Message from founder Pete Weber
When President Lyndon Johnson launched the war on poverty in 1964, he said "Our aim is not just to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it and prevent it". Since then, some estimate that we have spent more than $22 trillion fighting poverty ($799 billion in 2012 alone). The results are decidedly mixed. We have certainly relieved symptoms, but it's hard to argue that we have cured or prevented poverty. Since the turn of the century the percentage of American middle-income households has declined in 90% of metropolitan areas, the problem being most pronounced in California, where a much higher percentage of families live in poverty today than in 1964.
The California Bridge Academies were launched to demonstrate that we can do better than just make poverty more tolerable. Our goal was to permanently lift families out of poverty, and we are doing just that. Bridge Academies are helping thousands of families exit poverty every year and doing so while generating a positive return for taxpayers.
We all intuitively know that families in poverty face many different challenges. Government has responded by creating many assistance programs. There are 92 federal anti-poverty programs and hundreds of agencies and non-profits delivering services to the poor -- for elderly people, for children, for adults, for disabled people -- most of them delivered in silos, subject to different rules and eligibility criteria.
The major innovation of the Bridge Academy comes from understanding that lifting people out of poverty requires a holistic "family-up" approach, i.e., integrated delivery of the services needed to address the unique set of challenges faced by each family. Education and training are indispensable but insufficient. Individualized family plans must identify all interventions required to remove obstacles in the way of upward mobility. While it's the families that must do the hard work of lifting themselves up, capable mentors (we call them Career and Family Navigators), are crucial in helping families develop effective pathways and the self-confidence to stay on course until they succeed. We think of these pathways as bridges to self-reliance.
The California Bridge Academies was originally launched in 2010 as the Fresno Bridge Academy. It started with 120 families, each with an unemployed head-of-household. The families were enrolled in two academies, both located in urban neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. One year later, 83 of the heads-of-household were employed in jobs with upward mobility opportunity.
In 2012, on the strength of these results, the Fresno County Department of Social Services applied for and received funding from the federal SNAP Employment and Training program to fund expansion of the program for SNAP beneficiaries (known as Cal Fresh beneficiaries in California).
In 2015, the USDA selected the Fresno Bridge Academy as one of ten nationwide pilots for a randomized control test to help inform national public policy on how to lift SNAP beneficiaries out of poverty. With that came a $12.3 million grant that enabled expansion of the program to nine academies in Fresno county, 6 in urban areas and 3 in rural areas.
In 2016, the founder of the Fresno Bridge Academy was recognized as a leadership award winner by the James Irvine Foundation. With that came funding to support expansion of the model to other California counties. By the end of 2017, the program had expanded to 14 academies in five counties, with several other counties in preparation for launch in 2018. Almost 3,000 families were enrolled in the program as of the end of 2017, and more than 4,000 are expected to be enrolled in 2018. In 2017, the program was renamed The California Bridge Academies.
Mission and Philosophy
Society will always need a strong safety net. Our mission is to reduce the number of families who need to access the safety net because they have found pathways to self-reliance. We see this as good social policy as well as good economic policy.
We will work with our clients to remove any and all obstacles to upward economic mobility. No client has ever presented their navigator with a barrier for which the response is "we don't do that".