Commonwealth Magazine

By Elisabeth Babcock

ACCORDING TO A new report from the Brookings Institution, Boston has the biggest wage gap in the country. One out of every four Massachusetts residents lives in a working-poor family that cannot afford to meet its basic needs. The current system of public assistance can help poor families survive, but it is not designed as a path to economic independence in our modern innovation economy.

Policy makers and service providers continue to rely on an outdated roadmap made for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty: short-term, one-size-fits-all training and referral programs intended to plug workers into manufacturing jobs plentiful in that era. Today, moving out of poverty has evolved into a complex, multi-year process. Families must simultaneously maintain stability, optimize money management, gain post-secondary degrees, and find their way into a career that pays a family-sustaining wage ($65,000 or more in metro-Boston).

To break the cycle of poverty, we need to think in bold, rigorous, and engaging new ways. As Mayor Martin Walsh said in his State of the City address, “Boston is a city on the cutting edge of the common good.” It’s time to recalibrate how government systems, nonprofit organizations, and policy makers approach their work with low-income families.

Emerging brain science shows that the toxic stress of living in poverty negatively impacts our capacity for problem-solving, multi-tasking, optimism, and persistence. The consequences of this stress cross generations. This is not to say that poverty is genetic. Research shows these coping skills are developed over time, built-up through repetition, and reinforced through relationships and social networks.

Investing in coaching for economic mobility rooted in this emerging science is a proven approach to deal with the effects of poverty at the individual level. Through regular interaction with a well-trained mentor, individuals develop the skills to focus on goals, measure progress, and regain momentum after facing setbacks. This one-to-one approach needs community reinforcement to be successful. Coaching improves our ability to play the game, but a $15 minimum wage, safe and affordable housing, and other structural supports such as subsidized child care and education opportunities are required to level the field.

Unifying the social safety net with a metric-based, mentor-led, incentivized model gets results. Crittenton Women’s Union introduced the Career Family Opportunity program in South Boston’s public housing in 2009. The first class of participants, all single parents living at or below the poverty level five years ago, graduated last spring with at least $10,000 in savings each. They now earn an average hourly wage of $22.30 and have collectively reduced their dependence on subsidies by 20 percent, and increased their tax contributions by 120 percent.

With measurable outcomes like these, Crittenton Women’s Union is partnering with city, state, and federal programs to help implement similar holistic approaches to move families out of poverty. However, at the same time we as a society are not investing at the scale needed to truly close the gap in inequality.

The bridge from poverty to self-sufficiency is supported by five pillars: family stability, wellbeing, education and training, financial management, and employment. Not only is each pillar individually critical to supporting the bridge as a whole, but the pillars, like the vitality of our city, are also mutually connected and reinforcing. When one falls, the others often do as well. Transformational investments, policies, and programs are needed to meet the challenge of 21st century poverty in Boston and beyond.