How to Break the Cycle of Poverty

This Twin Cities-based program knows what single moms need to finish college: housing and child care.

Kari LeVan, pictured left, with her daughter Marina. (National Journal)

Kari LeVan was 22 years old when she packed her belongings into a friend's car and drove from LaCrosse, Wis., to the Twin Cities. She was fleeing a violent relationship with her ex-husband and a small town that offered little economic opportunity. She had $40 in cash and a six-month old daughter, Marina.

In Minneapolis, LeVan tried to pursue her dream of becoming a singer, taking every gig she could find — including one with an '80s cover band — and attending classes at Music Tech, now known as the McNally Smith College of Music. But she was living in a dangerous neighborhood, and trying to juggle work, school, and an energetic baby. She felt utterly overwhelmed. "I needed more emotional support," LeVan says now. She found that support when she was accepted to the Jeremiah Program.

LeVan was one of the first participants in the Jeremiah Program, which was founded in 1998 on the philosophy that helping mothers succeed can lift entire families out of poverty. The nonprofit based in Minnesota's Twin Cities provides low-income single mothers and their young children with subsidized housing, on-site child care, and empowerment classes.

"Jeremiah Program is really creating community," said Gloria Perez, president and CEO of the organization. If the program has a key insight, it's that social services on their own aren't enough — they need to be paired with social support.

Families with children under age 18 headed by a single mother are four times as likely to live in poverty as families headed by married parents, according to federal census data. Bearing a child too young can trap low-income women in a vicious cycle: The need to support a family prevents them from finishing high school or attending college, and a lack of education can keep them stuck in low-wage jobs.

The program has two established campuses — a 39-apartment development in Minneapolis and a 38-apartment site in St Paul — and recently launched a pilot program in Austin, Texas. The organization aims to open a new campus in Fargo, N.D., next year. To apply, women have to be age 18 and up, enrolled in a higher-education program, and have children age 5 or younger. Participants typically stay in the program for two years, until they finish their degrees. Applicants must complete 16 weeks of personal-empowerment training before they move onto campus. As residents, they're expected to work part-time and to contribute a third of their income as rent.

An independent study from Wilder Research of St. Paul found that every dollar invested in Jeremiah Program families can return up to $7 to society at large, both by reducing the family's dependence on public assistance and by increasing the economic prospects of both mother and child. Sixty percent of the program's 2011 graduates were unemployed when they entered the program, and the rest were earning an average of $9.46 per hour. Upon graduation, the women started earning an average wage of $19.35 per hour. Graduates leave with better parenting skills, and their children get the benefit of high-quality early-childhood care.

Fifteen years after graduation, LeVan still draws on the life skills she developed at Jeremiah. She left the program with mental "toolkit," she says, that has guided her through her decision to pursue a career in nonprofit work and through the beginning and end of her second marriage. She now works as a development assistant at the Jeremiah Program, and Marina is a creative 16-year-old who wants to travel the world before heading to college.

Maintaining a close-knit, residential environment isn't cheap. Program expenses exceeded $3 million in 2011, mostly financed by donations, grants, and fundraising events. The cost per family is about $40,000 per year, although some of that is covered by government subsidies and the money mothers contribute in rent.

About one-fifth of Jeremiah children have fathers who remain involved with the family, Perez says. But many fathers have a history of incarceration, drug abuse, or violence, and many mothers choose to distance themselves from men who are poor role models for their children.

Directing resources toward single mothers can be politically controversial, but the Jeremiah Program has — as its expansion plans prove — been embraced in both liberal and conservative cities. In 2006, a Christian organization in Dayton, Ohio, launched a campus modeled on Jeremiah Program called the Glen at St. Joseph, which includes spiritual guidance in its programming.

"Everybody seems to acknowledge, across all political lines, that the mother tends to be the primary educator of the child and role model for the child," Perez says. Jeremiah women are expected to take responsibility for their family's future, and to build inner strength that can sustain them once they leave their Jeremiah sisters.