The Value of Mentors in Helping People Rise Above Poverty

Nov 4, 2020Economic Mobility

Living in poverty can mean dealing with a lot of stress because a person is faced with one crisis after another: “How will I pay the rent?” “Now that I’ve paid the rent, how will I put food on the table?”

Research shows that this highly stressful and reactive life can lead to significant physical changes in children and adults, such as stress-related diseases. It can also impair the development of executive functioning, which can include the ability to control impulsive behaviors, put making decisions in proper context, solve problems, and reach long-term goals. People need solid executive functioning to be able to plan, solve problems creatively, have productive social interactions, and persevere to attain goals.

The negative impact of living in poverty is particularly strong for those who live in chronic poverty, including children who grow up in stressful environments and need strong problem-solving skills to move up the economic ladder as they become adults. Fortunately, the skills that come through executive functioning can be practiced and learned so those who are poor can rise above, or avoid, chronic poverty.

Mentors Can Be A Great Help

Mentors can be a valuable resource in helping people develop the skills needed to improve their lives and become self-reliant. Specifically, mentors can help people who feel stuck in poverty improve their executive functioning and develop helpful skills. For instance, they can help them set and attain goals, improve their decision-making skills, have an attitude of resilience, and select educational and career paths that help them achieve family stability. Mentors can also help people expand their social networks, which helps them find job opportunities and advice, child care, and financial support.

In the end, some people living in poverty simply need someone who is committed to believing in them over an extended period of time and who can provide them ideas and connections to needed resources. Mentors are particularly important for young people who have grown up in intergenerational poverty and have few or no examples of people who are self-reliant and have risen up the economic ladder. According to research, they need what children raised in prosperous families get–“years of support and advice that teach [them] how to solve problems, make wise decisions, and connect to networks of resources that eventually lead to advanced education and family-sustaining careers.”

Persistent, committed, caring mentors can help those who are poor and disadvantaged obtain the long-term skills and resources they need to become self-sufficient, and even eventually become mentors themselves.

Mentoring Programs That Work

Much of the research in this post comes from EMPath (Economic Mobility Pathways), which is based in Boston and has a coaching model called Mobility Mentoring. With this model, EMPath trains coaches who work one-on-one with people in poverty t0 help strengthen their decision-making, persistence, and resilience over time. Coaches support participants in reaching their goals by helping them prioritize their efforts, overcome barriers and challenges, and think through options for additional resources and support. Participants receive recognition as they work toward and accomplish their goals.

Eight women who graduated from EMPath’s 5-year program in 2019 secured jobs with family-sustaining wages, earned six degrees, increased their credit scores by an average of 102 points, accumulated $10,000 or more in assets, and saved a combined total of $42,596.

Another organization, Circles Salt Lake, pairs volunteers and community members with families who are trying to rise above poverty. Those volunteers help provide resources to families, including job opportunities, transportation healthcare, and other services. Volunteers also help with goal setting, financial literacy, mentoring, and peer-to-peer counseling and learning. Circles asks participants to become “circle leaders” by taking the lead in their own lives to get out of poverty and change their life story.

In 2019, Circles helped 10 circle leaders maintain housing, 5 enroll in higher education, 4 find employment, 3 increase their earnings, and 2 get their driver’s licenses, buy vehicles, and license and insure those vehicles.

We Should Expand the Reach of Mentors

These two non-profits show that the assistance of mentors can be very valuable. We should consider ways in which our public policy can use and encourage the participation of mentors in helping those in poverty become self-reliant. We will look at some options for doing this in future posts.

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