Published On: February 21st, 2019

A group of FII families meet to support one another to achieve their goals.

By Jessica Taubner

As a society, we’ve come to view government and the social sector as the experts on the needs of people but the reality is that while government and funding priorities often shift, the industriousness and drive of families doesn’t waiver. What if we considered families the experts and allowed them to define their own success?

We are conditioned to be a helper or a helpee in this country. Data shows that families know what they need, and the systems meant to help are getting in the way of their initiative and innovation. We are intentionally creating and practicing new ways of being in relationship with people, and that is what I love about being FII-Greater Boston’s Site Director.

The Family Independence Initiative (FII) has been listening to families for the past 17 years. Instead of the client services model typically deployed in the social sector, FII, aided by a widening pool of philanthropic partners, is trusting and investing in families. This means investing direct dollars in the initiatives of families, giving them choice and control over their funds, and charting the incredible progress they are making collectively.

FII makes direct cash transfers to hard-working families. In return, they are debunking the stereotypes that bely the funding and design of our social services, philanthropic, and financial systems. FII is showing us a road map for how to trust and invest in the wisdom of communities.

Jessica Taubner, Jessica Withers, Natasha Hunt, and Crystal Murphy at the Cambridge Community Center’s Thanksgiving Luncheon

“That’s the great thing about FII; they are letting us fulfill our own goals the way we see fit. They are not telling us how to live or how to meet our goals. They are not saying ‘well you have to get a 4-year degree to earn this amount of money.’ It’s not about what you have but the people around you that can support you and help you fulfill your goals…They are giving us this platform to show that not only are we able but we are driven and we are smart and intelligent and we understand this thing called life.”
— Jessica Withers, FII Family Partner and National Narrative Shifter

Two years ago, the Family Independence Initiative expanded into Cambridge with the support of the Cambridge Community Foundation and several donors. They started by partnering with eleven families and enrollment has now grown to 97. Along with the 881 family partners in Boston, those who have completed the 2-year partnership, have on average: 

  • Increased their monthly income by 17%; 
  • Decreased their reliance on federal subsidies, such as TANF and SNAP, by 77%; 
  • Increased their monthly savings account balances from $84 to $1,023 and their total liquid assets from $256 to $2,160; and 
  • Saved an average of $1,186 through newly established Retirement Investment Accounts. 

In addition:

  • 89% and 94% families reported their students have excellent, good, or improved grades and attendance, respectively. 
  • In 2018, they drew down $235,997 via FIIs UpTogether Fund; and 
  • Collectively, have exchanged more than $2 million in social capital. 

There are opportunities for change city by city, but many of the policy decisions with the biggest impact happen on the state and federal levels. What if our learnings and the voices of families informed policy recommendations for agencies at the city, state, and federal level? 

Well that’s about to happen…

FII is embarking on a research and learning pilot project with the MA Department of Transitional Assistance (the state administrator of federal cash assistance and food stamp benefits), to reimagine and transform how the welfare delivery system works.

FII’s learning can also be utilized by municipalities, philanthropists, and financial institutions willing to test new approaches.

It’s exciting that Cambridge and Boston families are leading the way. Stay tuned for more details about the launch of this pilot.