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Looking back: Focusing on people first and promoting pathways for family success

Centennial, Human Services

Dedication to humanity. For 100 years, that has been the basic principle underlying the work of The Kresge Foundation. What it looked like in practice has changed over the years, but from its start in 1924 through to the present day, The Kresge Foundation has made human progress its primary focus.

Consistently supporting community-based and national organizations dedicated to alleviating hunger, providing shelter and addressing the bedrock human needs of people living in poverty, the foundation has only expanded its efforts to ensure that individuals and families have the support they need to access pathways of opportunity over the decades. Today, Kresge is one of the few national foundations with a dedicated focus on human services.

But for a moment, let’s go back in time to the early 1900s. Back then, what we think of today as our nation’s social safety net was nearly nonexistent. Many communities relied on charitable organizations such as religious institutions, mutual aid societies and philanthropic groups to provide food, shelter and care to those in need.

A large administration building in the English Tudor style
The first grant to the Methodist Children’s Society helped buy the land for the Children’s Village and to build the administration building.

Providing care specifically for young children and older adults was an early foundation priority. In 1927, one of the first large grants Kresge awarded was for $225,000 to the Methodist Children’s Home Society of Detroit (now MCHS Family of Services) for the purchase of land and improvements for a new facility known as The Children’s Village. The goal was to provide children experiencing family instability with surroundings “more nearly like a normal home that any institution had yet attempted.” In addition to children living in cottages at the Village, the Society also cared for hundreds, and ultimately thousands of children living in adoptive and boarding homes throughout Southeast Michigan.

From 1927 to 1953, Kresge gave a total of $2.79 million in support of The Children’s Village and its work to advance child welfare.

Throughout the years, Kresge continued to demonstrate its concern for the welfare of the young and old through capital challenge grants to organizations like The Salvation Army, YMCA and YWCA, among many others. Community centers, libraries, schools, hospitals, food banks and museums – these are just a few of the types of facilities that Kresge’s capital challenge grants helped nonprofits build over eight decades. But creating a vibrant and healthy community takes more than buildings. It’s about people.

Advancing Social and Economic Mobility
Former Kresge Board Chair Elaine Rosen

As the foundation shifted away from capital challenge grantmaking in 2006, human services became a field of interest, and a formal program began to take shape. As former Kresge Foundation Board Chair Elaine Rosen noted in her 2006 annual report letter, “The evolving needs of the nonprofit community prompt us to expand our efforts to improve and enrich the lives of our fellow human beings.”

The foundation mandate of improving human progress now meant seeing results on the ground in the lives of children and families.

While the work has evolved, since 2008 the Human Services Program has had a consistent and enduring focus on multilevel and cross-sector efforts.

For example, the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) and Kresge first forged its partnership in 2013. Initially guided by the Human Services Value Curve, the partnership became more generative over time, fueled by a shared vision for families and communities, said Tracy Wareing Evans, retired president and CEO of APHSA.

Starting in 2017 the two organizations embarked on a multi-year journey of collective sense-making, narrative change, capacity-building, policy development, and continuous applied learning of what it takes to advance race equity and social and economic mobility to realize a Place-based Opportunity Ecosystem. APHSA continues to be a strategic partner under the leadership of new CEO Reggie Bicha.

Investing in People

The Human Services Program is squarely focused on centering racial equity and racial justice to advance multi-generational family social and economic success.

Kresge Human Services Program Managing Director Raquel Hatter

“The Human Services Program has a fundamental belief in the promise and power of people. We regard and act with the understanding that families and communities are the experts in their lives and must be respected and engaged as drivers of person-centered systems change. We know how to realize a system in this country where ‘all’ truly means all people across all systems,” Raquel T. Hatter, managing director of the Human Services Program, said.

Darrick Hamilton, Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, The New School

Through a partnership with Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and urban policy and founding director of the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at the New School, the Human Services Program has integrated a focus on a people-centered economy.

So much more than the behaviors of any one person, it’s the structure of our systems and stories we tell ourselves about families living in poverty that holds families back.

“Structural forces label many people as undeserving. Government interventions are demonized, and as a nation, we naturalize poverty and inequality by putting the onus on the individual,” Hamilton said.

Ultimately, people know what’s best for themselves.

Hamilton said that activating a people-centered economy can support new and different pathways to wealth and allow all humans to flourish. A people-centered economy prioritizes individuals’ and communities’ well-being, needs, and rights over purely profit-driven motives.

Through investing in people, we can have an economy that ensures economic policies and activities contribute to social justice, equality and dignity. We gain an economy that actively mitigates discriminatory structures. We gain economic guarantees that shift resources toward people and communities who need them the most. We gain an inclusive and prosperous economy that plans for the long term, Hamilton said.

Guaranteed income is a simple, innovative way to support families in building well-being and wealth. It centers their ability to make decisions about their money. With no strings attached, families can use cash to buy things they need and cover key expenses like rent, food, and bills.

Guaranteed income programs, which are popping up in pilots all around the country, are a powerful tool in combatting generational poverty.

While not a new concept, there has been a recent resurgence of grassroots and collective efforts to rekindle these historic platforms that have roots in Black economic thought, the civil rights and women’s rights movements, Hamilton said.

In Saint Paul, Minnesota, Kresge’s investment helped the city launch the People’s Prosperity Pilot; the first guaranteed income pilot to use public funding, the first to be run out of city government and the second mayor-led pilot in the U.S.

Kasey Wiedrich, financial capability manager, Office of Financial Empowerment, City of Saint Paul.

Beginning in October of 2020, Saint Paul was able to begin providing unrestricted monthly cash to 150 low-income families with infants enrolled in CollegeBound Saint Paul—the city’s universal college savings program—during the height of the pandemic, when there was significant instability for families due to school, work and childcare shutdowns, said Kasey Wiedrich, financial capability manager in the Office of Financial Empowerment for the city of Saint Paul.

Further foundation investments in Saint Paul allowed them to expand guaranteed income beyond the city’s first pilot. In key communities, including a pilot for 25 refugee and immigrant families at the International Institute of Minnesota, the first pilot in the U.S. focused on refugees. The pilot provided 25 families $750 per month for 12 months. In addition, the city also provided guaranteed income for 25 families participating in the Economic Mobility Hub for American Indians, providing $500 a month for 24 months to American Indian families with minor children.

“A lack of character doesn’t cause poverty; it is a lack of cash. The most straightforward solution to get to the root cause of poverty is to provide a guaranteed income. For far too long, too many programs that provide support focused on telling families how much, where, and what to spend resources on, but at the core of this program, we believe that families know best what they need and how to spend their money,” Wiedrich said.

Pilots to policy

Springboard to Opportunities launched the Magnolia Mother’s Trust in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2018. For one year, the Trust provided 20 Black mothers earning less than $12,000 annually with $1,000 a month, free from traditional regulations that hold families back. Currently in its fifth cohort with more than 100 participants, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is now the longest-running guaranteed income initiative in the country.

Springboard to Opportunities CEO Aisha Nyandoro
Aisha Nyandoro, CEO, Springboard to Opportunities

Springboard to Opportunities CEO Aisha Nyandoro said Kresge was the first major foundation to support the Trust.

“That changed the game significantly not only for our work but also for the cash movement, the guaranteed income movement, and how we talk about poverty,” Nyandoro said.

“The way that our social safety net is set up, families experiencing poverty have to go through levels of bureaucracy and endless paperwork to receive any sort of support, which is dehumanizing, and significantly impacts people’s physical and emotional health. Families need money, and they don’t need the restrictions and paperwork and bureaucracy that comes with it,” Nyandoro explained. “Kresge trusted us and trusted the families that we worked with, knowing that they knew exactly what they needed.”

The next step is for guaranteed income to move from pilot to policy, Hamilton, Nyandoro and Wiedrich agreed.

“How do we make our social safety net one that actually works for families? How do we get to a federal tax credit? How do we get to a federal policy on guaranteed income?” Nyandoro asked.

Guaranteed income pilots prove that direct cash assistance works.

“We have had more than 100 guaranteed income programs, and not only that, but we also had stimulus checks during the pandemic and a child tax credit for six months. We have a plethora of data that shows what happens when you give families money. They go about taking care of what it is that they need to take care of for themselves and their families,” Nyandoro said.

“Fiscal policy, including tax code revisions that provide direct cash assistance, could prevent generations of Americans from living in poverty, build economic equity for Black and Brown communities historically left out of shared economic gains, and lift more families into the middle class,” Hamilton said. “The economic right to cash supports a society where all people have economic agency, dignity and security in their lives. This vision requires investing in people and communities.”

Photo gallery of human services work

Kresge’s grant to First 5 Alameda County helps support a Fatherhood Field Building Summit that focused on advancing social and economic success for fathers and father figures. (Photo courtesy of Alameda County Fathers Corps.)
The Alameda County Fathers Corps believes that fathers - regardless of their residential or relationship status - influence the health and well-being of their families and communities and that it has become increasingly clear that strong communities cannot be built without acknowledging and addressing the clear and intentional marginalization of fathers, particularly those of color. (Photo courtesy of Alameda County Fathers Corps.)
Hamilton Crossing is an affordable housing complex in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where residents receive support to lead thriving, self-determined lives. The Family Self-Sufficiency Program is a housing-based collaboration led by Eastern Michigan University, the Ypsilanti Housing Commission and SOS Community Services.