LIFTing Families From Generational Cycles of Poverty
LIFT, a national organization focused on breaking generational cycles of poverty, began a pilot project to deliver more services remotely in early 2020. Little did LIFT leaders realize that that model would have to instantly grow into its main delivery system just weeks later when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. LIFT CEO Michelle Rhone-Collins spoke to Spotlight recently about the organization’s experience during the pandemic, the lessons LIFT learned, and her “skeptical optimism” that the country as a whole has learned more about how to help families find more opportunity and prosperity. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Could you give our readers a brief overview of the work LIFT does?
LIFT is a 20-year-old national organization with sites located in Los Angeles, D.C., New York and Chicago. Our mission is to partner with parents and invest in them in order to break the generational cycles of poverty. We know that poverty, like wealth, is passed down from generation to generation and that is because of racial inequity and underinvestment in our communities and structural barriers that have been designed to keep families trapped in that cycle. In essence, the systems developed to serve and protect often engender and perpetuate the poverty cycle. And so, we break that cycle by building on families’ strength and social connection in order to lift two generations at once. We know that if we’re able to increase the economic stability and mobility of parents, that can significantly change the trajectory for the children in terms of future earning potential and improving development factors.
How do we do it? We partner parents with trained coaches to set educational, financial or employment goals. Our coaching is integrated in order to be able to hit each of those areas, because we know they’re very interrelated. Parents work toward their goals using action plans that break down their long-term goals (like becoming a nurse assistant), into short-term action steps (like applying to college or securing financial aid). Through their own hard work – and with LIFT’s support – parents create greater financial stability, career opportunities, and set their families up for success. They have obtained college degrees, purchased homes, paid off credit card debt, built child savings accounts, and started their own businesses — all proven factors of a better future for their children. And we give cash to our members as an investment in their goals, and to help rebound when crises arise. The way we do our work is really important. It’s that financial support, but it’s also paying attention to the trauma of being in poverty and aspects of well-being that are key for families to be able to thrive. We also place import on loving support and social connections that can accelerate the access to financial capital. The way we’ve distilled this is the hope, the money, and the love that everybody needs in order to reach a point of sustained success in their lives.
And goodness knows we needed a lot of all three of those during the past 17 months
Exactly. This past year has been a true moment of mission and purpose for LIFT. When the pandemic hit, we reached out to our families and said, how can we support you? And we found that 93 percent of our families had immediately lost their income, which exemplified what we already knew to be true– that the pandemic hit those who were already in pre-existing conditions of poverty and impacted by race and gender wealth gaps. It just exacerbated that situation for them.
We also asked families how much they needed and heard that in essence, folks needed $1,100 to be able to make it through, though at that point we had no idea how long the pandemic was going to last. Because LIFT was already giving cash directly to our members, we were one of the groups that donors turned to to give directly. Thinking that we would be able to raise $250,000 towards this effort, we actually raised over $1 million to distribute out to members and gave them an average of $1,400 each. We were also able to give the most marginalized members an additional gift of $1,800—primarily the undocumented community, many of whom were not able to access the first wave of government support.
That was one of the lessons of the pandemic – the need for infusions of cash and that kind of flexible support in times of crisis. It was important for LIFT to do it, but one of the “aha” moments for me was that LIFT couldn’t do it on our own. It really was about government having the reach and the volume of support necessary in order to sustain this kind of effort. The other lesson was around how limited we were in our thinking. Even when we thought we were thinking boldly about what we thought we could accomplish, we were still limiting ourselves in terms of what we were capable of.
And how many people is LIFT working with nationally at this point?
We work with a little over one thousand members.
And were there more lessons from the pandemic you wanted to note?
The other thing that we were able to do immediately was go virtual. It was something that we had started to consider before the pandemic, in order to grow beyond the 1,000 people that we were currently seeing in our brick and mortar sites. We started to pilot how to deliver our services remotely in D.C. in January and February (of 2020). The intention at that time was that we would develop a learning agenda, and we would test and evaluate, and then maybe if we got to two additional regions in the course of the year, it would be great.
Little did you know
Little did we know. Just one month later, because we had conducted this pilot, literally within 48 hours of the country closing down, we were able to be available virtually to all our members. It was so important to be a real lifeline of support for the parents at a very critical moment. The lesson there, and I’m still grappling with this, is how do you design your approaches to avoid getting in the way of creating real change more quickly. I’m still very much on the side of having the measurements and the assessments and the data needed to have confidence in the impact we want to make, but can that get in the way of timely progress?
Another lesson I would note is around feeling what I would call a skeptical optimism. We found that it’s possible to make big and bold changes– the crisis really illuminated the help that was needed in the here and now, and we responded as a country. But we shouldn’t need to have a crisis in order to have that type of bold response. We need to center our focus on those who have been most marginalized, structurally and historically, and know starting there is going to benefit everyone. We need to constantly keep these lessons front of mind now, as we’re in this moment of “building back better.” This is an incredible moment, but we need to learn from what has gone wrong before in moments like this. For example, look at the impact of the G.I. Bill. It was amazing in summarily building the middle class and was a great proposition for the country, or for some. It also left out communities of color and in this exclusion, ended up widening the wealth gap. So, how can we make sure that as we’re building out policies to rebuild the economy, that we’re not unintentionally – or maybe intentionally – leaving out race and gender implications.
And to the skeptical part of that optimism, is it that you’ll believe it’s real, inclusive change when it happens?
Believe real change when it happens. As I said, there were bold actions taken immediately disbursing trillions of dollars to support those who lost their income and businesses, but if you’re undocumented, or unbanked, or weren’t aware, or thought you were ineligible, you didn’t were not able to access that help. We actually had a number of our families who couldn’t access government support. Only 11% of our parents qualified for unemployment benefits, and nearly half of our families did not qualify for a stimulus check. Bureaucratic obstacles still made it difficult to access support instead of being simple, inclusive, and accessible. That’s where the skepticism comes in. I do think there’s an awful lot of hope in the American Rescue Plan and the American Families Plan including the expanded Child Tax Credit that could get us there. But if we don’t have an equity perspective in building those out, they can be short sighted in design.
Do you feel this experience has shown us what works, in terms of how to help at-risk communities?
Yes, but how easily we fall back on tropes to argue that it’s not working. This language now about people not wanting to go back to work? Are you kidding me? How about living wages? How about that? How about child care so people can go back to work? Let’s not fall back on these stereotypes and stigmas about people who are in poverty in order to justify scaling back on support and then recreating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I wanted to back to the digital and tele-access changes. It sounds like you’re still thinking through that but do you feel that you’ll definitely keep some portion of that?
Oh yes. We were planning on doing it anyway, but we found that the things you would think to be true about virtual access to be true in practice. It increased retention and decreased the no-show rate significantly. We will now be able to be where members were at when they needed us with whatever modality they need- phone call, text, zoom, and soon, in person. That said, coming into the office will no longer be a barrier to being able to move forward with goals.
How are your families at this moment? There’s a sense that as a country we’re beginning to come out of this, but are your families also beginning the recovery process?
Yes, I do feel they are following the trends that we’re seeing across the country including the fact that forward progress is slow going and tenuous once things like rent relief start to lift. If anything, this year has illuminated the strength and the resourcefulness that our communities have always had. They’ve been here before and it was just a matter of continuing the fight forward. We’ve had members who have still been able to make educational gains, to make savings, to start businesses. Our job at LIFT was both to help launch those who were able to continue to build, but also support those for whom the bottom had fallen out. We are here so that they can live into their full potential for themselves and their families.