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VOL. 131 | NO. 210 | Thursday, October 20, 2016

United Way Mid-South is Building a Network of Agencies to Fight Poverty

By Don Wade

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Memphis has a poverty problem, a problem that exists despite thousands of human service agencies at work in the region, and United Way Mid-South having interaction with some 650,000 people last year.

United Way Mid-South president and CEO Dr. Kenneth Robinson says that the sheer number of agencies fighting poverty in Memphis makes it difficult for families seeking help to find what they need. 

(Alan Howell)

The city’s current poverty rate is 26.2 percent, or 11.5 percent higher than the national average, according to data from the Department of Social Work, School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, at the University of Memphis.

Even more alarming, 43 percent of children in Memphis live in poverty.

This summer, United Way Mid-South rolled out an eight-week pilot program, Driving the Dream, to try and confront the poverty problem in a more collaborative way. The goal is to build a network that will unite local human service agencies in a client-centered “no wrong door” approach to working with families in poverty.

Noting those 650,000 interactions last year, United Way Mid-South (UWMS) president and CEO Dr. Kenneth Robinson said: “That may not all be unduplicated, but that’s 650,000 touches. So the logic model is that if one can keep individuals from going around the same mountain, coming back to the same agencies for same service and the same need, perennially, then there is forward movement toward self-sufficiency.

“And self-sufficiency, by definition, should be improved education, improved health, improved financial literacy, improved financial stability. And by further implication, that should drive down poverty rates.”

Robinson moved into his post at UWMS in February of 2015. From 2008-2015 Robinson was a consultant and public policy advisor to the Mayor of Shelby County and chair of “Healthy Shelby,” which was highlighted by United Way Worldwide as a replicable model of public/private collective impact.

He also served on the Governor’s Cabinet as Tennessee’s Commissioner of Health from 2003-2007. And since 1991, he has served as pastor and CEO of St. Andrew AME Church.

So Robinson has had a layered view of the poverty challenge and the effort to improve lives. The eight-week Driving the Dream pilot, which Robinson says will probably take three years to make fully operational, had a cohort of 27 agencies and used three network tools to try and help move clients out of poverty:

The Transition to Success care model, which helps clients develop a map of their goals and dreams and make connections needed services.

The Arizona Self-Sufficiency Inventory, which assesses the client’s needs using 20 key quality of life indicators.

CoactionNet, a shared web-based database, which centralizes information and tracks clients’ progress.

“You can see in our community that a lot of families are stuck,” Robinson said. “And it’s not that they don’t have dreams, but it’s fractionalization of services, not knowing how to connect the dots themselves, much less having a guided path to drive their dreams to fruition.”

Driving the Dream, Robinson says, aims to provide the clarity and direction that may have been missing, but without forcing a particular route on clients.

“It’s a map of their dreams,” he said. “It’s not a paternalistic, top-down prescriptive approach. It sounds so simple, but It’s not the way we’ve been wired as a sector. There are programs and agencies that don’t know other programs that are out there. They just never had the incentive, never been taught.

“This transitions to success framework was modeled in Detroit. Primarily by one agency that provides multiple services. This is a collective action matrix system.”

The Arizona Self-Sufficiency Matrix will assess clients in areas ranging from shelter/housing, employment and income to education, health care, to transportation/mobility, parenting skills, substance abuse and financial management.

Clients will be scored in each area on a 1-to-5 scale with a 1 representing crisis, and a 5 being empowered. In the case of housing, a 1 might represent homelessness or imminent eviction, Robinson says, and a 5 might represent home ownership. A 4 might be safe housing that is subsidized.

“This is a huge, social, entrepreneurial, collective action experiment,” said Robinson, who graduated Harvard Medical School and Vanderbilt Divinity School. “I’m confident enough in the development of systems, that if the framework is solid, and the model makes sense, and we can do appropriate recruitment, we can be successful.”

He says they don’t have specific targeted figures, or where they would like to see the poverty rate be in three years, five years, or 10 years. In part, because the program will be undergoing constant adjustment. The database, Robinson says, already has been tweaked.

“Time will tell and the social scientists will look at the poverty rates,” he said. “The more we talk about poverty, by the way, there are drivers that are driving the numbers incrementally down.

“People in poverty have barriers, closed doors, starts and stops and fits, and often no one to help map that dream and help drive that dream. So that really is the intent. I don’t believe at all it is Pollyannaish because we have real agencies providing real services.

“The issue,” Robinson said, “is connecting those services to benefit individuals and not keep them in the same spot they are.”

PROPERTY SALES 140 207 19,653
MORTGAGES 128 196 22,629
BUILDING PERMITS 166 367 40,371
BANKRUPTCIES 40 102 12,588