The Padua Pilot Program In Texas Could Be The Future Of Solving Poverty

"You don’t know what’s out there unless you look.”

Kimberly Lawrence hardly recognized her client.

Despite working together for over a year, Lawrence had looked right past her in the lobby of the courtroom. A judge had just ordered the case worker's client be reunited with her kids, almost a year after she was enrolled in the Padua Pilot anti-poverty program.

Lawrence was looking for the woman she had become accustomed to seeing over the last year: jittery, anxious, unable to focus, and constantly tapping her foot throughout meetings. 


"She looked physically different, and when I went and got her and said 'hi,' I was so struck," Lawrence said. "I told her flat out: 'I didn't even see you the first time in the lobby, you look physically different today, what is different?' And she said, 'Y'all helped me get my family back, I have my family again, now I'm ready to go.'"

A Padua client with her case management team. Infinite Agency

In the meeting that ensued, Lawrence said she and her team laid out more of her client's financial future than they had in the previous year, which was almost entirely focused on helping her get her kids back. But they knew that until she was reunited with her family, she wouldn't be able to make the financial strides that were at the heart of Padua's anti-poverty program.

"We never argued with her," Lawrence said. "We never said, 'no, that's not the point of the program.' That's what she said she needed because she is the expert on herself. I'm not the expert, I'm there to partner with her on what she needed."

And in many ways, that's the essence of Padua: the entire program is centered on the idea of meeting clients where they are, rather than finding a way to fit them into the program. The Padua pilot program, run through Catholic Charities Fort Worth, aims to meet those needs while also not turning down anyone who walks through their doors. 

Lawrence, the lead case worker for Padua, readily admits that the program isn't presenting anything new in terms of what she knows as a social worker. Padua is simply offering a holistic approach to combatting poverty and making sure case workers build individualized programs for their clients. Most of social work, Lawrence says, is designed to work with restraints, whether it's funding or specialty programs or how often you can interact with a client. 

A case worker from Padua discusses financial plans with her client.  Infinite Agency

Padua, though, is a one-stop shop for services, whether it's legal help to get your children back or transportation services to visit your case workers. This way, their clients aren't going through several different support organizations in order to get something done. While financial benchmarks exist, the real aim of the program is to create self-sufficiency.

The results, so far, have been eyebrow-raising. Clients who stay in the program for more than a year are increasing their income by an average of $8,000 a year. And when you consider where many clients started, at about $16,000 a year, that number is even more surprising. They've frequently seen 50 percent increases in income year over year.  Of the 105 families that enrolled in the Padua pilot program in the first year — about three years ago — 60 percent stayed on. 

"We're really proud of that number," Corrine Weaver, who runs internal data for the program, told A Plus. "When you start to dig into most programs that serve clients over more than just the first few months, you don't see numbers like that."

Clients who drop out leave the program for a myriad of reasons. Some simply don't see a future any better than what they currently see, others have major life events like a sudden death in the family that throw things off track, and some — as Lawrence put it — "just aren't ready to change."

Padua is still awaiting the results of research a group of economists who study anti-poverty programs that are looking into the pilot. They'll be comparing Padua to a control trial that's being run simultaneously, and will try to identify what would have happened in the absence of intervention. 

While the results of that study are forthcoming, so far the people behind Padua are feeling optimistic about what they expect to see. The goal, for all clients, is to reach their "finish line," which means having a living wage income (based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculator), three months of savings at a living wage rate, no government benefits and no credit-harming interest-bearing debt.

"We don't believe in no debt because some debt is good, like a mortgage that has a good interest rate," Weaver said. "We don't want any debt that has interest or is credit-harming — payday loans, credit loans, credit card debt, and so on."

Juana Romero, a 29-year-old DACA recipient who is in the program, will be the first person to hit that finish line. She's saved up almost $8,000 while raising her year 11-year-old daughter and working a new full-time job as a nurse. Now, Romero is hoping to work towards buying her own house, which was a top priority for her from when she entered the program.

"The great thing about it is that it's individualized to each person," Romero told A Plus. "Those were my goals, someone else's goal might be truly different. I think it's really great that it's not the same for everyone."

Juana Romero, a soon-to-be graduate of the Padua program. Amaree Photography

Despite catering to unique needs, there are 12 "asset-areas" Padua has tried to build the program around, including hope, faith, social support, education, training, legal help and support systems. In typical social work situations, a case worker might have as many as 100 clients. But at Padua, a team of social workers will share a load of 15 or 20 clients, which they say helps them facilitate more meaningful relationships.

Still, clients like Romero understand that the program won't be there forever, and she knows ultimately the goal is to be independent. She also offered some advice to anyone who felt that they needed help.

"Where its Padua or not, I would say look for resources," she said. "There's lots of resources outside that can help you. You don't know what's out there unless you look."


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