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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, August 18, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesUndercurrents: Does Our Safety Net Have Any Holes?

Undercurrents: Does Our Safety Net Have Any Holes?

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

In recent decades, thousands upon thousands of Virgin Island residents have passed through federal programs meant to destroy – or at least mitigate – poverty, entrusting in the system their own hopes for a better life.

Millions of federal dollars and significant local funds have gone to operate two major programs: Head Start educational and nutrition programs for preschoolers; and TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which caps financial assistance and requires recipients to work. Scores of government workers have spent careers serving in each system, delivering services and administrating the programs.

Is any of all this making a difference?

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Right now, we really don’t know.

There are anecdotal examples of success stories, of course. And certainly the conventional wisdom is that the programs are worthwhile. But there is very little actual data that demonstrates that people who went through Head Start programs in the territory had more academic success than those who didn’t – or that Head Start made a measurable difference in their overall health as they grew through adolescence and into adulthood.

And as little data as there is on Head Start, there is virtually none on TANF recipients.

We do know that the need is significant. According to the V.I. Community Survey, 28 percent of V.I. families were impacted by poverty.

And we know that at any given time a significant portion of the Virgin Islands approximate population of 100,000 is in one or both of the programs. Currently 894 children are enrolled in Head Start, according to the V.I. Department of Human Services – 466 on St. Croix, 408 on St. Thomas and 20 on St. John. In Fiscal Year 2014, there were 1,570 people, or 536 households, receiving financial assistance through TANF. So knowing how well these programs work is not just an academic curiosity.

That’s why the federal government just awarded a $900,000, multi-year grant to the territory to work up some numbers.

Called the “Human Services Research Partnerships: U.S. Virgin Islands,” the project is being conducted by the Caribbean Exploratory Research Center at the University of the Virgin Islands. The grant money, coming from the U.S. Department of Human Services in three annual installments of $300,000 each, is meant to cover two comprehensive research studies and also to establish an infrastructure for ongoing research. Formally awarded on Sept. 30, the grant runs through Sept. 29, 2017.

The idea is not just to validate or invalidate the programs, but to discover what parts of them work well and which parts could use some changes.

To do that, the project will need input from people involved in all sides of the programs, according to Noreen Michael, CERC research director, and Gloria Callwood, CERC director and principal investigator.

They’re looking for participation from the V.I. Departments of Education, Health, Human Services, Justice – particularly the Child Support Division – and the V.I. Housing Authority. They’re also looking to myriad nonprofit organizations such as the Family Resource Center, Kidscope, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, the V.I. Psychology Association and the Eastern Caribbean Center. The partnership will also include a parent whose child is receiving services at Head Start and one current and one past recipient of TANF.

A number of the agencies and groups were represented at the Research Partnership’s first meeting in November, Michael said.

“We actually started a dialog,” she said. The next meeting will be in February and should feature a guest expert, someone who has gone through a similar process in another jurisdiction, to deliver an orientation and advise the group on how to prioritize the issues and how to approach different sectors of the community.

First the group needs to identify the issues to be studied.

As an example, Michael said that even before it submitted the grant proposal, CERC conducted a preliminary study and learned from service providers that they believe a problem hampering the TANF program is the reluctance of many employers to hire TANF recipients. If so, that highlights the need to go beyond the program itself to get input.

It also illustrates that – like any stakeholder – service providers “can only look at the program from one perspective,” Michael said. So the Research Partnership is trying to get input from the providers, the recipients, the policy-makers and all who interact with recipients. “We’ll have a rounder view.”

Once the team develops the issues to be covered, it can come up with the questions and the method of research. There may be interview, focus groups, actual surveys or a combination of all of these, she said.

Callwood noted that the federal government will also be a major participant; a project director has already been assigned for the territory. “The Virgin Islands was specifically targeted” for the project, as was Puerto Rico, because of the dearth of data from both jurisdictions.

“This is just the beginning,” Michael added. It lays the foundation for further ongoing research and record-keeping.

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