Fighting Poverty in Boston

This week I met with three critical stakeholders in Boston to learn about the existing fabric of care that supports people living in poverty-afflicted communities as part of my feasibility research for launching Connective Possibilities (more on that to come later). LIFT and Healthleads are nonprofit organizations that provide resources to community members. Maicharia Weir Lytle, LIFT’s Boston Executive Director, gave me a tour of their multi-service center in the heart of Mayor Menino’s audacious Circle of Promise in Roxbury. Community members work one-on-one with LIFT volunteers to find jobs, secure safe housing, make ends meet through public benefits and tax credits, and obtain quality referrals for services like childcare and healthcare. Sonia Sarker, Healthleads’s Chief of Staff, also shared with me their similar model — except their volunteer-staffed “help desks” are located in hospitals and clinics that low-income people frequent.

Both services help people navigate through the turmoil inherent below the poverty-line, and provide support so that people don’t spend more in money, time, hassle, and exhaustion. No one thinks about the lines and bureaucracy that the poor have to wade through. Weir Lytle showed me a thick stack of papers, which represented all of the various applications for private subsidized housing that a person would have to fill out to look for a safe and stable home. A LIFT volunteer collected all of these applications, scanned them into PDF files, and uploaded them into an internal wiki of resources, so that people don’t have to traverse all over town to pick them up – a savings of at least 10 hours of travel time.

One of my main questions about Healthleads’ model was whether connecting clinic clients and hospital patients to resources was leading to a fade-out effect. Sarkar explained how Healthleads’ model actually made hospital interventions better. Currently the healthcare system reacts to the exacerbated ailments of poor clients. A doctor might prescribe an inhaler to a child with chronic asthma, but she can’t do anything about the child’s apartment that is crawling with roaches. Healthleads aims to fix this by being “Physician extenders” and unbundling this social responsibility off of the physician’s plate so that she can “work at the top of her license.” Healthleads fills a missing operational gap in the value chain of hospitals that serve high-poverty communities: Doctors => Nurses => Social Workers => Healthleads volunteers (who release the pressure off the previous three positions so that they can work at the top of their license.

My third and final visit this week was with Principal Cynthia Paris-Jeffries at one of Boston’s turnaround schools, Blackstone Elementary in the South End. Blackstone is a K-5 school with a largely Latino (80%), Black (15%), and poor (over 90% on Free/Reduced Lunch) student body, and because the school failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress in both English Language Arts and Math for several years, they’ve been labeled a “turnaround school” and provided resources from the district. My meeting with Principal Paris-Jeffries reminded me of Isaacs and Sawhill’s conclusion that the best intervention to improve social mobility is to focus on high quality, early childhood education targeted at children from poor families. Paris-Jeffries compares the job of a good principal to that of a skilled chef — every school needs a healthy mix of carefully and artfully chosen services and partners. Some principals just throw in every intervention or partner into their school without really thinking about how that affects the school as a whole. Paris-Jeffries alluded to making a simple, yet effective set of interventions tailored especially to early childhood education for children from poor families, which includes partnerships with City Year, READ Boston, South End Health Center, the Power Lunch Program, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

Each of these three organizations tries to tackle the poverty-related issues that cause family background to play a role in why families and kids fall behind or get ahead. Providing resources and connections, like the informal social capital in middle and high-income communities, helps kids and families receive the resources they need to do better. And although poverty has risen to 13.2% (Sherman, et. al) — its highest level since the 60’s — it’s reassuring to know that communities, organizations and schools are doing their best to fight poverty and the hidden issues that poverty brings. However, it’s also clear that more needs to be done, and we have just touched the tip of the ice berg in regards to the full effects of the recession on people living in poverty.


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