Revisiting Poverty in Rural America

Innovative Approaches to Improving Poverty Locally

rv-se-2014-coverThis story appears in the 2014 Special Edition of Rural VoicesThe problem of poverty is often viewed from a national or regional perspective. But success in moving people out of poverty can emanate from community-specific innovation and solutions.

MET, Inc. (Texas) | Pathstone (Puerto Rico) | NeighborWorks Umpqua (Oregon)

Job Skills through Housing Development

Based in Texas, Motivation, Education, Training, Inc. (MET Inc.) provides academic and vocational training to migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Although predominantly focused on serving farmworkers, MET Inc. also includes initiatives that target low-income and disadvantaged populations throughout the agency’s service area.

The colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border are one of the most impoverished regions in the United States. Located on the U.S.-Mexico border on the Rio Grande in Maverick County, Texas, the Rositas colonias are comprised of a cluster of numerous individual colonias all faced with the same substandard housing conditions and concerns. The housing stock in the Rositas colonias includes conventional stick-built structures, manufactured homes (that are often not hooked up to any infrastructure), adobe structures, and make-shift dwellings such as lean-tos.

MET Inc.’s housing staff worked to combine housing development and training for farmworkers. Faced with high unemployment rates, over one-third of the population in Maverick County has incomes below the poverty line. Through their housing program and their educational and vocational training programs, MET Inc. created an initiative that would rehabilitate homes in the Rositas colonias while providing construction training to the farmworkers living therein. MET Inc. secured an instructor through a partnership with Southwest Texas Community College, which had previously conducted a construction training program, and trainees were able to use the facilities at the college. MET Inc. initially received two rounds of Rural Housing and Economic Development (RHED) grants for the program. When RHED was discontinued, MET Inc. secured funding through HUD’s Rural Innovation Fund (RIF). Like RHED, RIF provides funding for capacity building for innovative rural housing and economic development activities.

Through leveraging funds, MET Inc. covers costs of tuition, buys tools for students, and pays a stipend to students while they are in the training program. Additional funding also came from the National Farmworker Job Program (NFJP), which provides job training and placement services to eligible farmworkers or dependents of an eligible farmworker who are in the country legally. The training program lasts for about 12 weeks and includes classroom and hands-on instruction. The initiative has seen success in meeting the basic housing needs of individuals in the Rositas colonias. Many families have hot water for the first time, children are able to have their own bedrooms as opposed to doubling up with parents or sleeping in communal spaces, and repaired homes are safer, more sanitary, and more secure than they were before.

The educational and vocational component has been extremely beneficial to those who underwent training. There is a need for people with construction skills in the region, and the program is helping provide this skill set to more workers securing higher-paying jobs and further increasing their quality of life. Through a combination of affordable housing provision, job training, and individual resilience, MET Inc. has created long-term and quality job options to the residents of the Rositas colonias.

Combating Poverty in Puerto Rico with Job Training & Economic Development

PathStone is a regional nonprofit housing provider that focuses on four major service areas: housing development, homeownership assistance programs, training and employment services, and economic development. PathStone has undertaken two innovative approaches to combating poverty in Puerto Rico in recent years – the Rural Innovation Fund economic development and agro-tourism initiative and the Pathways out of Poverty job training program.

Interested in integrating these various service areas to spur economic growth and development in a focused region in western Puerto Rico, PathStone requested and was awarded $2 million from HUD’s Rural Innovation Fund program.

The Rural Innovation Fund (RIF) is a comprehensive rural community economic development project in the Castañer Region of the western portion of the Island. In an effort to address the overall needs of this unique rural area, the approach combines the following elements into a single coordinated project to boost the local economy:

  • Training and employment services for workers;
  • Training and resources for farmers & growers;
  • Financial and technical assistance for micro enterprise and small business;
  • Collaboration with local organizations around the agro-tourism industry; and
  • Homeownership counseling and creation of affordable housing.

The target area is the center for coffee growing in Puerto Rico and there is a growing interest on the island in “agro-tourism” as well as organic farming. There is a local desire to attract tourists from on and off the Island into the mountain region to discover the process of coffee production while enjoying the natural beauty of the area.

The focus for economic development is the Route 123 corridor, a route traditionally used to bring goods from the rural mountainous areas to market in Ponce. The RIF program boosts the agricultural sector, especially coffee, and hospitality and tourism industries and increases the number of job opportunities for low income workers, as well as supporting small businesses and micro enterprises linked to agro-tourism.

PathStone leads the initiative in partnership with the School of Architecture of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, the Tourism Company of Puerto Rico, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Center for the New Economy (CNE), the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

One of the entrepreneurs assisted is Miriam Sierra, owner of the Restaurant Alborada, located in Castañer. Sierra received technical assistance and funding from PathStone to expand a local cafeteria into a full bakery that now sells a wide range of pastries and baked goods.

To promote the launch of the new corridor, PathStone, in collaboration with the School of Architecture, developed the bilingual tourist magazine “Route 123: More than a Route, It’s a Culture.” The publication details the various attractions, resources, and businesses along with corridor between Ponce and Utuado. It also describes in both words and beautiful photos the history, culture, food, and geography of this unique area.

To date, the PathStone RIF program has provided technical assistance to 139 entrepreneurs and small businesses and has created or retained 110 jobs. The PathStone Enterprise Center (our CDFI affiliate) has also originated 5 small business loans.

In addition to the RIF program, PathStone also received a Pathways Out of Poverty grant from the US Dept. of Labor to provide green jobs training to residents in high poverty areas who are unemployed, have been incarcerated, or lack a high school diploma. This “Green for Gold” program targeted three areas; Rochester, NY, Scranton, PA, and portions of Puerto Rico.

The rural areas of Puerto Rico targeted by this program have poverty rates of over 50 percent and unemployment in the 18-21 percent range. Through Pathways out of Poverty, 1,158 individuals completed training courses and 554 participants secured in full time, unsubsidized employment. 356 of these individuals obtained jobs directly related to the training they completed. PathStone also assisted close to 300 individuals in attaining their high school equivalency, further positioning them for future career growth.

Both the Rural Innovation Fund and Green for Gold have proven to be effective models for combating pervasive poverty and helping families work toward a more secure future.

IDAs Help Low-Income Families Save for Increased Opportunities in Rural Oregon

In rural Oregon, where jobs are scarce, options for employment may seem limited. Funds to start a business of your own may be practically impossible to find. However, thanks to an innovative tax credit program called the Oregon Individual Development Account Initiative (ORIDA), currently funded at 10 million dollars per year, Oregon residents earning as much as 80 percent of statewide median income can qualify for up to $9,000 to help start a business, get post-secondary training or education or “assistive technology for employment” to help them get back on their feet. NeighborWorks Umpqua Dream$avers IDA program currently serves over 1,000 participants and is working to build businesses, homes, and affordable housing as well as help government and other agencies to provide needed infrastructure, conserve resources, and develop a stable local economy.

The Dream$avers program allows participants to save up to $3,000 over a period of up to 3 years. The savings are then matched, typically at 3:1. Eligible uses, in addition to those mentioned above, include the purchase of a home for first-time homebuyers, and home repairs, maintenance, or modifications to increase accessibility for disabled homeowners.

Participation in Dream$avers requires participants to actively partner and work toward their financial goals. All participants complete 16 hours of financial and asset-specific education. Statewide, approximately 4,000 savers work individually with an IDA Specialist to reach their goals. Savers must deposit into their IDA monthly, in amounts that will allow them to reach their goal savings.

IDA savers, even those who don’t complete the program, report higher levels of economic satisfaction with their lives, increased use of budgets, and increased use of savings accounts.Participants appreciate the financial boost that comes from being able to accelerate the impact of their savings through the program match. IDAs reduce student loan debt load after college, capitalize microenterprise, increase home equity at the time of purchase, preserve the asset of home ownership by allowing for repairs that preserve the home, and help people get better jobs with assistive technology. IDA funds are paid directly to the vender for the asset being purchased, so there is no tax owed on the benefit by the participant.

Oregon advocates for the ORIDA program are always working to innovatively improve the IDA program, and the demand for accounts currently outstrips our capacity to serve new participants. As we advocate in 2015 for the renewal of the tax credit that supports this innovative program, the future will continue to present challenges and opportunities. For now, this program is a resounding success for Oregonians.

HAC would like to thank M.E.T. Inc., PathStone, and NeighWorks Umpqua for their contriutions to this edition of Rural Voices and their tireless work improving the lives of low-income families within their communities through traditional and innovative methods.