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Using data to empower families to escape poverty

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Two years ago, Shoniqua Kemp was unemployed, homeless and living in a broken car with her 12-year-old daughter. It would have been easy to give in to despair, but Shoniqua had a conversation that would change the trajectory of her life. A friend told her about a nonprofit that was empowering people like her to escape poverty. Shoniqua was skeptical; it didn’t sound like the other assistance programs she knew. Nonetheless, she decided to attend the next meeting of the Family Independence Initiative (FII). She wanted a better life for her daughter.

FII was founded in 2001 on the belief that low-income families can decide for themselves the best solutions to improve their lives, especially when guided by their own data. We believe in this approach, too, which is why Google.org is continuing our commitment to FII with over $2 million in new grants, and a team of full-time Google engineers who are lending their technical expertise.


The fundamental components of FII’s approach are monthly group meetings and detailed journaling. For two years, each family keeps track of their goals, financial information and what academics would call “social capital exchange,” which are behaviors like helping one another with childcare or letting a neighbor borrow a car for a job interview. Families share this information on FII’s web platform called Uptogether.


Each family sets its own economic and social mobility goals, which might be buying a home or continuing a child’s education. By filling out journals, attending group meetings to share solutions, and receiving a $100/month stipend for doing both, they create a virtuous circle, reinforcing the habits of success. Over the two year life that families participate, they can earn up to $3,200.


“I already had a circle of friends and, growing up, I kept a diary,” Shoniqua told us. “I wasn’t sure how the program was going to help.” But then she started getting the FII reports, which turned her monthly data into graphic charts, visual proof of progress. “There, in black and white, I could see all the positive things I was doing. It changed how I saw myself.”


In 2015, we helped FII in California expand from 100 to 1,000 families. After two years, the families increased their income by 22 percent, their savings quadrupled and they decreased their reliance on government subsidies, such as food stamps, by 55 percent.


We want to keep the momentum going. Last week, we announced a $2 million grant to bring FII to Chicago, and today, along with the St. David’s Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Harold Simmons Family Foundation, we’re helping expand FII to Austin, with a total commitment of $1.3 million.  

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Google.org and City of Chicago at an announcement event for the Family Independence Initiative last week. From left to right: Jesús Gerena, CEO, Family Independence Initiative; Samantha Hennessey, Manager, Google.org; Patricia Belden, Preservation of Affordable Housing Communities, President; Rob Biederman, Head of Government Relations & Public Affairs, Midwest, Google; Lisa Morrison Butler, Commissioner - City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services; Maab Ibrahim, Manager, Google.org; Ebony Scott, Chicago Site Director, Family Independence Initiative

In addition, for six months full-time, a group of six Googlers will build a tool that uses natural language processing to analyze the journal entries uploaded on UpTogether, looking for trends or patterns. With this new information, FII will gain a much deeper understanding of what leads to family success.


Today, Shoniqua is no longer homeless, her income has quadrupled, and she was able to repair her car. But something else gives her the most pride. Last year, a middle-class woman told Shoniqua how she paid for college with a savings bond her parents had given her as a child. Shoniqua didn’t know savings bonds still existed. “It’s hard to talk about this without getting emotional,” she said, her voice catching. “But this year, I set aside enough money to buy a $200 savings bond in my daughter’s name.” She paused a moment, and then smiled. “My daughter is going to have generational wealth, just like that woman got from her parents.”


Shoniqua is living proof that FII's approach can not only help families escape poverty, but thrive in a new life that they create for themselves. We're grateful to be part of a community of funders helping FII to reach 2,000 more families.