concern needed to comprehensively assist those struggling in poverty.
Today, like those in poverty, many nonprofits and case management programs focus on smaller, short-term problems. And they address them separately. Which means families in poverty are forced to juggle multiple case managers and program requirements and timelines in order to access the services they need to stay afloat. Poverty is already hard, and the lack of coordinated services makes it more so.
Without the social support, resources, and community coordination needed to lift people up, economic mobility is severely limited, making it even more difficult for communities to break poverty’s vicious cycle. In order to know what programs help move people out of poverty for good, we need more coordination and collaboration. We need more research. We need to understand what programs effectively address the fragmented social system and comprehensively address individuals’ unique needs.
Because lifting entire communities out of poverty will happen one life at a time. And it requires that we work together.
The Bridges to Success program is designed to provide low-income residents of Rochester, New York, with economic mobility mentors that can help them coordinate community support service and move out of poverty one issue at a time. It encourages economic mobility by focusing on the five critical pillars of an individual’s life: housing, family support, health, social networks, debt and savings, education, and employment.
After being connected with a professional adult mentor, participants set explicit, measurable goals and work to achieve economic self-sufficiency. As a team, participants and their mentors identify and navigate the social services and resources that are available within their community to help them meet their goals, and they’re also provided with financial incentives to follow through and achieve them.
Bridges to Success mentors focus on building the human, social, and financial assets of their clients. Through their mentor relationship, participants gain access to the Partner Provider Network (PPN), an established group of local service providers and organizations in Rochester-Monroe County that have agreed to accept referrals from the Bridges to Success program. Through the PPN, participants can access affordable housing, physical and behavioral health resources, as well as job training and support.
Participants are also paired with two liaisons. The employment liaison assists participants as they prepare for employment, and the dependent liaison helps them meet needs of their dependents through educational support, parenting courses, and child advocacy.
By participating in Bridges to Success, participants receive the coaching, support, and connections they need to achieve their goals.
Does providing an economic mobility mentoring program in an area of concentrated poverty help participants receive self-sufficiency?
- Those who participate in the Bridges to Success program will be more likely to achieve economic self-sufficiency than non-participants.
- Specifically, they will have higher earnings, and more stable housing situations than those who do not. They will also be less likely to depend on public benefits.
- Bridges to Success participants will also be more likely to see improved educational outcomes.
Research Study Design
The Bridges to Success study is a randomized controlled trial. To be eligible to participate, applicants must be 18 years or older and they must earn wages that fall beneath 175% of the federal poverty line. Applicants must also express a desire to maintain full-time employment.
Eligible applicants are invited to interview with program staff and complete an extensive intake form, which collects detailed information on their personal income, employment, and childcare needs. Because the Bridges to Success providers have a limited number of mentors and resources, a lottery is used to determine who receives a spot in the program. After completing the form, applicants are randomized into either the treatment or the control group. Those in the treatment group are invited to participate in Bridges to Success, while those in the control group are referred to other service organizations in the community.
At the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers will compare the financial, housing, and educational outcomes of those who participate in Bridges to Success with those who do not.