Chattanooga excluded from pilot grants for welfare reform

Chattanooga can be proud of its many public-private partnerships formed to address local needs and development, but the city is excluded from the $175 million awarded statewide to selected public-private groups for innovative pilot projects to help more Tennesseans lift themselves out of poverty.

Of the 17 competing proposals reviewed by the Families First Community Advisory Board, seven will each receive $25 million in grants for their projects.

Public-private coalitions created by the city of Chattanooga for better job training and by the nonprofit First Things First for better connections and beneficiary support have not received any of the additional social funds that Tennessee has. accumulated over the years, with funds distributed over the next three years through the Tennessee Opportunity Pilot Initiative.

Chattanooga’s proposals, which had previously won state aid for planning and development, were ultimately lost in the East Tennessee District to a coalition created by United Way of Knoxville and the First Tennessee Development District Foundation in northeast Tennessee.

An advisory board comprised of state officials, relief program experts, and former welfare recipients selected the winning projects in each of the state’s three major divisions after reviewing written proposals and the in-person presentations made at a kind of Shark Tank for anti-poverty ideas. month.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the grant recipients at the state Capitol on Thursday. Lee said he is pleased with the innovative approaches the pilot programs will test to support families and help welfare recipients find training, employment and other needed help.

“We should be creating an environment where Tennesseans can thrive, and that includes all Tennesseans,” Lee said.

Tennessee Senate President Pro Temp Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, one of the architects of the grant program, said he hopes the ideas being tested will help more Tennesseans break the cycle of poverty and, by ultimately reduce payroll taxes.

Watson was a board member who went through the selection process but did not vote on the chosen agencies. Although Watson said he was disappointed that no Chattanooga project was chosen, he said the review process was fair and designed to help ensure greater success by allowing more people to become self-sufficient.

“It’s a very innovative and private sector way of meeting that need, almost like how startups have to pitch their ideas to potential investors and prove that their ideas work,” Watson said.

As part of the program, the pilot projects will undergo random peer-reviewed analysis to determine their impact on a controlled sample of similar individuals.

The winning proposals were selected from 17 study projects that previously received limited state planning and development funding after being selected from more than 80 initial funding applications.

Chattanooga has created a training coalition of nearly a dozen area agencies to help provide stipend, child care and other supports while participants train for high-demand jobs in growing industries. The idea is part of Mayor Tim Kelly’s One Chattanooga project to help expand Chattanooga’s economic gains for all and further bridge racial, class and income differences in the city.

For its part, First Things First has offered a digital platform known as Thread to help social assistance recipients connect more easily to local services, training and other programs that can help. these people find better jobs or meet their social needs more quickly and easily. efficient manner. Using their smartphone, which 97% of people living in poverty have, the Thread provides each participant with a timeline, reminders and guidance to meet their individual needs and encourage them to find ways out of poverty.

Although the city’s collaboration was not chosen for state funding, officials are using a similar training approach for the Google IT training course at the city’s youth and family development center. , which includes training supported by student stipends, childcare and other support for in-demand jobs.

“We didn’t get the…grant, but we’re actively in talks with the US Department of Labor and other organizations to make sure the incredible work and partnerships created during this process won’t go to waste,” said Ellis Smith, a senior executive. political adviser to Kelly. “It’s a strategy we’re committed to.”

Selected projects are expected to begin receiving funding by the fall, and their future funding will ultimately be determined by the results of their projects. Successful projects can be replicated across the state, Watson said.

Clarence Carter, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, said the unique pilot program takes “a holistic approach to serving those who are most economically vulnerable, in a truly transformative way” that is unlike any other US state. .

“Through this collaboration of multidisciplinary partners dedicated to engaging all sectors of the state, these pilot projects provide an opportunity for innovation and best practices to meet the needs of low-income families on their journey,” said Carter said in an announcement from the grants.

The lead organizations of the seven collaborative groups that were selected include:

– First founding of the Tennessee Development District in northeast Tennessee.

— United Way of Greater Knoxville.

– Martha O’Bryan Center serving Central Tennessee.

— Upper Cumberland Human Resources Agency for Middle Tennessee.

– Family and Children’s Service for Central Tennessee.

– Families matter for West Tennessee.

— The University of Memphis for West Tennessee.

Carter said that with pilots spanning Tennessee’s three major divisions, in rural and urban areas, “these public-private groups are positioned to identify and meet the unique needs of families living in their areas.”

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.