The following article appeared in CultureMap Houston on February 19, 2014
What if you had to support your family of four on $40,000 a year? What if one emergency, one car problem or illness, sent you into a spiral of debt you couldn't climb out of it? Would you spend less on groceries to pay the car repair? Or would you pay the medical bill and fall behind on your household bills?
Five years ago, United Way of Greater Houston had a bold vision to make Houston an opportunity city for all, and it developed a plan to help those who struggle the most to achieve their goals and dreams.
The nonprofit launched United Way THRIVE as a means to transform the lives of hardworking, low-income families with children. United Way THRIVE is an innovative collaborative of partner agencies and organizations from the business, education and public sectors. The collaborative, led by the United Way, helps families to obtain good jobs with good wages and to build responsible financial habits to produce long-lasting changes in their lives.
One in three Houston families lives on an annual income of $40,000 or less—and many of these families work one or more jobs earning low wages. They live paycheck-to-paycheck and are unable to set aside money to buy a house, invest in an education or start a business. United Way THRIVE gives them the tools they need to become financially stable by focusing on three key strategies: Increasing income, building savings and acquiring assets.
"Through our community surveys and research, we recognized that many of the community's social issues were related to financial stability," said Anna M. Babin, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Houston. "We wanted to create a solution that keeps families from falling through the cracks and gives them hope. United Way believes that when families are stable, the community is stronger."
A new five-year report shows United Way THRIVE is making a difference. After seven months participating in the program, the average family experiences increased wages and income and increased disposable income, savings and assets. They also have reduced their reliance on public assistance and the use of payday loans.
United Way THRIVE uses a holistic approach to move families from living on the edge to financial independence. Twenty-one nonprofit partners and organizations from the business, education and public sectors provide critical services to address families' short-term and long-term needs. The first step is helping them obtain good jobs and higher wages through workforce development and employment assistance, while also helping them reduce debt and increase disposable income through financial education and coaching.
Many families lack access to financial services, and often rely on high-interest payday loans to get by. United Way THRIVE partners offer matched savings accounts, low-interest small business loans, assistance with home loans and free income tax preparation to support them on the pathway to financial stability.
United Way THRIVE families tend to be more successful when they use more than one service. Some families have complex challenges and require more resources in order for them to reach their goals and dreams. And what these families want is what every family wants: Good jobs, affordable housing and a bright future for their children.
Mark, the father of two young girls, felt stuck before he connected with United Way THRIVE. He was working in a low-skill, low-wage job and was tired of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Mark enrolled in the job training programs, which motivated him to further his education. He signed up for a core construction program and eventually earned a welding certificate as well as his GED. He now has a career as a welder and earns higher wages than he used to—and feels more comfortable supporting his family. He credits United Way THRIVE for helping him gain the stability he always wanted.
United Way THRIVE has expanded its reach and capacity over the past five years. The number of families served has increased each year, reaching 52,000 in 2013, representing a 147 percent increase over five years. The number of families that increased savings and received financial education or coaching also spiked by more than 500 percent over the same period.
More families are taking advantage of United Way THRIVE’s free tax preparation services as well. More than** 37,000 tax returns** were filed last year, up from 17,000 five years ago, resulting in** $48 million in tax refunds.** Many families are depositing that extra money into savings accounts, practicing good financial habits they have learned through United Way THRIVE.
United Way has a bold vision for the next five years: To make a lasting impact on the financial stability of 100,000 hardworking, low-income families by 2020.