The blog of the Urban Institute
May 3, 2019

Bangor, Maine, Residents Show the Importance of Supporting Each Other’s Economic Goals

People are more likely to move out of poverty if they experience economic success, have power and autonomy, and feel valued in a community, according to the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty. Economic success may seem like an obvious part of economic stability, but the other two elements are less understood. Residents of Capehart, a public housing property on the northern outskirts of Bangor, Maine, support the idea that being valued in a community may be critical to making economic progress.

Since late 2017, over 50 Capehart families have enrolled in Families Forward, an innovative two-generation program operated by BangorHousing, a small public housing authority. To help families meet their goals, Families Forward and other key partners provide access to Family Self-Sufficiency supports, family goal-setting sessions, youth programming (through the Bangor Boys & Girls Club), literacy events, and home visiting.

Over the past year and a half, the HOST (Housing Opportunities and Services Together) team at the Urban Institute has provided technical assistance to Families Forward through formative evaluation. We have attended partner meetings, conducted focus groups, and hosted a Data Walk with participants to understand the needs of Capehart residents and to see whether Families Forward helps them achieve their goals.

During these meetings, we often heard residents discuss their struggle to connect with other families in the community. While community members grappled with larger structural challenges, such as the lack of accessible transportation, they also felt isolated from other families in Capehart and the larger community. The stigma of being public housing residents weighed on the Capehart families, and many felt they lacked the opportunity, space, and trust to talk with neighbors about mutual challenges.

Families Forward aimed to chip away at these barriers by convening weekly Strengthening Families classes, during which families learned about and discussed a range of day-to-day and sensitive issues with their peers. Beyond taking away practical tips from the formal curriculum, participants used the classes to build a “social safety net” of trusted neighbors and friends who offered additional support as they pursued their goals.

Though we’ve only conducted a preliminary analysis of initial trends, we’ve seen that after joining Families Forward, families are more aware of and actively involved in their community. At a Data Walk in summer 2018, participants used insights they gained from discussing data on their own progress and challenges to design peer-to-peer support programs, such as ride sharing, parent groups, and wellness events. Members of the first cohorts who completed the Strengthening Families sessions wanted to find ways to stay involved with and connected to future participants.

Families Forward program staff listened to these ideas and ran with them. Since the event, staff supported the momentum by convening a Families Forward Advisory Committee made up of peer leaders who aim to make these activities a reality for themselves, new groups of Families Forward families, and the entire community. Some examples they brainstormed include a parents’ anonymous support group, a “Night Out with a Purpose” to give parents the opportunity to run errands, and community trips to the grocery store. Community ownership over the creation and management of the program or event, from budgeting to providing child care, was a key component of the initial project designs.

Although we need more evidence to demonstrate the link between a sense of belonging and economic stability, studies suggest that programs that help parents in poverty develop their “social safety net” can lead to gains in work and income. By providing parents with opportunities to support each other, Families Forward and other similar programs offer promising models for how cultivating a sense of belonging might spur other forms of economic and social mobility for families in public housing and the broader community. 

Photo via Shutterstock.

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