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The Power of Peers in Anti-Poverty Programs

Some new anti-poverty programs are encouraging participants to form connections with others who are going through similar life challenges, offering success through companionship.
Customers sit outside a Starbucks in Washington, D.C.

Customers sit outside a Starbucks in Washington, D.C.

While working to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA) through the two-generation CareerAdvance anti-poverty program in Tulsa, Toneshia Forshee would meet up with fellow participants in the program twice a week for study sessions.

"We tutored ourselves," Forshee, now a phlebotomist, told me when I met her last fall in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "We would go to Starbucks and McDonald's and sit and actually study together. It was fun, it was really motivating."

Once a week, the CareerAdvance participants would also meet, as a group, with their academic coach, to talk about everything from academic challenges and balancing school with home life to sticking to a budget and preparing for job interviews. "We'd just sit there and talk about anything," Forshee said. "It's a little moment. We get an hour."

The CareerAdvance program is specifically structured to allow participants to form connections with others who are going through similar challenges in their lives. Forshee became particularly close with one woman, also a mother of young children, who was in both her CNA and subsequent phlebotomy programs. They remain close to this day, regularly meeting up for playdates with their children, and providing each other with advice on job and parenting challenges. Janae Bradford, the manager of family advancement for CareerAdvance, says that Forshee's experience is typical.

"I just had an email from a participant saying she'd met her 'bestie' through this program. She really formed a bond with one of her classmates—they studied together, they watched each other's kids, and they really leaned on each other," Bradford says. "The cohorts really hold each other accountable. They text people when they don't show up."

Read Dwyer Gunn's feature story on new, two-generation anti-poverty programs here.

For typical students at traditional, four-year colleges, the Starbucks study group that Forshee recounted to me with such pleasure might not seem particularly remarkable. In ways large and small, traditional four-year colleges give students opportunities to form friendships and beneficial networks of connections—to develop, in economist-speak, social capital. Many students at traditional four-year colleges live on-campus for at least their freshman year, quickly making friends in their dorms with whom they can socialize or study. Professors assign group projects that deepen these connections, secure in the knowledge that most of their students live in proximity to one another. In its most trivial forms, these networks might mean that a student who misses a class because of illness, or who is struggling with a concept, can often knock on their neighbor's door for help. More significantly, this social capital might help someone land a job, decades later.

Most community and non-traditional college students miss out on those experiences. Burdened with other responsibilities—children, jobs, etc.—they have less time to hang out on campus studying with classmates. Students may live on different sides of big cities, making group work and socializing difficult. The large scale of many community colleges and constantly changing course schedules means that students may never see one semester's classmates again.

When people think about the barriers to success for low-income parents and families, they tend to focus on the concrete obstacles: A lack of savings means that car trouble can permanently derail a person's career or studies. Low income makes it difficult to obtain the kind of high-quality, reliable childcare necessary to succeed at school or at work. Parents working two jobs have little time to go back to school to obtain a credential that may improve their circumstances, or to sit patiently with their children and go over algebra homework.

But low-income parents, students and otherwise, are also lacking the kinds of networks and connections that better-off Americans benefit from every day. That's what the CareerAdvance program is working so hard to change.

More and more, programs are emerging that attempt to remediate these social capital deficits. In a recent interview about his new book, sociologist James Rosenbaum described to me a set of procedures that seem to help improve post-secondary completion rates: grouping students into cohorts is one of them. "Cohorts are wonderful because they support each other," Rosenbaum said. "What I didn't hear, someone else did hear, so we know more as a cohort than an individual would know on their own."

Researchers are also studying ways to increase connections among non-student parents. Teresa Sommer, for example (one of the researchers studying CareerAdvance), recently published a paper detailing an experiment that attempted to improve Head Start attendance by increasing parents' social capital. While the intervention didn't improve average attendance throughout the year, Sommer and her co-authors found that it did improve attendance during the winter months. And one innovative anti-poverty program, the Family Independence Initiative, provides little in the way of direct support but focuses extensively on helping families build their social networks. The available evidence suggests that program participation increases income and educational outcomes.

It's difficult to pin down the quantitative role that social capital, and the lack thereof, plays in the success of low-income families, but researchers like Sommer believe it's critical. "Over and over again, in every interview and focus group, the parents talk about the benefits of being with other parents who are in similar life circumstances," she says. "Having the shared experience of all having young children, all struggling economically, and all looking to make a better life for their families—sharing that process helps people stick it out when things get tough."