In 2015, Catholic Charities Fort Worth, one of the largest social service nonprofits in the area, started an ambitious program with a new approach. Instead of giving out money to solve an immediate need like a looming gas bill or past due rent, the plan was to move people out of poverty — permanently.
This story is part of KERA’s One Crisis Away series “Tackling poverty: A case study in Fort Worth.” It explores what worked, what didn’t and what’s next.
‘Is that not a success story?’: Should financial goals be the only ones that matter?
Two-thirds of the people originally enrolled didn’t hit the financial targets set by the founder of the Padua Program. The expectation was that in three years clients would make a living wage, have three months of savings and be off government assistance. But should those who fell short be considered failures?
Genesis Martinez was 34, a single mother of four, and living in a homeless shelter when she enrolled in the Padua Project. Most of her paychecks from Walmart were diverted to child support for her older two children, who she’d lost custody of. Martinez admits to some bad choices like doing drugs. She’d also fled a violent relationship.
The first thing her Padua Project case worker did was meet her at Target to replace her broken stroller. Martinez had to convince herself it wasn’t a scam.
“They bought me the stroller that I actually wanted,” she said. “That’s never happened. You know, like I was excited!”
Padua involved a lot of work, and she said it was stressful to attend so many classes on job training, parenting, and financial literacy.
With her case worker’s help though, Martinez got her high school diploma and even took some college classes. She used her tax refunds to pay off $18,000 she owed in child support. In 2017, her dream of regaining custody of her two older children came true.
“That was a mountain that I thought I would never, ever get over. And I did,” she said.
But by the standards set by Padua, Genesis Martinez failed, despite tremendous personal progress. She’s been in the program for five years but still receives government assistance for food and housing and barely has any money saved.
Cindy Casey, the current head of the program, says money can’t be the only metric. She says clients should decide what success means.
“If the client comes back and tells you ‘This is better than I have ever been in my life. You know, I don’t have debt. I can pay my bills. Who cares if I have $10,000 in savings?’ Is that not a success story?” Casey asked.
Martinez knows she hasn’t met Padua’s official goals, but says she hasn’t given up on being able to save more and be financially independent.
“That is every day, my goal. It has not come off my mind at all,” she said.