As part of coursework for a Sociology course on poverty and public policy, Dartmouth students collaborated with the Upper Valley Haven to perform a qualitative evaluation of the Haven’s Getting Ahead (GA) program. Student interviewers worked in pairs to speak with ten former participants in Getting Ahead and gathered data on the interviewee’s lives before, during, and after their involvement with the program. Our report provides valuable feedback for the Haven on impressions and outcomes of Getting Ahead, but readers should be wary of extrapolating from our sample of interviewees to the entire population of GA participants. Due to invalid contact information and practical constraints around scheduling, we failed to connect with a greater number of former GA participants and therefore were only able to interview a small sample. We also face potential self-selection bias. In addition, unpracticed students conducted the interviews and may have worded questions poorly or led interviewees down unintended paths.
Comparing the demographics of the total GA population to those we interviewed, our sample was predominantly white, female, and poorly representative of the 30-40-years- old age bracket. Most subjects we interviewed grew up in generational poverty and several had family and/or personal histories checkered with drug, alcohol, and occasionally physical and sexual abuse. Homelessness of one kind or another originally brought the GA investigators to the Haven, and through the Haven’s staff they eventually heard about the program. Indeed, the strength of a staff member’s recommendation compelled people first, even before the money came into play, with the stipend acting as a secondary motivator. After the program, all subjects interviewed were employed and had secured stable housing for themselves and their families at some point, regardless of how long they had been out of the program. Note that finding shelter is not necessarily an achievement to attribute to GA because, counterfactually, many who dropped out of GA midway through the program did so because they had found housing and needed to move. However, GA students did practice new, unique skills learned from the program, such as code-switching, budgeting, and prioritizing.
Interview subjects approved highly of Getting Ahead’s operations, from logistics and dynamics to the leaders, or “facilitators,” that led their GA session. Participants viewed the classes as well-run overall, with decorum and intimacy maintained by consistent work on the part of the group leaders. Facilitators were cited as spending great lengths of time in and out of class, and generally making the experience an excellent one. The stipend was a noticeable point of contention among our subjects, with some citing it as an attractive incentive to a useful program, and others citing it as wasteful and stating that it pandered toward disengaged individuals who diminished the GA experience for others. We recommend that any stipend changes be seriously scrutinized to determine the net cost/benefit because a few GA students relayed that they were enticed by the cash and stayed for the education. In their case, the stipend seems to be working exactly as designed.
As noted above, given the qualitative nature of our research and our limited sample size, it is difficult to assess the degree to which the Getting Ahead Program is, in and of itself, successful. We found that the program’s efficacy was inextricably tied both to the ways the program was experienced specifically as a program run through The Haven as well as the personal experiences the investigators brought to the table.
Still, the former investigators we interviewed also found the information presented in the Getting Ahead workbook understandable (with the notable exception of an outlier who struggled in understanding the Hidden Rules Module). We found that the way information was presented had a large impact on how well it was understood—visual aids such as graph, charts, and tangible models were more helpful than abstract mental models. Furthermore, investigators noted that their understanding of the material was greatly enhanced by group discussion.
In particular, investigators indicated that the first few modules—with the exception of Module 2: What’s it Like Now?—were dull. Many found the theoretical nature of these modules boring, but recognized their importance in the creation of a strong foundation on which to build and change. As the program progressed and modules became more practical and skill oriented, investigators’ overall engagement in the program increased. Investigators almost universally cited the Hidden Rules module (Module 5) and the modules regarding the evaluation and enhancement of personal and community resources (Modules 8-10) as particularly helpful tools.
The great majority of investigators felt the Getting Ahead program was a success, as evidenced by the impact it had on their lives. These impacts manifested in a multitude of ways, including the achievement of SMART goals established at the end of the program; stronger communication skills resulting in strong social networks and a better professional presence; increased organization, stability, and future planning; increased budget and financial planning; and increased confidence and overall sense of empowerment. Investigators noticed overall mental health benefits, and expressed that they felt better about their lives and their futures because the Getting Ahead program gave them the tools to succeed.
While the value of mental health and a strong sense of self-worth should not be undervalued, tangible economic gains are notably absent from the list of ways in which the Getting Ahead program improved the lives of the investigators. Further, given the methodological limitations discussed above, it is difficult to assess the causal connection of GA with any positive or negative outcomes of the participants.
In conclusion, we find that participants in GA generally have positive outcomes, particularly in the short-term, and that they feel good about their experience in the program. While it is unclear whether this positive experience translates into real economic gains—and if any positive outcomes can be traced to GA itself—the facilitation of a strong, constructive group dynamic by GA and Haven staff creates lasting peer networks that investigators value highly. The two most helpful parts of the program are the financial assessments and advice offered in multiple modules, and Module 5: Hidden Rules of Economic Class. On the other hand, most participants expressed distaste for the first few introductory modules, finding them boring at best.
Given these findings, the Haven may benefit from offering smaller group workshops in addition to GA. The Haven could support more group bonding sessions for those staying at the Haven to strengthen their peer networks so they have friendly support after they leave the shelter. This might even take the form of a financial planning course or a workshop on how to write SMART goals based on the self-reflective methods used in the GA workbook. This would help those staying at the Haven for shorter periods better prepare for when they leave.
It is our recommendation that the Haven also adopt the revised GA workbook, as it makes several changes that fit well with the desires and critiques of past GA investigators. The revised edition has even more information on the hidden rules and how to use language, and is generally more accessible, with a glossary handy for words that some may find confusing. In addition, the first few modules that so many participants found boring have been shortened from four modules to three, so that the hidden rules come up sooner. The financial assessments and resource discussions are still a focus of this newer book as well. These measures address the culture of poverty and the learned behaviors of individuals in the lower class that separate them from their middle-class peers. Even with the modules on how to take advantage of community resources and create personal ones, however, a very different kind of program would be necessary to address the structural and institutional sources of poverty as well.