Since 2012, when we first were exposed to Bridges Out of Poverty, we have fundamentally changed how we think about our work at Social Impact Architects and the work of our clients. It gave us a glimpse into why many of our programs might not have been connecting to those we serve and how we could re-think our offerings from a bottom-up approach versus top-down.
Bridges Out of Poverty is a book and model that suggests professionals and communities can systematically reduce poverty first by getting into the mindset of the customers they serve. The mental model provides a snapshot of the different daily experiences of Americans in poverty, the middle class and wealthy. For people in poverty, the resources in the mental model are essential for survival, and tightly interconnected, so when one piece falls out of place, the rest of their lives are affected. For example, if a person takes a second job to earn more income, doing so may cause him to lose government assistance, losing that assistance makes housing unaffordable and so on. Therefore, to create lasting impact for people in generational poverty, the model suggests that nonprofit organizations need to work together, or systemically, to provide supports long enough for individuals to achieve stability. By viewing customers’ realities through an economic lens and taking practical action, nonprofit professionals can then become “bridges out of poverty.”
Mental Model for Poverty
The model asserts that one of the ways people in poverty stabilize their lives when a resource is taken away or lost is by relying on relationships. (See illustration). Individuals reach out to family and friends to provide transportation to the doctor or child care when they are at work. In fact, it is common to barter for services like a haircut for a place to sleep. One of the challenges the model developers found is that support is often withdrawn at the first signs of recovery when in actuality, people’s lives are being held together by temporary agreements between friends. Ongoing support is needed during the transition to help people in poverty achieve their goals. Bridges Out of Poverty does not assume that all people in poverty want to become middle class. The model simply suggests that people in poverty want their lives to be stable to the extent that they have a choice amongst resources – they can pay for child care or they can rely on relatives; they are not forced into the option that is cheapest or least resource intensive.
According to Bridges Out of Poverty, the next step in building a bridge is to stabilize the environment, remove barriers to transition, and build resources at the individual, institutional and community levels. By addressing poverty in a systematic way and working with all actors involved, we can begin to make a real, lasting difference.
We were inspired by this model and hope you will be inspired as well. Our colleagues in the nonprofit sector come from all walks of life, and we encourage organizations to take the time to be a bridge to those we serve. By considering how our customers’ lives are affected by how we operate – our hours, location, policies, services – and really trying to understand, rather than judge their practical challenges, we can more effectively partner with them to find solutions on their own terms, not temporary fixes. We would love to hear how you’ve been a “bridge out of poverty” for your customers.