Poverty-fighting organization FII is starting operations in Greater Cincinnati

$1.8M pledged to help 500 local families

CINCINNATI -- Greater Cincinnati has a new strategy for reducing childhood poverty, and it starts with trusting families to know what they need to improve their lives.

That philosophy is how the Family Independence Initiative has helped reduce poverty in six other cities across the country, and it's why the GreenLight Fund and The Greater Cincinnati Foundation are investing $2.4 million to bring FII here.

The funding includes a $1.8 million grant from The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and its donors -- the largest grant in the history of the foundation. That money, along with smaller grants made by SC Ministry and The Mayerson Foundation, will allow FII to serve 500 families in the next four years.

FII’s work is starting immediately.

“I am over-the-moon thrilled,” Tara Noland, executive director of GreenLight Cincinnati, told WCPO. “This is, from a national perspective, the most innovative solution for families in poverty that exists. And Cincinnati’s going to have it now.”

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation believes FII can help low-income families in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that haven't benefited from the region's progress, CEO Ellen Katz said in a news release.

Ellen Katz

"Our region is literally bursting with new energy and progress, yet we still have many in need," Katz said in the release. "We're excited to ensure we can rapidly deploy FII in our community."

WCPO first reported about FII as part of Below the Line, 9 On Your Side’s ongoing series about childhood poverty in the region.

RELATED: Trusting poor families to help themselves

Noland said she’s convinced the organization’s approach will complement the work of the Child Poverty Collaborative, the group that is working to lift 10,000 children and 5,000 families out of poverty in five years. The collaborative has specific strategies in the works to provide intensive help and coaching to the region’s poor families.

FII targets families that are teetering just above or below the federal poverty line. Cincinnati was an attractive location for the organization because of the need here and because there is so much activity aimed at reducing the region’s poverty rate, said Ashley Conners Sherwin, vice president of external affairs for FII.

RELATED: Child poverty in Tri-State remains high

“We wouldn’t be coming into a city where there aren’t other people interested in tackling this issue,” she said.

FII currently works with 2,000 families in Oakland, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, New Orleans and Albuquerque. The nonprofit wants to grow so that each of its cities works with 1,000 families by 2020, Sherwin said.

“We’re working with families that want to build a movement with us and are taking initiative in their lives,” she said.

The organization does not work with families in crisis. Parents who are fleeing domestic violence, battling addiction or whose families are homeless are welcome to partner with FII after they work through those problems, she said.

“We say, ‘take care of that, and then come back to us,’” Sherwin said.

Here’s how FII works:

• Families enroll in groups of five to eight and make a two-year commitment to FII and their group members.

• Each family that enrolls gets a technology stipend of $300. Some families use that money to buy a laptop. Others use it to get a mobile phone or a tablet. The families decide what technology they need to take part in FII’s online platform.

• The family groups meet monthly and keep detailed monthly data journals that they submit to FII.

• For the first six months, families get stipends for the meetings and for completing their journals. They can earn up to $300 every three months.

• After six months, families can access what FII calls the “Up Together Fund,” which provides no-interest loans or grants that families can use as they see fit. Some use it to fund college courses, for example, while others might buy a car or make renovation for a home business.

“The draws very much vary from family to family based on goals and initiative,” Sherwin said. 

Over two years, she said, the average family investment is $2,400.

That relatively small amount of money makes an enormous difference in people’s lives, Noland said.

• FII families grow their annual incomes by an average of $5,856. 

• They report a 62 percent decrease in government subsidies such as TANF and SNAP, better known as cash assistance and food stamps.

• And 90 percent of FII families’ students have excellent, good or improved grades.

Not only that, FII uses the data that families collect to figure out what works best and what families need.

Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky should start to see results pretty quickly, Noland said.

“I feel like this is our chance for our poverty rate to look really different in a few years,” she said.

More information about FII’s Cincinnati location is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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