Jorge Blandón believes that the paradigm of "helping the poor" is not the best way to actually help
As Vice President of the Oakland-based Family Independence Initiative
(FII), Blandón sees the role of FII not as one of the technocratic expert imposing solutions on behalf of others, but rather investing in the initiative and ingenuity of hardworking families who know better than anyone else what they most need in order to be economically self-sufficient and successful.
"It's really about us thinking differently about how we resource one of the most under looked assets of this country when we think of fighting poverty – the families themselves," he says. "We need to start thinking about things differently. Fifty years of the war on poverty and we've barely moved the needle. We need to do better."
Blandón has been with FII for almost eight years as the Director of Analytics4 (the technology and data team), having previously worked in capital markets dealing with bonds securitization, helping to finance essential infrastructure bonds for government investments like schools, water and power projects, and toll roads.
He attributes his background growing up as a first-generation child of immigrant parents in Queens and the Bronx in the 1980s to putting him on the path to working for a Fortune 500 company.
"My parents were working class. My dad didn't finish high school; he worked in auto body shops all his life," Blandón says. "My mom finished high school and worked as a beautician, a stylist, a nurse's aid. My journey from Queens and the Bronx to a Fortune 500 company was one of leveraging my social capital and connections, but also leveraging opportunities and working hard at showcasing my strengths."
One such opportunity found him attending high school at A Better Chance
in Amherst, Massachusetts, after which he attended Amherst College.
"Being exposed to these opportunities and leveraging my strengths led to the world of finance," he says.
When Blandón heard about FII, it resonated with him. "At its core, what FII is doing is trying to bring [connections, choice, and capital] back to families. We know that families are the experts. How else would they survive certain conditions? They're coming up with creative ways to support each other. FII is trying to push for a new system – a system that looks at working poor communities in a different light. They are not moochers or takers. They are not poor because they're lazy; quite the opposite. We're trying to shed that light by leveraging technology and data."
FII doesn't provide human services or case management; instead they create an environment where families can connect with one another and where FII staff can learn about what these families are doing by growing a rich body of data that shines a light on the initiative, creativity, and leadership of low-income communities, then matching those efforts and initiatives with capital – loans and grants.
"How can we invest in them in a smaller way that can really promote economic mobility?" Blandón asks. "In the existing system, the family has to show how poor and broken they are before they can access resources. It's important to have a safety net system, but the reality is a lot of our hardworking families are not always in crisis, but they're struggling. Seventy-five percent of households below the poverty line move above it. Then in three to five years they cycle back – you're taking the initiative, you're moving forward, but that car breaks down or that child gets sick and all of a sudden you're back in the safety net system."
Instead, he says, "Let's make sure we make capital available based on those initiatives so they can access something to meet their needs when they need it instead of cycling back into the safety net."
FII leverages data for social change. The organization documents the successes of the families enrolled in their program through use of a data management platform utilized by hedge fund managers and repurposed for FII as a cloud-based, real-time data journaling system where families enter their progress and initiatives online monthly. FII's data system captures about 200 data points around income, social networking, and markers of well-being, analyzing this information to indicate what is important to families and aligning resources, contacts, or capital for families to access when and how they want.
Families also use this data to track their progress and see their peers’ progress for inspiration. They can also ask for or offer support through the social media site
linked to the journaling system, and access resources such as crowd-sourced funding, loans, scholarships, and mini-grants.
"It's really about them being able to engage with one another feeling like they're a part of something bigger," Blandón explains.
FII began as a small pilot program in Oakland. Now in its fifteenth year, FII has a presence in eight cities: Oakland, San Francisco, Fresno, New Orleans, Detroit, Albuquerque, Boston, New York City, and St. Paul. When they launch in a new city, they first reach out to local churches and nonprofit service providers to ask for introductions to working poor families living at or around the poverty line.
When they meet with the families, Blandón says, "We are very transparent. We tell them: 'We are not here to help you; you
are here to help us
. We're going to ask you a lot of questions and use that data to start bringing capital your way. If this sounds like something you want to do, let us know and get back to us.'"
FII usually starts with five or six cohorts in a city. After six months they ask their participating families to tell their friends about the program if it is working for them. FII's presence in a city grows entirely organically in this way without any kind of marketing or advertising. In Boston alone, they started with 36 households and now have 1,000, all through word of mouth.
As Blandón describes it, FII uses the data they collect to identify different trends around goals and initiatives in each city and in each neighborhood. In Boston, there might be a family that needs to buy a home. FII would then create a menu of options to act as a resource hub for that family. That might be a matched savings account of up to $2,000 that they can use to put towards the down payment of a home, or it might take the form of a zero percent interest loan to pay off a predatory lender. The family can then apply for that grant or loan and move forward. In San Francisco where it's very difficult to buy a home, FII might allocate their resources to more entrepreneurial or business-related products.
"We're constantly learning from the families and adjusting our limited resources to these different products in different ways," Blandón says. "Even small dollars, anywhere from $500 to $2,500, these small injections of capital are all families need to continue on their path."
In every city they launch, they have consistent outcomes across the board: the average household income of their cohorts goes up twenty to thirty percent. There is a 300-400 percent increase in savings. Children's grades improve. Health markers improve. Housing and community conditions improve. Blandón attributes this to the autonomy families have to make their own choices, to receive investment but continue on their paths as they design them and not as someone else tells them.
"That is taken for granted with poor families," Blandón says. "Here, they are the ones in control. They are shaping the resources. Let's have them be the drivers as opposed to the other way around."
When Blandón started, FII had only 56 households they were learning from. Now they have close to 1,500, working with a total of 6,000 adults, teens, and children. While it is still a relatively small number, he says they have a waiting list in each city and hope to be in 20,000 households by 2020 – this is what he says will be the "tipping point."
"The best part of my job is that I don't have to come up with the solutions," says Blandón. "My responsibility is how I can identify, strengthen, and augment those solutions that the community is already doing and invest in them. My job is not to come up with solutions; my job is to get out of the way."