Traveling back to New Orleans, my birthplace and where I spent all of my years growing up, always brings me to a realization that, while change is happening in this great city, time seems to stand still for those who need change the most. It’s an area where ― although measures are being put in place for some to thrive ― families living in poverty continue to yearn for the basic necessities of life: a quality education, safe communities, affordable housing and the means by which one can attain all three.
Standing at the root of these families is typically a woman. A mom. A warrior. A “she-ro” who is tired and, yet, continues to press on for her family and her community, because if she doesn’t, she knows no one else will.
The Wayfinder Foundation was founded on the principle that if we invest in women, we will change the world. We believe that in order to truly eradicate intergenerational poverty, we must change who we empower by allowing them to be “in power.” We believe what global anti-poverty advocates have learned: by investing in women and girls, we can change a nation.
However, in the United States, we do the opposite. We create welfare policies that perpetuate the cycles of poverty by providing only subsistence-level cash assistance which narrows the doors to education and training, and pushes recipients into low-wage, no-benefit employment. Too often, work requirements for public assistance funnel mothers toward highly feminized industries ― hospitality, retail, low-end health care, etc. ― that pay low wages, offer no sick leave, and have no unemployment benefits. I know this because I worked with these mothers during my employment in the direct social services industry.
Find a job that makes too much money? Your public assistance is cut off. Use your EBT card to buy something that’s not on the “approved” list? You receive a red flag and you’re in trouble. Try to get your child in a high-performing school? The best options are often too far away, or require admission tests or have one of many other barriers.
The average recipient of welfare benefits in Louisiana is a mother with two children, and the average cash grant is $200 per month. For a family of 10, the cash grant tops out at $512 per month. Families can receive assistance for 24 months, but doing so requires jumping through many hoops (which can include drug screening). The system is designed to stabilize a financial crisis, but not to replace it with family economic security. That’s wrong.
After years of education and welfare reform, one thing is clear: we cannot improve child welfare without improving the lives of mothers.
We believe the system must transform from one that sustains poverty to one that supports women entering poverty-ending occupations. That won’t happen without challenging the policies that are failing women today. The solution to these very real woes for women and children in poverty is creating a fund that frees women to become the true advocates they are. We’ve all seen them in our communities. It was common, in my extended community, to find that key person who everyone turned to when they needed help navigating the “system.” She knew exactly who to call, what to say and most importantly, how mobilize parents and community members when needed to make bigger, bolder statements and, ultimately, create the change we needed.
Usually, that woman did it all with no pay. Imagine if someone saw her value to the community and invested in her becoming a leader. How much more impact could she have if she had the resources to do more and to help the masses instead of the few? What type of changes do you think we would see in cities like New Orleans?
After years of education and welfare reform, one thing is clear: We cannot improve child welfare without improving the lives of mothers. Only a two-generation strategy that supports parents and children will make a difference. Where others see deficiencies, lack and want, the Wayfinder Foundation sees opportunity for little revolutions that place demands on power and change systems for the better. We see the need to fight fiercely for foundational supports that strengthen the positions of parents and guardians. We get there by investing directly in the most basic unit of change in a child’s life, their mother.
This is why the Wayfinder Foundation exists. Through philanthropy, we want to change the game by making direct investments into poverty-ending advocacy by investing in moms. We believe that until women, parents and guardians lead the charge to challenge the systems that serve them ― education, human services and elections ― we can’t expect to win our ceaseless battle against poverty.