New United Way approach helped nearly 200 families lift themselves out of poverty in 2018

'It's going to take a whole community to solve it'
Posted at 5:00 AM, May 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-23 18:02:55-04

CINCINNATI — Rachel Smith connected with Santa Maria Community Services nearly six years ago to help prepare her son for preschool.

She has been working with the nonprofit in various ways ever since, but a change in Santa Maria’s approach last year made a big difference.

The organization helped her get a house through a Price Hill homesteading program, eliminate her debt and take major steps towards the future she wants for her family.

“They’re really about helping the whole family,” Smith said. “It’s nice that there’s programs like this that help us to move forward and thrive.”

Smith was among the thousands of people who got help for their families in 2018, thanks in part to a new funding strategy that United Way of Greater Cincinnati adopted.

The goal is to encourage local nonprofits that get money from United Way to use a “family-centered” approach in how they work with clients rather than concentrating on individuals one program at a time.

That’s a change from United Way’s previous strategy, which focused on early childhood, employment and workforce development, said Ross Meyer, the organization’s interim CEO.

“More kids were getting ready for kindergarten. Graduation rates were going up. We saw a lot of improvement in all the key indicators,” he said. “And yet our poverty rates were stubbornly high. They didn’t move at all.”

Because United Way aims to help local families move out of poverty and become self-sufficient, the organization decided to try something new. Planning for the change started about three years ago, Meyer said, and 2018 was the first full year that the new funding strategy was in place.

The change yielded results, which United Way shared exclusively with WCPO. Last year:

  • 2,528 people got jobs through 28 different programs;
  • 1,177 families or individuals got affordable housing through eight different programs;
  • And 182 households increased their incomes above 200 percent of the federal poverty level through four different programs. The federal poverty level is $25,100 for a family of four, meaning these 182 families increased their incomes to more than $50,200.

Although 182 households might not sound like a lot, the point of United Way’s new strategy is to find the best ways to help families lift themselves out of poverty. Experts agree a family must earn at least twice the federal poverty threshold in order to be able to pay their bills and cover their expenses without government assistance.

Roughly 100,000 families in Greater Cincinnati have annual household incomes below that amount, Meyer noted. And though the 182 total is probably lower than the actual number of families that United Way-funded agencies helped to meet that goal, he said, there is still a long way to go.

Progress through partnerships

“The scale makes it absolutely clear that we absolutely have to maintain the progress that we’re making,” he said. “But for that our community would be in a much different place, but it’s insufficient by itself. We also have to advocate for these changes in our community that ultimately help families get ahead or hold them back.”

That work includes advocating for policy changes related to public transportation and working to better connect public transportation to available jobs, Meyer said.

But while all that is going on, United Way is encouraging local nonprofit organizations to support entire families in ways that will help them get ahead.

Santa Maria CEO H.A. Musser said the approach helps local nonprofits because it gives them more flexibility.

“If we can work in a multi-generational way with families, we think we can achieve better outcomes long-term, especially as it relates to poverty,” Musser said. “If we’re involved with the family because of the young children, let’s make sure we’re asking mom and dad what are the goals they have for their own family.”

United Way also has worked with nonprofits to help them better understand the obstacles that the families they serve encounter every day.

Santa Maria has made office areas more kid-friendly for parents who bring their children to appointments, for example.

The Children’s Home of Cincinnati has worked to retool its preschool program to accommodate parents who struggle to get to school on time, said Carolyn Brinkmann, director of early childhood and school age services.

Carolyn Brinkmann

“We have one mom, a single mom who is trying to do well for her child. She was living in poverty but had a job,” Brinkmann said. “One day, her car broke down. They had to take three different buses that morning and transfer two different times just for her to get him here. My staff are really firm believers that kids need to be here on time in the morning and that routines are really important, but her just even sharing that, we didn’t realize that had happened on certain days.”

Understanding the entire family’s challenges has helped the staff find ways to plan the preschool day that accommodates parents who encounter those obstacles but still provides children with structure and routine if they’re late, Brinkmann said.

The new approach also is encouraging more collaboration among local nonprofit organizations through what United Way calls the Family Centered Innovation Network.

Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services, for example, now provides counseling services at Santa Maria, CityLink Center and at Brighton Center in Northern Kentucky on a regular basis so that people can get the mental health treatment they need through a nonprofit organization they already know and trust, said Anne Combs, Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health’s vice president of children and family services.

“We decided to really find families and to being to work more successfully with families, we really needed to go where they are and where they come,” Combs said. “It’s sometimes difficult for people to walk into a community mental health center where there could be a negative perception.”

Anne Combs

Having counselors work at other locations has helped Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health reach people that the organization wouldn’t otherwise be able to help, she said.

'I've been building myself'

Having those services on-site to offer clients makes a big difference to the nonprofit organizations that host them, too, said Melissa Hall Sommer, Brighton Center’s senior director of family economic success.

Many families living in poverty have experienced trauma and could benefit from counseling to work through it, she said, but it’s difficult for them to get to one more appointment at a different location while juggling everything else.

“It’s not about one agency being able to do everything. It’s about all of us leaning in together,” she said. “If we’re trying to help a family or provide a pathway for a family out of poverty, that pathway has to be built around their family. Because we know that strong communities come from strong families, which come from strong parents.”

Rachel Smith is feeling stronger now than ever.

Santa Maria vetted her application for Price Hill Will’s Homesteading program and helped her make sure she had everything lined up correctly to qualify, she said. Smith attended home ownership classes last summer. The first week of December, she got a call about a house.

“It just so happened it was right across the street from the Catholic school my son goes to,” she said. “It’s a perfect location on a quiet cul-de-sac.”

Rachel Smith's house in East Price Hill.

Smith pays $700 a month on her interest-free home loan, a much smaller burden than her rent of more than $1,000 per month used to be. After five years of those monthly payments, she will own the house free and clear, she said.

“It’s kind of like I’ve been building myself here. I’m pushing 40, and my parents never owned. They always rented,” Smith said.

Owning a home gives Smith a sense of stability and an asset that her children could use later, whether they live in it themselves or rent it out, she said.

“The services are there, and they’re so valuable,” she said.

Meyer said United Way’s hope is that by offering those services with entire families in mind, local nonprofits can help thousands more families like Smith’s to build better futures for themselves and their children.

“The complexities that families are facing in poverty re tremendously varied, and it’s never about one issue,” Meyer said. “It’s not just one program here or there or one agency that can solve it. It’s going to take a whole community to solve it. And that’s really the power of United Way to really unite our best-in-class social service agencies to really work together as a network.”

Information about United Way of Greater Cincinnati - and how you can help - 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. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.