The City of San Antonio, H.E. Butt Foundation, and other funders have amassed nearly $3 million for cash assistance that will be distributed directly to families in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

Family Independence Initiative (FII), a national nonprofit aimed at mitigating poverty, has already started distributing that money as part of the City’s housing assistance program and is shoring up funding for a three-year initiative to help families climb the economic ladder post-pandemic.

Earlier this year, FII was in the middle of finalizing a contract with the City of San Antonio to launch its “normal” initiative in San Antonio to stem generational poverty, said Ivanna Neri, the FII site director based in Austin. “However, that’s gotten off course for obvious reasons.”

With fundraising coordination with the H.E. Butt Foundation, FII was able to pivot quickly in San Antonio to start providing emergency relief.

Before the pandemic, Neri estimated FII was operating in a dozen U.S. cities. “In less than six weeks … we started operating [emergency initiatives] in almost all states.”

The nonprofit’s online platform UpTogether is operating in a slightly different way to accommodate emergency payments and applications, Neri said, “but still following [our] mission.”

Many of the payments are associated with the City’s $25 million COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program that formally launched last month. Residents receiving rent, mortgage, or utility assistance through the program can also qualify for up to $300 to use for groceries, fuel, prescriptions, or other necessities. Residents are eligible for the assistance program if they provide proof of financial hardship that leaves the household unable to pay rent, mortgage, or utilities. Also, recipients must have an income at or below 100 percent of the Area Median Income.

But because FII uses other private, philanthropic money, it’s “able to work with other communities in the city” who aren’t participating in the housing assistance program, Neri said, as donors can specify what populations they want to reach (such as immigrant populations) and how much to give households.

FII is working with local nonprofits and faith-based groups to reach these vulnerable populations, Neri said.

For now, the transactions occur via direct deposit, but they are working on a tool to provide pre-paid debt cards to families or individuals who do not have bank accounts, she added.

In total, FII has $2.9 million as of last week to distribute directly to families during the emergency health crisis that has forced many businesses to close and millions of U.S. workers to seek unemployment.

Another $2.6 million has been raised for the “normal” FII platform that has been put on pause for now. It hopes to raise a total of $3.2 million to help roughly 1,000 families build the networks within their communities that allow them to succeed financially and socially.

The H.E. Butt Foundation, which is separate from the H-E-B grocery chain, and the City were already in talks with FII before the new coronavirus hit the area. The City was looking for innovative ways to combat poverty and the Foundation has long invested in ways to assist vulnerable Texans.

It was after H.E. Butt Foundation leadership read FII’s founder Mauricio L. Miller’s 2017 book The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong, that the foundation started to take notice of the nonprofit, said Perri Rosheger, vice president of community engagement and communications for the foundation.

The basis of the book – and of FII – is that the 50-year war on poverty in the U.S. “has made poverty more endurable, but has not been effective at moving families to stable self-sufficiency,” according to the nonprofit’s website. Rather than create new agencies or programs, FII empowers low-income communities to be their own biggest assets by building social and professional networks within them, Neri said.

Those are the same networks that most people take for granted: a friend who knows an attorney or how to apply for federal benefits. They also receive incremental payments each year totaling $3,200 per participant.

Families receive cash but they are also linked up to a network of other participating families in the area via the UpTogether platform. Through journaling and sharing experiences, they start to give and take advice on navigating life and achieving their financial goals, Rosheger said.

“We’re interested in supporting that upstream support for families that might find themselves on the margins – those who are inches away from crisis,” she said of why the H.E. Butt Foundation took interest in bringing FII to San Antonio.

On average, users of the UpTogether platform who receive financial support from FII saw the following results: a 27 percent increase in monthly income, a 36 percent decrease in use of subsidies such as TANF and SNAP, and good or improved grades in 88 percent of students, according to its impact report.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll see down the road that it really does help permanently take some people out of that roller coaster of moving in and out of poverty every five years,” Rosheger said.

The foundation and FII worked to rally other funders – such as the City, Google.org, Methodist Healthcare Ministries, McGuire Family Foundation, and the San Antonio Area Foundation – to support its launch here.

“If we’re doing this, we have to do this together,” she said.

FII doesn’t track what users specifically spend the extra money they receive on, but it does look at data in aggregate to see how families are generally spending and the net impact, Neri said.

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For some people outside of the initiative, there is a level of suspicion that comes with cash allowances, she said. “That’s not attached to a specific political view, we see that [coming from people] across the political spectrum.”

At the core of the initiative is the belief that families, given the right tools, can make the best decisions for their success, she said. “What might not seem right for you might seem right for me. It isn’t a straightforward recipe for success. … We let families invest their dollars in their future.”

When it comes to poverty, Rosheger said funders tend to want all the answers and a 10-year impact report – some kind of guarantee on their return. That makes it a little more difficult to fundraise for than other causes or investments.

“I get that,” she said, but the price tag of the U.S.’s war on poverty only grows by the day and “we’ve not really moved the needle.”

FII’s method is a relatively new, less expensive way to approach the problem, she said.

“At the end of the day, if it doesn’t change a lot of systems, it’ll be sad, but we don’t need to feel bad about that level of investment in a community-building activity,” she said. “Worst case scenario: We have supported and engaged and made a difference in the lives of 1,000 families. That’s not a bad thing.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com