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Speaking of the Economy
Speaking of the Economy - Duane Yoder
Speaking of the Economy

Sept. 9, 2021

Rural Spotlight: Creating Family Economic Security in Western Maryland

Topic: Rural Communities
Audiences: Community Advocates, Community Investors, General Public
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Duane Yoder, executive director of the Garrett County Community Action Committee, discusses how his organization adopted a holistic model for addressing poverty in rural communities.

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Peter Dolkart: Hi, I'm Peter Dolkart. I'm community development manager for Maryland and the Greater Washington, D.C. region. Today we're speaking to Duane Yoder, executive director of the Garrett County Community Action Committee. Garrett County is the westernmost county in Maryland. It's mountainous and it's rural.

When I think about Duane's organization, it is nationally known for the "two-generation" or "whole family" philosophy or approach. [For more about this approach as well as economic and demographic data on Garrett County, read the accompanying Regional Matters article.]  I should also disclose that Duane serves on our advisory panel for the Richmond Fed called the Community Investment Council, which we benefit from his experience, his insights, and his perspectives.

Hi, Duane. Thanks for participating in this.

Duane Yoder: Thank you, Peter. Good afternoon.

Dolkart: Let's take a step back. Tell us what a community action agency is and the community you serve.

Yoder: Peter, community action agencies started as a part of the war on poverty way back in 1965. There are about 1,000 of them across the country. They are organizations that are primarily focused on addressing the causes and effects of poverty. They're locally, community-based organizations that typically would be responding to local conditions and local interests. As an anti-poverty organization, that's the one common theme: the mission around trying to fight issues around poverty.

Dolkart: Intergenerational poverty has remained persistently high in rural areas since the 1960s when they started first tracking that data. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, the non-metro poverty rate was about 15.4 percent in 2019, compared to about 11.9 percent in metropolitan areas. From your perspective, why is this the case?

Yoder: Rural, by its definition, means less scale, not as big a market. That's typically, at least, less investment. I think rural communities generally have a bigger challenge in terms of creating economic opportunities that support families and their ability to make an adequate living. That's the primary issue for most rural areas.

You'll see that some rural communities, especially the rural communities that are close to metro areas, do quite well. Those who don't have primarily been dependent on natural resources or, in some cases, recreation. In our area, Garrett County, coal was a major resource and that's now on the decline.

There is also the difficulty, largely because of scale, to sustain your local capacity to respond to economic conditions and economic opportunities. We've seen in Garrett County a decline in our population. In each of the last three decades, our population has gone down. It's a little more difficult to sustain economic growth when you're confronted with those kind of conditions.

Dolkart: You are nationally known for pioneering what is known as two-generation or whole family. What was the catalyst for adopting it?

Yoder: Peter, maybe I should back up just a step on that and talk a little bit about what we here call our "theory of change."

About 13, 14 years ago, we went through a pretty extensive strategic planning process. We started thinking about what the key strategies were that we wanted to put into place. The three pillars that we've tried to infuse into our organization is: one, helping families stabilize, creating stable families; two, supporting individuals and families in their effort to acquire greater economic security by building assets and wealth; and then three, helping the community create opportunities that support low-income families and individuals. That was kind of the starting point in terms of our organization.

The real impetus for the whole family, the two-generation approach that we have made part of our organization grew out of that strategic planning process. When we went through and had our focus group it was pretty traditional in terms of the strategic planning process. But it was real interesting in that everyone identified us by a program or by a service or by a particular benefit. So, their child was in Head Start or they used our transit service or they were getting benefits for housing assistance. That wasn't just participants in our different programs, it was our own staff.

It was our community partner who realized that no one was talking about our mission — why we were doing it [and] what we were trying to achieve in terms of outcomes. That was really the initial impetus for saying, "Maybe we have to do business a little differently." If we're a private nonprofit organization, we have to think about what our purpose is. It's not just providing a direct service to an individual or family. It's about an outcome. That shift is what started the discussion around our whole family approach.

Dolkart: Whole family has been replicated both in metropolitan and rural areas. But I feel it's particularly well suited for rural organizations such as Garrett County [Community Action]. Can you explain why?

Yoder: Part of the idea behind the whole family approach, obviously, is that the children do much better if their family is doing better. You can't separate the process where you provide a direct service and you measure and track a child's progress, whether it's a developmental screening or school readiness or their school performance. Aligning those two approaches just makes a lot of sense. It's something that a lot of people just assume, but it takes an effort. It has to be intentional.

This idea of having enough resources where you can build individual programs and create the silos, sometimes it's more difficult in rural areas because you don't have enough resources to do it. So you have to learn how to work with your partners. You have to figure out how you can integrate services in a way to sustain your ability to function and provide services on an ongoing basis. Rural communities have learned [this lesson] and maybe even have a culture of collaboration that grows out of that experience.

The whole family, two-generation approach is all about how you support families with a range of services, services that support that family's aspirations. I think you're right, Peter, that rural communities have probably learned by necessity to function at that level a little bit better. In part, it comes because we have scarce resources and we've had to learn how to make those resources work together in order to get the impact and the outcome we want.

Dolkart: You've touched on the intake process, which is so key to your approach. Walk me through it. I'm a family, I'm living in, possibly, an unheated trailer. I need assistance, I come to your community. Tell me what the process is.

Yoder: You're right – people come in any one of our doors usually asking for a particular kind of help. I remember a mom came in saying she needed housing. She was homeless. She was in danger of losing her children.

The process is that when someone comes in any one of our doors, we do a generic basic intake that collects enough data for us to do a screening for what we call presumptive eligibility. That presumptive eligibility would scan all the programs and all the services that Community Action is administering and is making available, as well as many of the services and programs that our partner community organizations like the health department or the department of social services would also provide. That gives us a real quick scan of what that individual or that family might be eligible for.

At the same time, when they come in and do that intake, we ask them to do a self-assessment across maybe 15 dimensions. That could be family life, that could be housing, that could be health, that could be employment income. That gives us an assessment of where that family believes they are. It's not just needs based. It can also be opportunities, things that they aspire to.

Based on that assessment, families create what we call pathway plans with goals and action steps. Those pathway plans are the driving force for us in terms of saying, "Okay, here's the bundle of services that this community can do to support your pathway plan."

None of that can really be managed well if you don't have a really integrated information system so that you can track all your inputs, your outputs, and then your outcomes. We can, at an individual level, determine where they assess themselves. We can also do that on an aggregate basis so that we can get a picture of where all the families are that are coming in and what their concerns are. It becomes a tremendous tool to use when we do community planning, community needs assessments, and so on.

The database that we use allows us to track all this information, so we can tell you which domains most of our families have goals in. We can tell you if they're achieving their goals, what percentage of those goals are being met both on an individual and an aggregate basis.

Those are the essential tools that go into this whole family, two-generation approach. We wouldn't be able to do this if we wouldn't have everyone in the organization having access to that information,

Dolkart: In hindsight, would have been helpful along the way? What would you have done differently?

Yoder: Peter, this was a much longer process than what I would have anticipated. Partly, it was because we had to change the organization.

One of the things that we did learn that was really helpful was we spent a whole year doing what we call pilot projects. The idea behind it was that we would invite 10 or 12 families to participate in this whole family integrated approach. We asked every department in the organization to have an individual staff person who would meet weekly. We would review what was happening with a family and what the families were working on.

This was done to organize and test ideas. When we were working on the intake form or we were working on the life scale or we were working on some of the data software, those families were engaged with that. We were learning from that experience.

I think I way underestimated the importance of making sure that people understood that we should be making the family the center of everything. We were good at running grants or we were good at running programs. We were good at getting a service out to a family quickly and efficiently and to most of the eligible families in our community. But that created silos – everyone started thinking of themselves as working for this program or that program. Having to get outside of that box was a longer process than what I had anticipated.

Looking back, one of the things I'd do a little differently is spend a little bit more time focusing with our managers, especially our program manager, about why we're doing it and how we're doing it and what the information is that we want to measure and track and follow through on. The organizational shifts were probably the thing that was I think the biggest challenge in making the move.

The 2Gen approach is an approach, it's not a program. Everyone who works for Garrett County Community Action, we expect to understand that and focus on this process rather than providing a service.

The other thing is that you mentioned earlier that we have a national reputation. In part, that came about because we were out of the gate early. We started this work when this 2Gen language was just being evolved and developed by different national entities. For a rural community like us, having outside groups like the Aspen Institute or the Annie E. Casey Foundation come in and help us was critical. I linked us not just with resources but with other groups around the country who were doing the same work.

We shared this information with other groups and, of course, we learned from that process. In a rural community like Garrett County, if we wouldn't have had those groups supporting us, we would have probably just not moved nearly as fast or as far as we did. That was one of the other key lessons learned.

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