Papers and booklets on a desk and glasses in blurred in the foreground.

A Clearer Path Out of Poverty

The Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) demonstrates the efficacy of a new social work program

Many Catholics call on St. Anthony of Padua when they lose something, praying he will help them find their car keys or their wallet. Diana Morrison lost something too, and it was devastating.

The life she had known for decades ended after her husband walked out. She was laid off from her well-paid government job and then lost her mother, her best friend and the family dog in quick succession. Over an intense three-month period, Morrison lost key members of her support system and went from enjoying a comfortable life in a spacious home that had been a lively neighborhood hub to being unable to afford the high mortgage payment.

“It took me to my knees,” she said in a recent interview. She was referred to Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW), where she was introduced to a program named for the 13th-century saint. Unbeknownst to her, social workers were recruiting participants for the pilot Padua program. With this entirely new approach to social work, CCFW was aiming to disrupt poverty for good.

Notre Dame economists William Evans and James Sullivan founded the Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) in 2012 with the purpose of creating lasting partnerships with forward-looking service providers to conduct scientific evaluations that identify which programs are most effective at reducing poverty.

Two years later, the Wilson Sheehan Foundation made a $15 million gift to endow LEO. That gift and subsequent returns from the Notre Dame endowment have allowed the initiative to expand its work across the country. Chris Wilson, a trustee of the foundation, said at the time of the gift: “LEO aligns very well with our mission focusing on root causes and rigorously evaluating the effectiveness of programs. The entire philanthropic community will benefit from LEO’s research, and as a result, the world’s poor will be served by more effective services.”

Most recently, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Sullivan and two University of Chicago researchers have devised a new approach that provides near-real-time poverty estimates using U.S. Census Bureau data. Their monthly reports have helped policymakers better evaluate the effectiveness of federal stimulus programs.

Morrison credits God with leading her to her “life support,” which is the way she described her Padua social work team. She added that one of her social workers has become like another daughter to her.

“I was slipping quickly. With them assessing my needs and my background, they were really able to put a puzzle together for me — the missing pieces to help me get back on track — and that’s what I liked about it,” she said. “It wasn’t like you felt like you went to a charity and they throw something at you and leave you on your way; it was a partnership.”

A sunray shines in front of the Catholic Charities of Fort Worth building.
Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW).

St. Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of lost things, lost people, lost souls and the poor. The day Morrison made her way to CCFW was the day she found the strength to begin to rebuild her life and focus on her dream of being a homeowner again.

Confronting a social safety net system that is deeply rooted in bureaucracy and still failing millions of Americans is no small task. CCFW wanted to ensure its newly designed program would work to help all clients reach their goals efficiently, so it partnered with Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) to evaluate it. Research — including some conducted by faculty and researchers at LEO — shows that emergency financial assistance does help people faced with homelessness. However, persistent poverty cannot be tackled with sporadic financial assistance payments.

LEO’s Findings

LEO conducted interviews 12 months and 24 months into the RCT. After 24 months, their findings revealed real improvements in self-sufficiency and labor market outcomes for Padua participants.

  • 25% were more likely to have full-time employment than the control group.
  • Monthly earnings were 18% higher after 2 years, compared with the control group.
  • As for self-reported health, 43% of participants reported improved health after two years.

The backbone of Padua is wrap-around, “supercharged” case management that involves a two-person team of social workers and begins with building a relationship with clients. The Padua model ensures a high level of personal support for each client. Clients work with their teams to set goals related to asset areas that are key to clients’ long-term success including finances, education, social skills, legal status and physical and emotional well-being.

“We’re not interested in milquetoast solutions that focus on treating poverty symptoms at the expense of the people most affected. We aim to make the lives of others sustainably and meaningfully better,” said Christopher Plumlee, board chair at CCFW. “That’s why we created Padua. In 2015, we launched a bold research initiative to pioneer a more effective solution to poverty. Our Padua pilot rewrote the manual: A model centered on long-term, holistic case management services that address the interconnected causes of poverty and serve the unique needs of each family. It’s relationship-based. It’s client-led. And the results are irrefutable — it’s working.”    

To assess the program, CCFW set up two groups: One group received only the services they were seeking (generally one-off requests like rent assistance) and the other group participated in the full pilot Padua program. A total of 427 people participated between spring 2015 and fall 2016, with an average time of 17 months in the program.

A laptop screen displays a line graph. Papers and booklets on a table. Three masked individuals sit at a conference table.
Patrick Turner, Jim Sullivan and Heather Reynolds meet to discuss the Padua Program in the offices of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO).

Overall, the results of the LEO evaluation indicate that those who entered the program without employment and those who entered with stable housing have the best workforce outcomes due to Padua’s intervention. The Padua program increased participants’ full-time employment by 25 percent, LEO researchers determined. Monthly earnings for Padua participants were 18 percent higher after two years, compared with the control group. The intervention also leads to improved self-reported health; 43 percent of Padua participants reported improved health after two years.

“Our study indicates that Padua offers a promising path out of poverty for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet,” said Jim Sullivan, the Gilbert F. Schaefer College Professor of Economics at Notre Dame and LEO co-founder. “And the urgency to help those in need has been heightened by the economic impact of the pandemic, which has pushed nearly 8 million more people into poverty in just the past six months.”

Jim Sullivan presenting.

“Our study indicates that Padua offers a promising path out of poverty for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet.” —Jim Sullivan

Uniting the strengths of CCFW and LEO makes a lot of sense to CCFW Interim President/CEO Deb McNamara, who recognizes the same drive to end poverty in the people at her own organization and at LEO. Having a partner organization that shares a mission and can offer vital value has been a winning combination.

“It’s hard to describe the synchronous excitement at the onset of CCFW’s relationship with LEO. It was the first time that CCFW’s serious determination to end poverty was mirrored back to us, not only with passion and understanding of the complexities, but with the tools and resources to take it to the next level in a way that is so necessary to achieving our goals,” McNamara said. “Our ability to learn, tweak, scale and discover on both micro and macro level with compelling data is something we grew into quickly because of our partnership with LEO. This hard, long-term work of taking risks and exposing what needs to be done has changed our culture for the best and helped us walk so many families out of poverty for good.”

CCFW Director of Research and Evaluation Jennifer Strand further explained that agencies often lack the capacity to both address the immediate crises facing their clients and evaluate the most effective way to do so. Partnering with LEO has given CCFW the space and capacity to better understand the underlying causes of crises and design more impactful solutions.     

“Research provides us with both hope and evidence that our clients can truly change their lives. It provides confirmation that our work is impactful, and that can be vital when you are consistently walking with people through trauma and crisis,” Strand said. “The evidence not only inspires us to persist but transforms the way we think and approach other problems.”

Cindy Casey at a podium speaking.
Cindy Casey (right) is the director of client services-client strategies for Padua.

As encouraging as the LEO study results are, Padua clients are not numbers. Each person’s story is different and complex. It is often multiple factors that lead individuals and families into poverty, so the journey out of hardship requires a holistic approach. Because the program is intensive and comprehensive, caseloads for Padua social workers are lower than at typical social service agencies, with each two-person team serving 18-24 clients. Half of the teams are fluent in Spanish. On a case-by-case basis, flexible financial resources — rather than being used just to pay a monthly bill — allow teams to tackle potentially de-railing obstacles on clients’ journeys out of poverty that also help them strategically hit their goals. To incentivize clients to reach savings goals, case management teams often match savings conditional upon certain achievements like keeping a job for several months in a row.

“Client-led doesn’t mean following the client. It means listening with intent as the client uncovers their story, where they want to go and how they want to get there,” said Cindy Casey, Director of Client Services-Client Strategies for Padua. “Client-led means holding the client accountable to their own vision.”

Padua client Vakesa Townson envisioned escaping from the self-described prison she was in for 17 years with a partner who physically and verbally abused her. “I lost myself and became someone I thought would make him happy to try to fix things and make things right, so I lost myself in the process,” she said. She was referred to CCFW, but didn’t really know what to expect or how to verbalize everything that had happened to her. Her Padua social workers helped her focus on not only meeting her immediate needs, but also building a healthy, sustainable future.

Photo of a woman against a brick wall.

Every client is unique. From the situation that brought them to CCFW’s door to the barriers they face on their journey out of poverty. For Vakesa, like many of CCFW’s clients, her barriers were rooted in domestic violence. When she escaped her abuser, she became a single mom, which resulted in significant barriers - both financial and emotional. Vakesa shares how she found herself again, how free she feels today, and how Catholic Charities empowered her along the way.

“You learn how to live again, emotionally, physically and financially. I feel like I’m myself again. And I feel free and I feel so thankful,” Townson said. “It’s never too late. My situation was 17 years, so even if you’ve been in it for 30 years, it’s never too late. You can always make a change, you can always do better, and there’s life outside of that that’s amazing and peaceful. You deserve so much better.”

Two Year Journey

LEO tracked outcomes for the first group of Padua participants for two years. What changed in that time period?

Clients went from an average of 38% to their target income on day one to 70% at two years.

Clients went from an average of 1% to their savings goal on day one to 10% at two years.

Clients went from an average of $3,159 in harmful debt on day one to $2,953 at two years.

Morrison described a similar transformation. In claiming her new life with assistance from her Padua team, Morrison felt like she could “get up and walk again.” She emphasized how important it was to her that her team was with her every step of the way, giving her referrals and suggesting different programs she could try. She kept pursuing her dream of owning a home, and one of her social workers referred her to a local nonprofit that aims to help build wealth through homeownership by revitalizing neighborhoods and providing quality affordable housing solutions.

“I was able to do the orientation and start the process of navigating me into homeownership,” she said. “So hopefully, if all goes well, I could maybe own a home this year, and we’re on track to that right now.”

Motivated by the evidence, the staff at CCFW will continue to enroll participants in the program and the researchers at LEO will expand their evaluation to include the longer-term impact of Padua on employment, earnings and other outcomes. To enhance administrative data on earning and government program usage (e.g., SNAP and TANF), LEO is partnering with the Ray Marshall Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The LEO team is also working with Experian Credit Bureau to link study participants to credit bureau data to better understand program impacts on borrowing and overall financial health.

A team meets around a conference table covered in books and papers.
The Padua team meets in 2018.

“When CCFW created Padua, it was all about dreaming of a future for their clients of what could be, about what should be,” said Sullivan. “As we’ve been tracking key outcomes for participants for the past five years, we’ve seen that those dreams have started to become realities. One thing that has become clear is that Padua can have very different effects for different people. As we continue to follow outcomes for study participants for many years to come, we hope to really home in on understanding what components of Padua are most beneficial for people in various circumstances so these services can be targeted for even more meaningful impact.” 

Many people — including elected officials — argue that the U.S. social safety net system is broken, but they often cannot offer workable solutions. Involving clients in setting a course for their own lives and working toward firm goals don’t seem like revolutionary ideas, but they haven’t been the standard in the U.S. The combination of social work expertise, input from clients and rigorous evaluation—LEO and CCFW has proved—is powerful and successful.  

“Together with our clients, we’ve developed a program that is directional, holistic and strategic. It gives our clients a framework from which to plan, set goals and achieve,” said Casey, the Padua program manager. “Padua is not what we developed for our clients. Padua is what our clients have told us works for them.”