Spotlight Exclusives

The Benefits of Access: Eliminating Siloed Programs for Low-Income Americans

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Despite pressure to cut programs across the board, the President۪s budget included substantial funding for policies and initiatives that support economic security through education and employment. While this was welcome news to those of us who advocate for vulnerable families, these programs are most effective when families are able to effectively access them. 

The reality is that, even when the programs are well-funded, low-income people trying to access benefits have trouble navigating myriad service providers, eligibility requirements, and funding streams. In these difficult economic times, it is critical to coordinate services and collaborate with the community if we want to move low-income Americans towards self-sufficiency.

One significant problem low-income people face is the way programs are siloed between various agencies. This prevents individuals accessing a single program from applying for another program offered by a different agency simply because they may not know they are eligible. In addition, duplicative administrative requirements and inefficiencies discourage families from participating in the full range of available programs. Taken together, the challenges presented by siloed programs often discourage low-income families from taking full advantage of supports that could help them move out of poverty.

Community Action Agencies (CAAs) are one way to overcome the challenges of multiple, divided services. Every community in the country has a local CAA whose purpose is to end poverty by taking a comprehensive approach to helping each family and community. CAAs put low-income Americans on the path to self-sufficiency and economic security by addressing their unique needs and by serving as a resource and access point for coordination of services.

Community Action Agencies are part of a $16 billion national network that is leveraging resources to move people out of poverty and tear down the silos that divide social services by providing a common access point. Through community needs assessments, CAAs prioritize the needs of their local communities and assess the available resources and service providers. This assessment and planning process allows them to coordinate around the areas of greatest need and ensure that both providers and low-income families are matched up appropriately.

To understand how this works for an individual, take the example of a head of household who came looking for help paying a utility bill. In addition to assistance with this specific problem, she was directed to job training through a community college. Later, she was placed by the Workforce Improvement Board in a job that could support her family.

Such steps are necessary because single-purpose programs may be unable to meet both immediate and long-term needs. While a utility assistance check can be very helpful for a family on the day they walk out the door with the check, it may not help them avoid foreclosure or find work.

While moving people out of poverty may be too big a job for one organization, a partnership of organizations dedicated to a comprehensive approach can make real progress. This happens when single-purposed organizations partner with local CAAs to address the core issues facing families living in poverty.

One example is the Missouri Association for Community Action (MACA), a group of CAAs who, with funding from the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), have done extensive research on the needs of their state. After examining their planning process, MACA found that they needed to redefine their mission and objectives to have a greater impact.

The results speak for themselves. In 2010, Missouri Community Action agencies served over 349,000 individuals in over 145,000 families, including 136,000 children. In addition, the network of agencies leveraged $11.63 in federal, state, local, and private funding sources for every $1 of CSBG funding. Their new focus on stability and self-sufficiency enabled them to better plan and organize resources around specific goals and objectives. Missouri۪s work demonstrates how good program data and an analysis of community needs can be. Monitoring the available resources and filling the gaps are critical steps in assessing how to provide better benefits access. When this is done successfully, it can allow funds to be used more efficiently and effectively.

We shouldn۪t forget that successes such as these aren۪t possible without continued funding for programs like the CSBG, which support efforts to coordinate access to benefits for low-income people. It is therefore critical to continue advocating for strong federal investment.

Yet it is in these challenging economic times especially that nonprofits need increased collaboration and a renewed understanding of community needs and resources. One organization must step forward to become the link among the providers and resources in a community. By changing the mindset from one of competition to one of coordination, service providers can make strides toward the common goal of ending poverty.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Timothy Warfield is the executive director and Mark Schmeissing is a senior policy analyst at the National Association for State Community Services Programs. 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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