"For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV)
Because I work in social service, I often think about how our community can help families experiencing poverty increase their self-sufficiency and decrease their dependency on outside assistance. How can we change individual choices and empower independence? How can we break cycles of poverty so the current generation can earn freedom and serve as a model for the next generation? Answering these questions is a community goal.
No single agency can meet all the needs represented by neighbors experiencing poverty and poverty-related crisis. Social service agencies must work together to eradicate poverty as a lifestyle. We simply can’t abandon more and more families to poverty. We must create a path that helps families earn their way out of poverty. We must interrupt the cycle of poverty with a cycle of HOPE, demonstrating a new way of sustainable living.
As a result of my experience working with neighbors experiencing poverty, I have determined key program components that are required to produce long-term success. In this situation, success is defined as the economic mobility of an individual moving from poverty to sustainable, independent living--independent living being our ultimate goal.
So, what are the key components required for our programs that help empower independent living? I call those program components our ACES:
- Accountable: We must set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) for our clients. These goals develop a defined service plan that we ask the head of household to commit in following and sharing with us on scheduled follow-up appointments.
- Collaborative: Social service providers and healthcare providers must work together to extend a network of comprehensive assistance. We must connect our neighbors to available community resources in Pickens County and the surrounding areas.
- Empowering: We must focus on mentoring the head of household as he or she remains the leader of his or her service plan. We cannot execute the service plan for them, but we must encourage them and demonstrate how new choices produce new results.
- Sustainable: We emphasize independence. There is dignity in carrying your own cross. We include emergency fund savings goals and education and/or skilled trade training in the service plan.
Additional factors outside of our programming components (or ingredients) are also required to produce a recipe for independent living. These additional ingredients are vital for success and include:
The Will of the Local Community: The community must understand the importance of including every community member in long-term strategic planning for growth and economic development. We must invest in programs that identify and empower growth at all socioeconomic levels: working poor, middle class, upper class, etc. This includes a community investment in affordable housing, transportation and affordable health care. This also includes supporting social services agencies that help to stabilize poverty-related crisis, to create sustainable living situations and to maintain long-term independent living. Agencies work together to create a continuum of care, combining efforts to pave a path from poverty to independent living. Does Pickens County currently have the will of the community? I see a fair amount of current investment and support. As we grow, I would encourage our community to target affordable housing and public transportation. I see increased discussion and teamwork around these key factors. But all in all, efforts are being made by the Pickens County community to empower individual success.
The Will of the Individual: This factor is often the most difficult. Is there a pathway to independent living in Pickens County? I believe there is. Is it an easy path? No. However, if an individual wants to work his or her way from poverty to independence, tools and resources are available to make that path possible. There is difficulty in finding individuals who are willing to make the sacrifices and give the effort required to travel the path. Many neighbors want assistance to alleviate the immediate negative consequences of their current crisis. Many neighbors arrive at our doors with an established lifestyle of dependency. Many neighbors who come to us for help do not believe they can change. But some neighbors arrive at our doors with a determination to grow beyond their current circumstance and do whatever it takes to earn their path to freedom.
This difficult factor, this “individual willpower,” is our baking soda; crucial in our efforts to rise! But it is difficult to find individual willpower for a number of reasons:
- It is difficult to identify. How do we know someone wants to put in the work? We rely heavily on partner agency referral, trusting other agencies who have an established relationship with the neighbor and have seen the neighbor’s efforts. We use assessment tools when we meet with clients who come to us for immediate assistance to identify their desire to make long-term changes.
- It is difficult because of social circles of influence. An individual’s environment can often be counterproductive to his or her efforts to become self-sufficient. Working your way out of poverty is difficult when negative family, friends and associates weigh you down. We try to identify social support within our service plans and help our neighbors surround themselves with healthy, supportive circles of influence.
- It is difficult because of human behavior. Earning a way out of poverty requires a change in behavior. Our neighbors must learn to make different choices that produce different results. Human nature resists change, and when a new behavior or action produces uncertain results for us, our human nature instinctively reverts to our previous, comfortable behavior. The Salvation Army of Pickens County uses a written service plan (developed with our neighbor’s input) that addresses SMART goals for household income, transportation, health care, education and social support. This tool helps to identify when a poor choice is made and points to the poor results that follow. We can return to the written plan and talk about the “what-if.” What if you had not made the decision you did? What if you made another decision instead? We emphasize the power of “if and then.”
- It is difficult because it is based on fear. Many individuals struggle to exert willpower due to fear. When they expect to fail, they are afraid to try. They are afraid to resist the influence of others due to the fear of rejection. They are afraid to deny themselves today for the benefits of tomorrow. They are afraid of doing something alone. The Salvation Army of Pickens County seeks to speak life into the lies their human nature tells them: that they are worthless, and no one cares. These are lies; they always have been and always will be. No one is alone. We do matter, and with the love of Christ, we can!
At The Salvation Army of Pickens County, we want to assist our community’s efforts to provide a pathway from poverty to independent living. The core of all our services to others is the truth that sustains us: God gave us a spirit, not of fear, but of power and love and self-control. We meet basic human needs to all those who walk through our door. And as we meet these fundamental needs, we commit to speaking life and assessing individual willpower for earning a way forward. We are intentional in our relationships with and dependence upon partner agencies within Pickens County, and we work together to maximize resources. Our resources empower our neighbors to earn their way through our cycle of HOPE: stabilize, transition and support.
Individual willpower remains a difficult ingredient in our community recipe for success. We must develop strategies that identify, engage and empower every single neighbor who demonstrates a desire to earn their way. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to create a path for others to follow, empowering one neighbor at a time.