CNCounty News

Pennsylvania program helps rural families find way out of poverty

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Key Takeaways

Parent Pathways of Northeastern Pennsylvania is a multi-sector, multi-generational approach to fighting poverty, involving nearly 30 community-based non-profits and higher-education institutes and spanning five counties. 

Luzerne, Lackawanna, Wyoming, Wayne and Susquehanna counties are all part of Parent Pathways, which launched in October 2022 and has since enrolled nearly 30 families in its services. Parent Pathways addresses the needs of both parents and their children, partnering with organizations that offer services including free job training, access to housing, food and both pre-school programming and higher education.

The income limit for eligibility is 250 percent of the federal poverty guideline for the head of household and their dependent children, so for a family of two the limit is $45,775. Grandparents who are the primary caregivers for children are also eligible. The program is led by Katherine Pohlidal, director of Misericordia University’s Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program.

“Our goal was to create a variety of options among partners…so obviously some families might be a little more stabilized and have some resources, so maybe what they need is more guidance into a higher ed institution, versus others who might need to start with food access, so their needs dictate the path.”

The three-year pilot, which will head into its final year next month, is a result of Robin Hood’s Mobility LABs, an initiative created to spur new solutions to poverty. Mobility LABs has nine local anchors across the country, including South Bronx, N.Y., Suburban Cook County, Ill. and East San Jose, Calif. Northeastern Pennsylvania is the only rural pilot location.

“The idea was to challenge communities to develop their own sort of grassroots initiatives to help sustainably lift families out of poverty,” Pohlidal said. “I love the idea that Robin Hood was novel and innovative enough to say, ‘Look, you know your community’s best, so let’s empower you to do what you can for it and come up with some solutions,’ so I think that it’s a great way to really learn and put a dent in some of this, because I don’t think poverty is going anywhere, so how are we putting a dent in this for families who really want an opportunity? So, that’s been a refreshing thing to have that type of experience.

“Our hope is that we’re proliferating ourselves out in a way that’s intentional, but also targeted in terms of knowing and understanding where most of these families are living and trying to survive, frankly, and we want to be there and present for them,” she said.

“So for us, access is probably one of the biggest and most incredibly important things that we do in this process.”

Katherin Phillips, co-founder of The Shared Humanity Project, one of the program’s partners, said that what drew her to Parent Pathways was its understanding of geographic specialization in addressing poverty and its emphasis on making access to services as convenient as possible.

“When we have looked at poverty programs in the United States, be it at the government level or the nonprofit level, we tend to be very siloed in our thinking,” Phillips said. “The federal government has all these different departments set up to think about low-income families, but they don’t talk to each other, so, if I’m a low-income person looking to receive government benefits, in many places, I have to fill out 10 different applications that have different cycles, and I may be eligible for one, but my eligibility for one might make me ineligible for another.

“It’s just extraordinarily complicated, where it would be much more efficient and humane to have a sort of ‘one door of entry,’ and that’s what Parent Pathways does by being sort of this multi-sectoral, multi-generational approach …,” she noted. “The issues in Northeast Pennsylvania might be completely different to issues that are in South Dakota or Maryland, so, while you might take this general approach, the specific implementation has to vary by location based on the needs and the resources, and so we’re working to sort of connect these groups.”

HANDS of Wyoming County, a non-profit that offers a family resource center, a Parents as Teachers home-visiting program and an on-site food and diaper pantry, is the lead partner for Parent Pathways in Wyoming County. Parent Pathways’ two-generational approach lined up with HANDS’ mission and made them natural partners, said Cathy Franko, HANDS of Wyoming County’s executive director.

“Through our rural nature, we actually have two different kinds of poverty,” Franko said. “There’s a generational poverty in our area, where at least two generations have been born into poverty, and also, we have rural poverty, and that stems from limited access to education, employment and healthcare. So, when you’re looking at the two-generational approach, it’s strategic because of its partnership, so we try to support the entire family with integrated services and then we implement some goal plannings for both of them.”

To get involved, a parent must fill out a Pathfinder form on the organization’s website. Each family in Parent Pathways is assigned a Pathways advisor to help them navigate the process and access the resources they need. Shianne Wiernusz is the Pathways Advisor for Wyoming County and is also a parent educator for HANDS of Wyoming County.

“I’m the first point of contact for the moms or dads who want to go back to higher education, whether that is a certificate program, their GED or even going back to college,” Wiernusz said.

“My job is to case manage and get them through the whole process of school. I’m like their support system to help them overcome barriers. In our county, we see a lot of issues with technology, so we can help them get a laptop or connect them to services for WiFi.

“My job is also to be their biggest cheerleader, so like if they get a good grade in a class for the semester, providing incentives to celebrate with family, like a gift card to go out to eat with the family so they don’t have to pay, or going to the movie theater, stuff like that.”

Robin Hood started connecting with organizations in northeastern Pennsylvania for the pilot in 2019 but programming was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pohlidal said she thinks the longer process actually benefited Parent Pathways.

“On some level, it was sort of a blessing in disguise because I think it afforded us the opportunity to really drill down and look at some of our system’s issues, looking at micro, macro levels of concerns and barriers that families were facing,” she said.

“We even did a survey and really saw how the pandemic was impacting families in real time that were particularly vulnerable and living in poverty or falling into poverty, so it helped us to take a very proactive approach, and I think it gave us some time to really build some of those relationships among systems.”

Although Parent Pathways is unsure whether it will continue to receive funding from Robin Hood following the completion of the pilot, Pohlidal said she’s confident programming will be able to continue based on the model its created with so many community partners.

“Robin Hood challenged every location to come up with their own funding streams or sustainable ways of funding this initiative,” she said.

Wayne County Community Foundation, which manages over 130 different funds totaling around $11.5 million, is a local organization that has said it would be a “willing funding partner” of Parent Pathways following the completion of the pilot.

The foundation has supported Parent Pathways by connecting the program with the referral service United, as well as other service providers, like Wayne County Family Center, which offers early childhood programs and Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance, which connects people looking for work with employers looking to hire.

“I think historically, often philanthropic gifts have been... Band-Aids on really large-scale problems, and while that might help someone right in the moment of crisis, it might not help them six months, a year down the road,” said Ryanne Jennings, CEO of Wayne County Community Foundation.

As for getting the word out about the program, Pohlidal said, in addition to posting information on social media, Parent Pathways has been intentional about syncing with other programs serving parents in poverty, like Head Start.

“We’re sharing information beyond the scope of our partnerships,” Pohlidal said. “And then frankly, I’ve done some things that are grassroots efforts, like I’ve taken the Parent Pathways flyer and literally stapled it to the walls of laundromats in the area — places where families who might be struggling might come across this and say, ‘Well, what is this?’ And sometimes when it’s found in your own backyard, you’re more inclined to take a closer look.”

Franko said it’s important to just make sure people know that the program exists, and then people will seek support when they’re ready.  

“Now that we’ve been doing this a little while,” Franko said, “we’ve had families that have now circled back and said, ‘You know, I ran across your card. I thought about it, now I’m ready.’” 

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