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Fayette County Community Action Agency and the Rural FOC

In the Rust Belt, those parts of the Midwestern and northeastern U.S. characterized by declining industry and a falling population, there was once a formidable economic engine. In particular, Fayette County, in the Northern Appalachian region in the heart of western Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, was one of the top producers of coal and iron products in the state. Yet, during the deindustrialization period of the late 1900s, the region lost many manufacturing jobs and economic decline soon followed.

In Uniontown, a small community of just over 10,000 in Fayette County, poverty rates began to skyrocket as deindustrialization took hold.  In 1966, in response to the War on Poverty, Fayette County Community Action Agency, Inc. (FCCAA) was formed. Initially focused on human services, FCCAA steadily grew to offer a more comprehensive array of community supports, and now serves low-income individuals and families in Fayette County through property management, financial management, development and human resources.

FCCAA had made tremendous strides in helping low income individuals and families over the years, but the poverty rate still remains high, exceeding 30 percent in some communities in the county. In 2014, FCCAA recognized the need for assistance for those still struggling with unemployment, underemployment and financial literacy. Enter the LISC Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs), career and personal finance service centers that help low- to moderate-income people build smart money habits and focus on the financial bottom line—and the first rural FOC.

LISC FOCs provide employment and career counseling, one-on-one financial coaching and education and low-cost financial products that help build credit, savings and assets. They also connect clients with income supports such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly “food stamps”), utilities assistance and affordable health insurance. The cornerstone of the FOC model is its integrated services approach, along with a long-term commitment to helping clients reach their goals.

The FOC model was exactly what FCCAA was looking for. “FCCAA believes in a holistic approach to helping families, so adding the FOC is just an extension of current FCCAA services,” said Rita Masi, FCCAA Director of Customer Service. “Unfortunately, Fayette County is very impoverished, so there is a definite need to provide more extensive services to families who want to break the poverty cycle.”

A LISC FOC training at FCCAA in Uniontown.
A LISC FOC training at FCCAA in Uniontown.

“The FOC model is critical in increasing workforce and economic development­, and in rural America these services catalyze economic opportunity,” said LISC Vice President and Rural LISC Director Suzanne Anarde. “FCCAA was the first rural FOC in the country and has made tremendous progress in lifting low income individuals and families out of poverty through their FOC.”

Research shows that FOC clients who take advantage of its combined services are 50 percent more likely to land a well-paying job than people receiving employment services alone. And long-term job retention—holding a job for a year or more—almost doubles when financial coaching reinforces the work of employment counseling.

“We establish goals that make a positive difference for the family."
— Rita Masi, FCCAA Director of Customer Service

Masi described how the FOC’s comprehensive approach provides a unique grounding and stabilizing factor for struggling individuals and families, integrating a variety of support services in a holistic approach, one that benefits the whole household. And outcomes, she noted, improve because families are seeing everything they are eligible for and are getting the maximum resources available to them. “Our FOC model looks to wrap financial and non-financial benefits for each family,” she said. “We establish goals that make a positive difference for the family, goals that may or may not have a monetary basis.”

An FOC counseling session in Uniontown.
An FOC counseling session in Uniontown.

To date, 40 individuals have participated in the program since its inception in 2014, with 20 having completed the program and 20 just starting. Of these, 15 have improved their credit scores, or increased savings or other assets. Approximately 19 individuals have secured full time, living wage jobs.

Rural LISC has invested substantially in FCCAA since it joined the network in 2001. Cumulatively, Rural LISC has invested more than $4 million in grants, repayable investments and low-cost loan funds. This investment has leveraged more than $60 million, resulting in 314 affordable homes and 102,000 square feet of commercial and community space; and assisting 39 businesses and creating or retaining 321 jobs. This investment has been essential in supporting FCCAA.

“Workforce development is vital to rural America,” Anarde said. “I am proud of FCCAA and our support of their rural FOC, but more investment is required to truly bring the FOC to scale in rural America.”

Growing the FOC Model in Rural America

Following its successful rural seed-implementation in Uniontown, a generous grant from Capital One Bank in 2017 is enabling Rural LISC to expand the rural FOC model in Appalachia. 

Rural LISC, in collaboration with Capital One and longtime partner Fahe, has been working to develop and implement a “mobile FOC,” which will be based at a community organization in a specific location but have the ability to travel throughout a large service area.  

Fahe works with a network of more than 50 locally-based nonprofit member organizations in six Appalachian states, employing a unique collaborative model that connects local, regional and national leaders working together to uplift rural communities.

“Having a mobile component operated by a community-based partner is critical in making this model work for rural service areas.”
— Suzanne Anarde, LISC Vice President and Rural LISC Director

Capital One was an early funder of the FOC pilot program as part of its wide-ranging support of Rural LISC efforts to address persistent rural poverty.  “Capital One grants have supported FOC pilot-program planning and funding of implementation sites, said Lydia Jackson, CRA Business Development Officer at Capital One. “We are proud to play a key role in establishing mobile centers that deliver critical employment, income-support and financial services to residents of rural areas.”

“Having a mobile component operated by a community-based partner is critical in making this model work for rural service areas,” Anarde said. “With Capital One’s support, we are developing a model that will hopefully expand to other regions in the near future. The mobile FOC will be crucial in our workforce development efforts, and a vital component in helping build strong rural communities.”

Visit the Fayette County Community Action Agency website.

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