Social assistance for low-income families in Singapore are often largely premised on their needs, rather than the enterprise and creativity that families have. Empowered Families Initiative is a developmental initiative that hopes to harness the strengths and abilities of low-income families and invest in their aspirations through grants, savings matching and group support to improve their life circumstances towards better socio-economic position and well-being.
As social service professionals, we noticed that social assistance for low-income families in Singapore is often remedial and reactive in nature, and often premised on families as “needy recipients”, rather than leveraging on their assets. The issue with this is that it would often perpetuate the situation where families will always be “in need”. Assistance is also largely framed around and meant for basic needs, and hence low-income families will only just be able to survive with just enough, living in a state of surviving but not thriving. Initiatives that help low-income families are often programmatic, following a one-size-fits-all approach rather than being customised to the specific plans or aspirations of the families. Hence, a cookie cutter programme might not cater to the unique needs and circumstances of low-income families and might not be as meaningful or helpful to support the families.
As such, a group of us, consisting of social service practitioners as well as families with lived experiences of poverty, have come together to co-create this initiative that we think would be beneficial to support low-income families to achieve their aspirations, an initiative that is customised based on the families’ aspirations, leverages on the families’ strengths and rewards families based on their motivation and enterprise to progress and build assets for their future. The Empowered Families Initiative (EFI) looks into ‘investing’ in the plans of low-income families to improve their life circumstances, towards a better socio-economic position. These plans encompass (but not limited to) employment/business, skills upgrading, savings and expansion of social capital.
The initiative consists of three essential components:
- Families will have access to funds and linked to non-monetary resources support, based on their respective plans and goals to better their lives. They have the autonomy to choose how to utilize the resources for their goals.
- Savings Matching – families are able to tap on the above funds to save each month and these savings will be matched 2:1 by the initiative.
- Regular group meetings among families for mutual support, encouragement and accountability, towards increased social capital and network.
The objectives of this initiative are thus as follows:
- To improve the families’ quality of life, towards a better socio-economic status;
- To enable families to feel more empowered and motivated by their own progress and betterment of circumstances;
- To ‘invest’ in the plans that our member families have for themselves such that to improve their life circumstances;
- To enhance families’ social capital and networks for mutual support beyond the initiative;
- To provide a platform for families to encourage each other and be mutually accountable to one another.
This EFI is inspired by an initiative in the United States called Family Independence Initiative (FII) that trusts and invests funds in low-income families’ plans to get out of poverty and improve their lives. The families would then share their plans in a group with other families, for mutual accountability, support and exchange of resources. Families within the FII network set their own priorities and drive their own efforts to improve their lives, within an environment of strong social connections and access to initiative-based resources over a two-year period. It is unlike any other traditional social service programmes that is premised on how needy the families are, reinforcing a certain narrative of families and undermine them. After the two-year period, the FII saw an average increase of 22% in the family’s monthly income, 88% of students have excellent, good or improved grades. Families also grew their yearly income by 2.4 times and assets by 1.7 times after the initial average investment of USD 2400 per family. Our team thought that applying this frame of thinking would be novel to the social service sector in Singapore and worth pursuing towards achieving greater quality of lives for low-income families, hence adapting it in our Singapore context in the form of EFI.
We imagine that EFI not as an end in itself, but as part of a greater movement in reimagining how we can reframe social assistance as ‘investments’ towards the potential of low-income families. With future iterations of this initiative and with greater funding, we hope to increase the amount of grants, create scholarships for low-income families who wish to upskill and create capability among social service professionals to have developmental, aspirational based conversations with low-income families, rather than merely focusing on the “here and now” needs. We also hope to have more low-income families co-creating this initiative together with us for future iterations and act as mentors or facilitators for other families on this initiative.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Unlike social assistance and programmes for low-income families that are mostly premised on basic needs, our project is innovative in the sense that it rewards families based on their motivation, harnesses and leverages on their assets and strengths. The design of this initiative is such that it incentivizes progress and motivation, which might create a new trajectory and perpetuate a positive cycle of possibilities for the families, instead of becoming stuck in a cycle of need and challenges. We are hoping that this positive cycle is also able to sustain itself beyond this initiative, enabling families to springboard and further undertake initiatives that would promote their socio-economic well-being. Further, low-income families with lived experience of being in poverty, are also co-creating this initiative together with us as part of the organising team and as co-facilitators. This can lead to the effectiveness and sustainability of EFI in uplifting families out of poverty.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Our team has done 1 iteration (proof-of concept) and is currently in the midst of the second iteration (pilot) of EFI, made possible by a grant that was given to us by a grant maker in Singapore. Our first iteration involved 4 low-income families, whom we have identified to currently be on existing social assistance schemes, held from Sep 2021 - Mar 2022. All 4 families had aspirations, motivation and readiness to increase their income-generating capacity but have not been able to find the support or capital to work on their aspirations through existing initiatives. Hence, we identified them to be suitable to be onboard this proof-of-concept iteration. For this first iteration, each family was awarded a SGD 500 grant to work on their aspirations and met each other monthly to track their progress. Our ongoing second iteration has 7 families and increased grant quantum of SGD 1500.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The innovation brought four main groups together: this EFI team, the families who are beneficiaries, social workers as well as the grantmaker. The EFI team was driving this initiative but worked alongside low-income families to co-create and refine this initiative as well as the achieving of their goals. The grantmaker funded the grants given to families. We also plan to reach out to companies to create income generation opportunities for families who have businesses (e.g catering etc).
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The families who are onboard this initiative have reported that they have access to resources to achieve their aspirations, that they would not normally get since assistance is typically framed around basic needs. They also feel greater empowerment and confidence, since they received support for their goals and saw little successes. As a result of this, they feel more encouraged to work on their goals to improve their socio-economic status and well-being even beyond this initiative.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
4 families were onboard EFI in the first round - Danny, Lisa, Suzy and Fatima. We measured the impact on each family through observations and qualitative means to evaluate any increase in income level or potential for income-generation and an increase in social support for the families. Lisa, Fatima and Suzy have their own home-based business, an informal way to earn an income. They used the grants as capital to buy equipment to increase their sales. Lisa and Suzy collaborated to open a food stall which doubled their incomes by the end of the iteration. Fatima was also able to save up SGD 25k to open a car-washing business. Danny works as a food delivery rider. He does his delivery on his bicycle and used the grant to take a motorbike license to increase his ability to earn more by increasing his delivery orders. At the end of the initiative, Danny was able to complete half the requirements for his license. All 4 reported a higher level of social support from getting to know one another.
Challenges and Failures
Due to the short iteration of about 6 months, the families onboard the first iteration felt that they were still new in their respective ventures and would benefit from being onboard for another 3 months. The families came together and asked if they could apply for extra funding to boost their own ventures. They pitched their ideas to us and since they showed great promise, we managed to secure another funding that awards an additional SGD 500 to each of them. Hence, we are taking this learning and designing a longer runway of more than 6 months for the second iteration. We are also mobilizing Lisa and Danny as facilitators and mentors for the families who are onboard EFI’s 2nd iteration, so they could share their experience and knowledge with other families.
Conditions for Success
There are 3 conditions necessary for the success of this innovation. One of it is a funding model that is open to experimentation and ‘investing’ in the aspirations of low-income families, the model that our grantmaker had adopted and made EFI iterations possible. Another condition is the families’ readiness and commitment to work on their goals and aspirations. The progress made by the families is due to their motivation to be better and improve their respective lives. Last but not least is the mindset change among social service professionals and policymakers. There needs to be greater power sharing with beneficiaries in co-creating policies to ensure effectiveness and sustainability of the initiative, as families are experts of their own lives and can provide very valuable insights.
This innovation has yet to be replicated as it is still in its early stages of iteration. However, a survey was also conducted with social service professionals from various social service agencies in Singapore. Results from the survey showed that there is demand by the social workers for this initiative to be rolled out in their centres as they believe that the families they work with could benefit from it. Due to the positive outcomes from the pilot round and the keen interest shown by social workers who believe that this initiative would help the families they serve, EFI has a high potential to be further replicated.
Families are often resourceful and very creative and have great ambitions, just that they lack the resources to move to the next stage towards their goals. Providing seed funding or small grant could be the important spark in enabling them to move to a better position where they can make choices and work on the next phase of the plans that they have for their own lives. Through an initiative like EFI, we hope to generate a positive cycle of possibilities for these families, rather than of poverty. Also, families are experts of their own lives, and it would be good for them to be co-creators in shaping initiatives or policies to help other low-income families. Essential to that professionals and policy makers sharing power and creating the space for families to have a say in how policies are shaped for low-income communities.