A better way: Catholic Charities Fort Worth's Padua Program turns poverty on its head
Demetria Johnson, a Padua client, plays with her children on July 23, 2021 in Grand Prairie. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)
Since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “War on Poverty” when the national poverty rate was 19 percent, government assistance programs have dedicated trillions of dollars toward eliminating poverty. Yet, the U.S. Census Bureau reports a 2019 poverty rate of 10.5 percent, or 34 million Americans living in poverty.
Catholic Charities Fort Worth, however, is quietly accomplishing what government assistance programs and traditional case management have been unable to do — guide people out of poverty for good — one family at a time.
When CCFW introduced its Out of Poverty campaign in 2015, it set the bold goal of guiding 10,000 people out of poverty. With that goal, CCFW defined four financial benchmarks for someone to move out of poverty: earning a living wage, eliminating inappropriate debt, increasing savings and savings behavior, and being free from government assistance.
In 2015, CCFW also launched Padua, a long-term case management model designed to help clients reach those out-of-poverty benchmarks. Padua provides case management that is holistic, relationship-based, client-led, and research-based. It is named for St. Anthony of Padua, who in addition to being patron of lost items, also is a patron saint of poverty.
Cindy Casey, director of CCFW client services/client strategies, says Padua goes far beyond food pantries and emergency assistance.
“We’re able to take that a step further by bringing in professionals who can help with long-term growth so we can take the mission of the Church and move it forward,” she said.
Casey explained how Padua works by first describing traditional case management, which provides funds but does not plan and problem solve with clients. Without planning, an unemployed client may receive money for back rent but still needs work and rent money for the following months.
Padua provides the missing piece. With Padua, clients receive coaching to help them plan, organize, and problem solve so that once they obtain financial stability, they can maintain it, Casey said.
“Financial assistance is there and available, but as a problem-solving tool to help develop problem-solving skills with the client,” Casey said. “It’s not just a transactional payment of a bill.”
A life-changing choice
Two years ago, Sheritha Cobb, a single mother of two teenagers, lived in a small apartment, worked part-time, went to school full-time, and received government assistance to make ends meet.
“I was stuck,” she remembered. “Stuck in that mentality of ‘this is as good as it’s going to get, so just make the best of it.’”
Then, during an event at her son’s high school, she half-heartedly stopped at one of the booths. It was a booth for Padua, and it changed her life. Cobb was skeptical that Padua could help, but she applied anyway “just to see how it goes.”
It went better than she could have imagined. Today, she receives no government assistance, works full-time as a licensed vocational nurse, has savings in the bank, and recently purchased her first home.
“My life changed and turned around completely,” Cobb said.
With her Padua team, a case manager and a case worker, Cobb set initial goals of having stable transportation, a stable income, and making sure her children were safe and stable as well. She also set long-term goals of someday owning a home and taking a vacation with her children, both of which she has accomplished.
“Purchasing a house was one of my long-term dreams but I didn’t think it would happen,” she said. “With someone guiding you and helping, you see that you can accomplish these goals by just taking little steps at a time.”
No one told her to “just do this,” she added. “It was more like, ‘you can do this. Let’s do this together.’”
“When I got the point where we did a budget — what a wakeup call,” Cobb said. “They gave me categories to look at [in the budget]. We looked at everything — and I mean everything. Writing it down and seeing it really helped, and I still use that today.”
Sheritha Cobb and her son, Devin, and daughter, Cydney, play board games at their home in Cleburne on July 18, 2021. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)
Cobb said her children also have learned and benefited from her Padua experience.
“I sat down with my children and talked about budgeting,” she said. “They’re not strangers to ‘we can’t get that right now,’ or ‘we have to wait a little bit.’ My son said we needed a dog for the house. So, he saved up and bought a dog.”
For Cobb, who graduated Padua last summer, the most meaningful aspect of the program was her relationship with the people on her Padua team.
“I’m really shy and being able to open up to these wonderful individuals was amazing,” she said. “I’m speechless and I cry thinking about my progress and how they helped me.”
Unique Aspects of Padua
According to Casey, there are four aspects of Padua that make it unique. First, it’s directional, meaning that clients identify what they want for their “bigger, brighter future.” Then they use components built around financial benchmarks to plan their own trajectory.
Padua is holistic and long term. Clients stay with Padua from 12 months to as long as five years, but typically, clients are with Padua two to three years before reaching their financial benchmarks.
“We are not telling people what to do,” Casey said. “We’ll show you the scenarios and you can choose. We’ll keep you as well-informed as you need to be.”
Padua offers strategic and flexible financial assistance. It does more than pay bills. It uses financial resources to help people set goals, put a plan in place, and hold themselves accountable to the plan.
Finally, Padua provides ongoing support for its staff with training that is frequent and ongoing. Casey said, “One of the things we’ve done exceedingly well with Padua is our training.”
Financial and emotional resiliency
All Padua clients commit to meet twice monthly with a case manager and case worker, Casey explained. Clients may receive financial help for today’s needs, but coaching ensures there is a plan and process to meet tomorrow’s needs, thus disrupting the complex system of poverty.
“At its heart, Padua is a financial coaching model based on a firm foundation of emotional resiliency,” Casey said.
She said Padua helps clients “develop a foundation of well-being — emotional well-being, mental and physical health, the ability to have strong relationships and support systems and the ability to develop executive function — to regulate emotions, plan, and problem solve.”
“People can obtain their financial goals, but not maintain them if their emotional resiliency is not firm,” Casey explained.
“So, we start working on financial resiliency right off the bat, but we also work on emotional resiliency — that foundation of well-being.”
Cobb’s case manager nurtured that foundation of well-being by helping her look at not only her relationship with money but also her relationships with friends and co-workers.
“We even talked about the people around me, which relationships were positive, and which were negative, and then how to release those negative relationships.”
She remembers the day her case manager asked her how a particular relationship would benefit her long-term — in a year or five years.
“I said, ‘It’s not,’” Cobb recalled. “So that’s when I cut ties. And I was free … I was able to let go of bad relationships because they helped me see that those relationships were not helping my growth.”
Whatever it takes
Casey noted that the tenets of Padua can be found in any social work textbook. But in the real world, critics argue that it’s too costly to execute and too time-consuming for a traditional case manager with 50 or 60 clients. So, in 2014, CCFW formed a “Whatever It Takes” committee with professionals from other agencies nationwide, the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington, clients, and staff, to answer the question: If you could design “whatever it takes” to help people move themselves out of poverty, what would that look like?
“Over and over, we heard: ‘There’s never enough time to do what we know works. We get so caught up in connecting clients with resources for today that we can’t help them for tomorrow,’” Casey said. “So, we made a conscious decision to invest in clients by investing in our staff.”
To that end, Padua limits caseloads to 25 clients per case manager, who is paired with a case worker. The case manager primarily helps clients build financial and emotional resiliency, and the case worker helps clients identify and access resources and funds such as assistance with rent, housing, employment, food, and childcare. Each case worker supports the clients of two case managers.
“Every client who comes in the door gets a case worker and a case manager. That makes Padua very unique in giving clients more support,” Casey explained.
“CCFW has allowed us the flexibility, and stakeholders have allowed us the funding, to do what everyone knows works,” she added. “So, we’ve been very blessed.”
Padua’s staff of 30 includes 12 case managers and six case workers who currently serve 160 families. Since 2015, Padua has served 492 families and guided 69 families out of poverty. Jennifer Strand, CCFW director of research and evaluation, explained that many of the 492 Padua families made significant progress and “were helped greatly” but they did not feel a need to stay in Padua until they reached all four financial benchmarks for out-of-poverty status.
“But that doesn’t mean they are not moving their life toward their bigger, brighter future,” Strand said.
More than financial help
Demetria Johnson, a single mother of three, had received financial assistance from a variety of agencies, but in May 2020, she discovered Padua and found much more than help with paying bills.
She said, “A lot of people say they want to help but they just give you the information and then leave you to take care of it. But Padua is right on top of it, and they will help you to stay on top of it.”
When Johnson started Padua, she had been out of work for three months and had just gained full-time employment with a temp agency doing insurance verification but earning less than at her previous job.
She said Padua “came at the right time for me. I was stressed out trying to figure out how to catch up and pay my bills every month.”
Padua paid for groceries during the February freeze when Johnson’s apartment lost power for a week and everything in her refrigerator spoiled. Padua also helped pay for her last semester of training in medical billing and coding and for the fee to take the licensure test.
“This program has helped me so much. I wouldn’t have been able to finish school without it,” she said.
Along with the financial help, her Padua team guided her in making a manageable budget so she could not only provide for her family but also begin saving — encouraging her, for example, to save 30 percent of her tax refund. They helped her complete an application for rental assistance from the State of Texas during the pandemic and found free workshops for her on managing money and on what it takes to eventually own a home.
“Every month we go through financial planning and go over all my expenses. When we broke it down and wrote an entire list of bills, I could see where I can save money because I actually think about it now before I spend it,” Johnson explained. “They also showed me how to remove things from my credit that are negative.”
In addition to financial coaching, her team offered emotional support with frequent communication about her needs and well-being, supportive text messages during stressful times, and with counseling provided through a CCFW partnership.
“I feel a strong bond between all of us. They make me feel like they care about me,” Johnson said. “And they give you incentives to make you want to do better for yourself.”
Proving Padua Works
CCFW developed Padua with a commitment to long-term research to evaluate its effectiveness and to understand how to continually improve it. To do that, Padua partnered with the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame. LEO is conducting a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to measure the effectiveness of Padua’s long-term, comprehensive, and individualized case management model.
LEO’s preliminary conclusions show increased client self-sufficiency and improved employment outcomes. Two years into the RCT, participant interviews revealed increases in full-time employment, increased earnings, improved health, and reduced use of government assistance.
Collaboration with LEO prompted CCFW to start its own research and evaluation team, according to Strand, who heads the research team at CCFW.
“Research allows programs and agencies to see what’s working and not working on both a macro and micro level,” Strand said.
She explained that LEO’s research addresses Padua’s big picture, evaluating the effectiveness of its foundational components.
“It takes a long time to gather that data because it is longitudinal,” she said. “But the internal research provides the opportunity to refine actual services in a more real-time manner.”
“That helps us support clients better and more efficiently and it helps us know where we need to put our resources, time, and money and where we don’t,” Strand said.
For example, she said Padua made a significant change early on in how it disburses financial assistance, based on data from the Research and Evaluation team. She said Padua began with the assumption that financial help would alleviate pressure and give clients the mental and emotional capacity to do the work needed to move forward. But research revealed that approach was not helpful, so Padua tied financial assistance to planning and problem-solving. Funding became a tool for the long-term goal of financial resiliency.
“The problem wasn’t that [clients] didn’t have capacity to think about it,” Strand explained, “but they didn’t have the tools to solve for it. So, using funding to equip them with tools to find their own solutions was a much better way.”
“Without changing the big components of what we believe works with Padua, we were able to refine and adapt the methodology and mechanisms that make the program work,” she said.
As director of CCFW client services/client strategies, Casey also sees the benefits of continued internal research and LEO’s long-term research for the purpose of offering clients the best and most effective path out of poverty. She reminds us that all work at CCFW is based on Catholic social teaching, “so we’re the hands and feet of Christ out there.”
“When you come in the door with Padua, you can be homeless, a high school drop-out, or unable to work because of illness but know you’ll be able to work in the future. As long as you will eventually be able and willing to work 40 hours a week, you’re eligible for Padua and we’ll work for you,” she said.
Catholic Charities Fort Worth, CCFW, Padua Program, poverty, A better way, trending-english