House Speaker visits Texas Catholic agency to see solutions to poverty firsthand

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House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Catholic, talks with Heather Reynolds, CEO and president of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, Texas, during a town hall meeting on poverty April 3 at the charity’s Fort Worth campus. (Juan Guajardo/CNS, via North Texas Catholic Magazine)

By Susan Moses
Catholic News Service

FORT WORTH, Texas (CNS) — House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, has been studying poverty at the federal level from Washington, but he took a few hours to learn what poverty looks like on the front lines with a visit to Catholic Charities Fort Worth April 3.

After touring the facility and meeting with three clients and case managers, Ryan and Heather Reynolds, president of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, met with the agency’s staff and supporters to discuss the 50-year war on poverty — the welfare and social legislation introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson to help end poverty.

One problem Ryan articulated is that the federal government has been measuring its success in eliminating poverty by how much it has contributed to the 80-plus federal programs that assist the poor, which adds up to more than $15 trillion over 50 years. However, few of those programs evaluate actual outcomes, he said.

“We spend all this money,” Ryan said, “but we don’t measure whether it’s working or not. In this 21st century, data century, we’re in, clearly we ought to be able to measure the outcomes of these programs. But how you do that matters, and you want to make sure you do it in a very academically rigorous way and you’ve got to respect people’s privacy.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Catholic, visits with Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, during a private roundtable discussion on poverty-fighting efforts at Catholic Charities Fort Worth campus April 3. (Juan Guajardo/CNS, via North Texas Catholic Magazine)

Catholic Charities Fort Worth also has been trying to break the cycle of poverty, and it came to the same realization that its efforts needed to be measured to determine their effectiveness. Two years ago, the nonprofit partnered with the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame to evaluate the efficacy of their poverty assistance programs.

Year-one results indicate that intensive case management is crucial to accomplishing the Catholic agency’s goal of eliminating poverty, one family at a time, in the 28-county diocese it serves.

Success has been measured in two programs in particular: Stay the Course, which provides low-income college students with comprehensive social support to help them complete their degrees; and Padua Pilot, which gives clients broad-based intensive case management to assist them with their health, finances, education, child care, housing and other needs.

Looking at six years of data, the Notre Dame researchers determined that Stay the Course students have been four times as likely to complete their degrees compared to the control group. And in Padua Pilot’s first year, clients saw their incomes increase 19 percent while their spending decreased 20 percent.

Tonita Burbage, a Catholic Charities client who attended the town hall, was laid off in 2014 and struggled with unemployment and underemployment for two years. She credited Catholic Charities’ assistance in helping her find a full-time job with benefits so she could support her two daughters without government assistance.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Catholic, has a roundtable discussion on poverty April 3 with Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, Heather Reynolds, president of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, and Catholic Charities caseworkers and clients. (Juan Guajardo/CNS, via North Texas Catholic Magazine)

The organization helped her with job training, developing a resume and providing interview outfits. However, Burbage said what helped the most was “to have someone support everything that I want to do and having that open door where I could call anytime or email — to have someone listening.”

Ryan said the gains accomplished by intensive case management prove that the federal government needs to “manage the supply lines, but not the front lines of fighting poverty.”

He envisioned federal resources working in partnership with the private sector at the local level to move families out of poverty.

Fort Worth Bishop Michael F. Olson, who accompanied Ryan on his tour of Catholic Charities, said the speaker’s visit “shows that Church and state can work together, and I think it also shined a light on why our Catholic Charities is doing so well.

“Case management is an anchor to our Catholic Charities,” the bishop said. “It exists in other programs throughout the U.S., but we’ve had the far-sighted investment to make this an anchor of how we approach the eradication of poverty.”

Reynolds, who gave testified on poverty reform on Capitol Hill in 2014, thanked Ryan for his willingness to “disrupt the status quo and put front and center the American dream, because that’s what we’re about at Catholic Charities.”

At the town hall, Ryan said he is a “big fan of the Catholic Charities model” and would like to see the “beautiful casework management system replicated. I really believe this is among the keys to fixing poverty and addressing it at its root core to break the cycle of poverty.”


Susan Moses is associate editor of NORTH TEXAS CATHOLIC, magazine of the Diocese of Fort Worth.