Chilton is an associate professor and director at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel.
For 10 years, the center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel’s School of Public Health has brought the issue of hunger and its effect on maternal and child health into the national conversation — and now it’s launching a new initiative to help families escape poverty for good.
In 2008, the center’s Director Mariana Chilton created a unique public service project that equips caregivers with digital cameras to record their everyday experiences with poverty and hunger and share them with the public. These “Witnesses to Hunger,” as they are called, expanded from an initial group of 42 mothers in Philadelphia to women across the state of Pennsylvania and in Boston, Baltimore and Camden, N.J., with more than 80 participants in total.
The witnesses brought their struggles into the public view through their own photographs, hundreds of press interviews, a 2013 feature-length documentary, and trips to the State of the Union address and to Capitol Hill.
Now, the center is using what it learned from them to change the welfare system.
In June, the center launched a microfinance project called the Building Wealth and Health Network, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. The project will work with 750 participants from Philadelphia’s most struggling neighborhoods over the next five years to help residents achieve financial self-sufficiency.
The project works through a peer-oriented, asset-building model that helps women break the cycle of poverty by providing matched savings accounts, financial literacy classes and peer support groups. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania allows program participation to count as fulfilling Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF), or welfare, requirements.
Past research on low-income mothers and children from the center’s Children’s HealthWatch and Witnesses to Hunger programs have contributed to the center’s understanding of poverty and public assistance, which will be essential to the project.
The project builds upon evidence that low-income mothers seek to build their social networks to help others in similar situations, and have proven entrepreneurship skills, even when administrative structures of public welfare can inhibit a parent’s ability to reach self-sufficiency.
The center’s research also found that public assistance programs are essential for protecting and promoting maternal and child health, even though they do not completely protect families.
Bolstered with that information, the center hopes to benefit not only people in Philadelphia but to also create a model of public assistance for the country.