Betting on the Bay with Jorge Blandón
Following fifty years of America’s war on poverty, what’s changed?
Jorge Blandón, Executive Vice President at Family Independence Initiative (FII), is the right man to ask. Jorge is part of the leadership team that works closely with the Technology and Data division to challenge the stereotypes that inhibit families with low incomes, develop innovative tools, and spread the insights that helps people escape the cycle of poverty.
Recently, Walter & Elise Haas Fund Executive Director Jamie Allison spoke with Jorge as part of our Betting on the Bay series of interviews. An edited transcript of that conversation follows. We hope the wisdom and insight he shares help us move, individually and collectively, towards a more equitable Bay Area.
Jamie Allison: Let’s get started! Jorge, what characteristics make a city or region vibrant?
Jorge Blandón: Richness of diversity — diversity of thoughts, perspectives, culture, economy, and also opportunity.
JA: And what is it about the Bay Area that keeps you here?
JB: There is a lot of innovation — and I’m not just talking about tech. Creativity exists in this community and manifests itself in different ways of thinking about building community, building assets, about ownership, around businesses.
JA: I feel like the Bay Area dream is distinct from the American dream in some ways. What’s something that you have seen or have experienced that is possible in the Bay Area that might not be possible anywhere else?
JB: There is a significant concentration of people willing to think outside the box here. That in itself just allows for so much to happen. But there’s this tension between how amazing the Bay Area is and how hard it is to live here. So, if you want to be here you have to be so innovative.
You have to be so innovative at the community and at the family level. Conditions force people to be creative, pull together resources, create businesses — formal and informal — and connect with each other to a degree that they would not have to otherwise. That piece is unique. It’s a product of this environment.
JA: Family Independence Initiative has a unique approach to supporting families in meeting their economic, academic, and life goals. What values underpin its approach?
JB: We believe every person has the innate ability, strength, initiative, capacity, and imagination to work individually and collectively for a better future. Knowing that people are capable is fundamental. If you build from that, you trust people, families, and low-income communities to look after each other and make the right decisions for themselves.
All we do is create an environment of trust in which low income families can work together.
JA: Does FII offer any financial coaching?
JA: Do you provide match savings accounts?
JB: We used to, but not anymore.
JA: Okay. Do you provide workforce development training?
JA: Do you provide any resume writing workshops?
JA: Do you provide after school tutoring?
JA: So, FII exists to help families set and realize their own goals. If you don’t provide any services, how do you help them do that?
JB: The War on Poverty, over the last fifty years, has led to the creation of thousands of programs and services, right? And I feel like, as a country, we’ve overlooked one of the greatest resources that we have when we think about the challenges of social and economic mobility: it’s each other. Programs and services can’t be the only solution.
When we say, “You’re the expert of your own experience, in your community, and we trust you,” then you see families increasingly turn to each other for support with trust. If a member of a community needs budgeting tips, there’s already someone — a friend, a neighbor — they can turn to. As opposed to asking someone from outside the community.
When we look at how families are surviving, a significant piece of that is through community support. It’s by offering to babysit for your neighbor while they go to work. It’s ‘my car broke down; can you give my daughter a ride to school’” It’s by holding each other accountable. It’s by, ‘hey, you said you were going to start that business; what steps have you taken?’
So for FII it’s about how can we, as society, recognize this and make it stronger.
JA: How do you create the conditions and the environment for families to support one another? What role does FII play and what roles do families play?
JB: We want people to partner with FII, so that we can learn. That entails asking people to get together with a group of their friends, and then strengthening those bonds over the course of a two-year partnership with FII.
Groups will talk about their children’s education, about starting a business. Other families will just get together and exhale, and connect, and teach each other how to crochet. Then, we ask families to bring their conversations online through our “Up Together” platform, which I like to call a community-building site.
Families connect not only with folks in their neighborhood and in their city, but with other FII families just like them across the country. They have a place to share successes, challenges, and ideas.
JA: Give me an example.
JB: Someone posted, “Hey, I just saved 500 bucks on groceries by couponing.” And someone chimed in and that evolved into this one Bay Area parent hosting sessions on how to coupon. And then someone from Boston wanted to be part of that so they got taught how to coupon and they spread the word in Boston.
You can’t create a service or a program around couponing. It has to happen organically. You get the full gamut of different ways that folks connect with FII. Sometimes it’s as simple as families being proud of what they’re accomplishing and having a platform to showcase how amazing they are.
These are people like me that are getting things done and I can connect with them to figure it out — without any case managers. It’s not professional folks or outsiders; it’s all curated, created, generated, and engaged in by families.
FII also asks people to track what they’re doing on a monthly basis, and to share information with us around their finances, sources of income, assets, and liabilities, children’s education, and steps they are taking to improve their health. We’re really getting this holistic view of the family so we can better understand what initiative people take and what strengths they have. In exchange, we deploy small dollar amount grants that people can use to invest in their self-defined initiatives and to accelerate momentum toward accomplishing their dreams.
JA: What kinds of things are families using the FII resources for?
JB: Right now, we are seeing a lot around financial health. Paying down high interest debts, bridging income gaps to help pay rent, so they’re not going into crisis mode. Or, my favorite, to go to the museum, the amusement park, a space where they can connect as a family. To focus on something that others may take for granted, because they can afford to take their kids to Fairyland.
Families are using dollars to start or expand their small businesses. It could be hair braiding, landscaping, a food cart, whatever. They’re using money to buy materials, to invest, to buy healthier produce. People buy yoga videos and mats so they can get together with their friends every week to meditate and do yoga. They come up with solutions using just small amounts of capital.
JA: Define small. What are we talking about?
JB: Families can access up to $3,200 over the course of two years. It’s a modest amount, but those funds return an element of control to people’s lives. When you allow families to connect with one another, and then put dollars directly in people’s hands, you get amazing outcomes.
In the U.S., we’ve created these rigid systems of how we think we can support families — policies and philanthropy. We’ve created these buckets around how we deploy resources and to whom. As a country, we deploy something like a trillion dollars every year specifically to address poverty. It’s a trillion dollars that’s going to programs and services. But, if you do the math, that represents $60,000 we could give every family of three with a low-income.
I want to reimagine a world where those resources make it directly into the hands of those families. That’s one of the things that can happen in the Bay Area.
JA: Are you a proponent of universal basic income?
JB: I appreciate that it moves the conversation around putting dollars in the hands of people forward. There are pieces missing, though. I feel that the conversation around UBI often gets stuck as being a reaction to a problem and doesn’t acknowledge the value and contributions people make every day? What about social capital and community connections? And then there’s no amount of income that we could deploy successfully, if we don’t also address systemic issues — barriers that exists for families to be able to afford to go to college, to have quality health care.
JA: What are you learning from FII families about how to thrive in the Bay Area?
JB: Based on what families share around their social capital — how families support each other — we know it represents, on average, about 7% of their household’s monthly income. There is real economic value. It’s significant piece of how families survive.
Families are also being incredibly creative around accessing financial capital that they would otherwise not have access to. We know that families are informally pooling dollars to create lending circles and small loan funds on their own.
JA: Can you talk a little bit about how you use the information that you’re gathering from your partner families?
JB: Foremost, we want families to benefit from their own data, right? It’s their data, it’s their information and so we want to share back.
We want to make the invisible visible. Over the last three years, we know that families have exchanged north of $13 million in social capital. And we know we’re just scratching the surface because we were only partnering with 3,200 families.
And we want to take it to the next level — to share appropriately with philanthropy and government. To say, “Look how amazing these families are. Look what they’re able to do when they’re engaged from a place of strength and trust.” Just to highlight at the micro level what a family is capable of doing and then take a step back on the macro level and highlight the potential that exists when we refocus our resources.
Of 40 or so million households that live at or below the federal poverty line, 75% of those households actually move above the federal poverty line within four years. So that’s about, 30 million households with a lot of initiative and capacity.
However, life happens, and because there aren’t systems that invest in that progress, half of those 30 million households fall right back under the poverty line within five years. We have to find ways to support families in retaining their progress.
JA: Does that tie into anything you’re work on at FII right now?
JB: We’re evolving our technology to allow other funders to plug in and support families’ initiative. You can deploy your own money in a way that recognizes the capacity that exists and the value of social capital. You can start doing it, with your money — not FII, you.
From a technology standpoint, that’s really exciting, doing this together. It’s a very concrete invitation for folks that want to try something different.
JA: When might you be ready to open the doors to those of us who want to take part?
JB: This year we want to identify some Beta users willing to help us test. And to help us learn what is it funders need. So, if you know of anyone, please let us know.
JA: Okay! Anyone reading this who wants to get involved, please contact Jorge.
You’ve created a really wonderful vision of what family resilience looks like and it is also very much tied to a value of our founders, Walter and Elise Haas, who believe that we have a shared responsibility to look after each other. And so many of the things you said to me resonated for those two reasons.
I’d love to finish with some rapid-fire questions. Just say the first thing that comes to mind.
What’s your secret Bay Area hangout spot that brings you joy?
JB: Surfing at Linda Mar in Pacifica.
JA: Yeah. Nice. And what’s an unlikely place in the Bay Area where you’ve conducted business?
JB: I’ll go back to surfing — at Ocean Beach.
JA: Who inspires you in the Bay Area?
JB: I’m inspired by this young man, Zachary Murray, from Oakland Community Land Trust. I just heard him speak a couple weeks ago. He is speaking truth to power. I’m really inspired by what he’s doing.
JA: Fantastic. And final question! Who’s your favorite artist or what’s your favorite record?
JB: I’ve got two: Calle 13 is one of my favorite artists and Rubén Blades.
JA: Thank you so much for spending so much of your morning with me.
JB: Thank you for the opportunity.
Prior to joining FII, Jorge Blandón worked in financial securitization, where he underwrote bond financings and contributed to infrastructure projects. He is a trustee for the Whitman Institute and a member of the Re-Imagining Measurement & Evaluation Advisory Committee for Monitor Institute. Jorge was named Urban Innovator of the Week by the Urban Innovation Exchange.