Community Context

The city of Boston and its surrounding metropolitan area, with its blue chip colleges and universities, is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading talent factories and an innovation hotbed that’s produced thousands of startups, some valued at more than $1 billion. A bastion of progressive idealism, the city’s households are at or near the top of six areas of charitable giving in the United States, including health, education, and human services.

Unfortunately, Boston also tops an exceptionally unenviable list that conveys the prejudice and economic challenges some residents experience. In a national survey commissioned by The Boston Globe, Black respondents ranked Boston as the least welcoming to people of color out of eight major cities. Black Americans in Greater Boston had a median net worth of just eight dollars (meaning they owed almost as much as they owned), according to a 2015 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Census Bureau data show that Black unemployment in Greater Boston was double the rate of white workers in 2018, before the inequitable impact of COVID-19 on unemployment. Latinx encounter similar economic obstacles: although they represent 92 percent of Boston’s population growth over the past few decades, they earn just 48 cents on the dollar compared to white households.

However, amid that dispiriting reality, there are glimmers of progress. In neighborhoods across Greater Boston, low-income individuals and families, most of whom are people of color, are meeting in small groups, identifying life-enhancing goals, and sharing ideas for surmounting racial barriers and achieving upward economic mobility. Individuals within these peer groups earn a no-strings-attached, cash stipend and access to resources from a nonprofit, Family Independence Initiative (FII). A crucial part of FII’s model is that the peers themselves take on the task of leading their own change.

Key Insights

Information and reflection empower. FII’s cloud-based journaling system lets peers track their progress in real-time. When they enter changes in their income or credit score, they can chart those changes against the information they have entered previously. The instant feedback is another tool that helps peers exert greater control over their lives, since they make their own choices and they own the results—an especially important development for people who often feel disempowered by society.

Highly empowered, but also highly accountable. By reflecting on their goals and the paths they’ve chosen for improving their lives, participants are accountable not only to themselves, but also to their peer group. FII’s online dashboard lets participants track their progress against other peers’ anonymized outcomes, which feeds the instinct to do better. And of course, peers have publicly committed to their goals, which exposes them to positive peer pressure.

Philanthropy can help scale peer-driven change. Beyond supporting and expanding FII’s efforts across Greater Boston, funders are financing a three-year study evaluating the effects of increased access to social and financial capital on families’ economic mobility and well-being. The study is a partnership between FII, the City of Boston, and the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, the Commonwealth’s primary provider of economic and nutritional assistance programs for low-income families. After the three-year study is completed, the partners will have hard data to help advance the social services sector’s understanding of the types of outcomes families living with low-incomes achieve when they can access financial capital, as well as an environment that supports them in harnessing their social networks.

Read the full article about peer-driven change in Greater Boston at The Bridgespan Group.