How One Catholic Charity is Working to Solve Poverty


When a doctor treats a patient, the doctor will (hopefully) be recommending treatments that will not only relieve the symptoms of whatever sickness the patient has, but also completely get rid of the sickness in its entirety. If a person has a sinus infection, antibiotics may be needed; just giving decongestants will not really target the root of the symptoms.

When dealing with a sickness like poverty, the applied solutions often act more like a cover-up of the symptoms rather than a targeted attack on the root of the issue.

TPOH has published several articles on the importance of work in bringing people out of poverty. Some government-sponsored programs are starting to emphasize work as part of enrollment in social welfare programs, but in order to gain work, and to manage one's household in ways that really stop poverty, a more holistic approach is needed. Catholic Charities of Fort Worth is a trailblazer in the effort to solve poverty.

Though part of the national Catholic Charities network, CCFW is an independent nonprofit that sets its own distinctive course. Its handsome brick and stone campus on the low-income south side of Fort Worth provides an array of services for some 100,000 clients a year, nearly three-quarters of them working adults. Among the services offered: skills training, job placement, veterans' services, a children's shelter, a dental clinic, legal aid for immigrants and refugees, and an independent for-profit business—a social enterprise that provides jobs for clients and additional funding for the organization. Some of the nonprofit's $32 million annual budget comes from government, state and federal, but the lion's share is from the private sector, including private philanthropy and the social enterprise.

The organization has a concrete mission of getting people out of poverty and keeping them out. Their definition of being out of poverty? When an individual is totally off government assistance, is earning what CCFW estimates to be a "living wage," having no debt, and three months of savings in their bank account.

It's more than just an income level here; it's about their overall status as a person and household, helping them to get earnings up, but also properly managing the money they have coming in.

CCFW has a very methodical approach to helping its clients. Anyone who comes in for help will have two case managers that will stay right alongside them every step of the way. A counselor will help identify long-term goals and meet regularly with clients to assess their progress.

A typical exercise: A counselor might ask a client where her money goes every week. Most clients don't know, so the counselor teaches them a budgeting exercise, and over the next few weeks, the client keeps track. It often takes a few tries, but when she finally reports back on her weekly spending, the counselor asks her to compare her outlays with her values. "Their values are always things like 'my kids, my future,'" Reynolds reports. "But typically, when they look at how they're spending their money, it doesn't line up. And we don't have to tell them. They see it."

The organization does offer some financial assistance, but the objective still remains that each person become financially independent. One woman was afraid of seeking work because of the associated costs of child care. CCFW offered to pay for a good-quality daycare program, which enabled her to seek work. A year later, she still had the job and was able to pay for child care on her own.

CCFW's emphasis on helping people become self-sufficient requires a lot of critical thought about its approach. If something doesn't work, the organization cuts it, in stark contrast to how government programs often function.

Nearly 10 percent of the nonprofit's staff devotes a significant part of their time to evaluating ongoing programs. There's a research partnership with the University of Notre Dame, which conducts the randomized controlled trials. And Reynolds and her team are ruthless. If a program doesn't work, they change it—or end it, if need be. "The social service mantra is 'Don't cut, don't cut,'" Reynolds says. "We say cut what doesn't work and invest in what does work, making sure we're investing in long-term impact."

CCFW is focused not merely on helping people in poverty, but helping them truly escape poverty for good. This is the kind of dedication that is needed to really solve the problem of poverty. When a person acquires new, essential life skills, and has that aha! moment, that's when things begin to change. CCFW's mission is to guide them through that process, and the organization hopes that other anti-poverty programs and organizations will follow their lead.