Padua Pilot aims high to lift poor out of poverty

by Jerry Circelli

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

July 8, 2015

Frank Santoni, Director of the Padua Pilot at Catholic Charities Fort Worth, discusses the pilot program with a host of informative speakers May 6. They included from left: Marci Ybarra, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration; Jim Sullivan, University of Notre Dame; Brian R. Corbin, Catholic Charities U.S.A.; and Amanda Cowart, Catholic Charities Fort Worth. (Photo by Jerry Circelli / NTC)

Frank Santoni, Director of the Padua Pilot at Catholic Charities Fort Worth, discusses the pilot program with a host of informative speakers May 6. They included from left: Marci Ybarra, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration; Jim Sullivan, University of Notre Dame; Brian R. Corbin, Catholic Charities U.S.A.; and Amanda Cowart, Catholic Charities Fort Worth. (Photo by Jerry Circelli / NTC)

In the spirit of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of poverty, Catholic Charities Fort Worth is launching an innovative program designed to lead the poor along a path to economic independence and an improved quality of life. Aptly named “The Padua Pilot,” the program aims at lifting the poor out of poverty long-term and breaking the cycle of dependency that has kept them there.

To formally introduce the pilot program, Catholic Charities held a kick-off event May 6 for about 200 friends and supporters at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center in Fort Worth.

Six speakers at the event — all sharing in the mission to end poverty — presented concise, fact-filled, to-the-point talks to provide background for this latest venture by Catholic Charities. Topics covered included, “Welfare Reform,” “The Economics of Poverty,” “The Opportunity,” “The Reality,” and “The Pilot.”

Introducing the program and the speakers, Heather Reynolds, CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, began with a hard dose of reality.

“What if I told you that despite a decade of growth and success at Catholic Charities Fort Worth, we are not satisfied?” Reynolds asked.

Despite Catholic Charities’ history of more than 100 years serving the community with scores of programs, 15 percent of Tarrant County residents still live in poverty, Reynolds said. 

“One in five children in our community still live in poverty, and almost half of all Tarrant County families don’t earn enough money to cover their basic necessities,” Reynolds said. “The question is — Why? Why can’t we do better?”

Reynolds said that three years ago, her organization determined it could improve on many existing plans that she said now involve “federal funding parameters that lack clear goals and are often based on false assumptions about why people stay poor.”

Thus, the Padua Pilot project was launched, with Catholic Charities Fort Worth partnering with Catholic Charities USA and the Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame to evaluate the plan.

“We want to learn more so we that we cannot only serve more, but we can assure that we are serving in the most impactful way possible,” Reynolds said.

Welfare reform

Reynolds introduced Marci Ybarra, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Social Service Administration, who gave an overview of welfare reform. Ybarra said that welfare reform of the 1990s was implemented because past programs made government subsidies more attractive than low-wage work. The purpose of the reform was to get people off of welfare programs and into jobs that resulted in more income than the assistance program could provide. It also put time limits on welfare benefits.

If looking strictly at the number of people who remained on welfare after the reform was implemented, the program was a success, said Ybarra, with welfare program caseloads dropping 50 percent. Families, however, were not better off. Their wages were consistently low, work was sporadic with frequent unemployment, and poverty remained. Families were not transformed to a better way of life with welfare reform, Ybarra said.

“Welfare reform dramatically reduced caseloads, but did not dramatically reshape poverty in the United States,” Ybarra said. She maintained that today’s large, inflexible welfare programs supported by state and federal dollars are not designed to tackle poverty problems effectively.

She said, however, that organizations such as Catholic Charities, already reaching millions of low-income families every year, are less encumbered and more agile than large bureaucratic agencies. It is time, she said, to put programs like the Padua Pilot to the test and evaluate their results.

Economics of poverty

Jim Sullivan, associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, agreed the time is right for the Padua Pilot.

He reasoned that the cost of poverty far exceeds its toll only on the poor. “Everyone is paying the price, and it is steep,” Sullivan said.

“The poor struggle to put food on the table, to pay bills, to make ends meet,” Sullivan said, adding “40 million Americans are what the USDA calls ‘food insecure’ — people who skip meals, go hungry, eat less nutritious food because they can’t afford to eat better. And almost a third of them are children.”

Many of them, he said, are “one bad event away from dire straits.”

Sullivan said that lack of money and inadequate resources keep the poor living in a state of stress and uncertainty. The poor, he said, face other issues besides lack of finances. These include living in dangerous neighborhoods, greater rates of crime victimization, poor health, and the increased likelihood of depression.

Poverty robs society as a whole of its overall productive potential, Sullivan added.

“If we could eliminate poverty, how much bigger would our economy be?” Sullivan asked. He said research has shown that lost earnings, as well as costs involved in dealing with crime and poor health care add up to $500 billion per year in the U.S.

The investment for society to help eliminate poverty, Sullivan said, “is worth it.”

He continued, “This is not a call to throw more money at the problem. We already spend more than a trillion dollars a year fighting poverty in the U.S., but the return we get from this investment is very unclear because we know very little about what works and what doesn’t work.”

More research is needed, he said, and the Padua Pilot is positioned to do that.

The Padua Pilot is the namesake of St. Anthony of Padua, an 11th century saint and doctor of the Church. 

The opportunity and the reality

Brian R. Corbin, senior vice president for Social Policy at Catholic Charities USA, cited more statistics about poverty. In Texas, he said, 3.6 million people live in poverty. “That’s enough to fill AT&T Stadium 46 times over,” Corbin said.

“So, what can one person do?” he asked. “To start with, we can’t be content with the same old way of doing business.”

He said that approaches used 50 years ago during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” are still being used today.

“It’s time to think anew,” Corbin said.

“Pope Francis, who has spoken so eloquently about our responsibility to accompany those in need, has called us to leave aside the old structures and find new ways of being the hands of Christ, reaching out to those in need,” Corbin said.

“The truth is that for the past 2,000 years, the Catholic community has been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger,” Corbin said. “In each person and family in need we see the image of Christ. Ignoring their needs is ignoring Christ in our midst.”

The Padua Pilot, he said, can be the first step for many in carrying on that time-honored service established by Christ Himself.

Building on Corbin’s observations, Amanda Cowart, associate director of Fund Development at Catholic Charities Fort Worth, said her organization strives daily “to see each and every individual as a whole person. This is how we give people hope,” she said. “Our work is firmly rooted in our organization’s core values of respect, integrity, compassion, hospitality, excellence, and stewardship.”

Cowart continued, “Our organization’s goal to end poverty is a radical one, but what I love most about Catholic Charities Fort Worth is that we are not afraid to take risks in our relentless pursuit to achieve it.”

The Pilot

With the stage set for Frank Santoni, director of the Padua Pilot at Catholic Charities Fort Worth, he wasted no time in outlining “a new direction and new trajectory” for serving the poor by helping them lift themselves out of poverty.

He focused on three points.

First, he said, “We have to stop aiming so low. Can we honestly say we helped someone leave poverty behind when all we've done is help them with a few months of unpaid bills?”

Second, Santoni said, “We need to be honest about the challenges the poor face. We have to quit looking at people as problems to be fixed.” They should be viewed for their resourcefulness, resiliency, and ability to forge pathways toward their own success, Santoni said. “We have to invest in the strengths of our clients and not focus on deficits.”

For someone to be truly self-sufficient, Santoni said, that person should be earning a consistent wage that can sustain his or her family.

They must also have a goal of saving three months of income in the bank for life’s inevitable emergencies. In addition, they must learn to manage their debts, he stressed.

Ultimately, Santoni said, people should be living independent of government subsidies.

Catholic Charities is committed in the early stages of the project to send out “supercharged case managers” to provide close and frequent counseling for clients. “They will be equal parts concierge, coach, and cheerleader,” Santoni said. There will be no overloaded caseworkers, only those who can spend quality time with clients, setting long-term goals and building meaningful relationships.

Third, Santoni said, there needs to be a “new kind of collaboration,” between agencies working to eliminate poverty. He said even today’s best efforts are fragmented and added that Catholic Charities has already made plans to coordinate efforts with 12 key community partners to implement the project.

Over the next three years, with a base of 200 clients, the Padua Pilot will carry out its work. Results will be tracked throughout the period and compared to a control group using traditional approaches to assisting the poor.

“Then we will be able to point with confidence to what really works to move people beyond poverty,” Santoni said.

“I believe the end of poverty is achievable, one family at a time.”

For more information on the Padua Pilot, please visit catholiccharitiesfortworth.org/paduapilot

In the spirit of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of poverty, Catholic Charities Fort Worth is launching an innovative program designed to lead the poor along a path to economic independence and an improved quality of life. Aptly named “The Padua Pilot,” the program aims at lifting the poor out of poverty long-term and breaking the cycle of dependency that has kept them there.

Published (until 12/27/2031)
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