06/03/2014 03:22 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2014

Guiding Lower-Income Families Along the Path to Financial Stability

Nearly one million, or close to one in three, Houston families live under the federal poverty level, according to a 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In many of these families at least one parent is working fulltime. The working poor, as they're called, live on the financial edge -- just one doctor's visit or major car repair away from a financial crisis.

United Way of Greater Houston recognizes financial stability has an impact on nearly all social issues, including education, health and community wellbeing. In 2008, we launched an initiative called United Way THRIVE to help hardworking, lower-income families gain financial stability. Led by United Way, THRIVE is a collaborative of 21 nonprofit partners, community colleges and financial institutions that provide services focused on THRIVE's three key strategies: increasing income, building savings and acquiring assets.

United Way THRIVE served 21,000 families during its first year. Since then, the number of families touched by THRIVE has grown each year, with 52,000 families served in 2013. We know many more families need a hand up, so we anticipate those numbers will only continue to increase, especially as we expand THRIVE's scope and reach.

Now in its sixth year, United Way THRIVE has taught us several things that will help us grow the program and, hopefully, inspire similar efforts in other communities. First, we know that when families meet with a THRIVE counselor, they want assistance with finding a good job with good wages, an important step toward improving their lives. But the key is to keep them engaged in developing critical money management skills after they secure that better paying job. Families that continue to educate themselves on eliminating debt and establishing savings achieved greater outcomes than those who do not.

In addition to providing job assistance and job training services, United Way THRIVE provides financial education and coaching to teach clients how to budget their money, open a savings account and take advantage of a match-savings program. Studies show strengthening financial habits leads to reduced debt, improved credit, increased savings and, ultimately, attainment of assets such as buying a house or starting a business.

This holistic approach has made a huge difference in families' lives, giving them hope in a better future. Over a 16-month period, the average THRIVE families' net worth grows by $6,200, creating a path for financial stability and a more stable future. THRIVE also has made a positive impact on the community, achieving a 10:1 return on investment.

We made a bold move when we created United Way THRIVE six years ago. Our goal is to make a lasting impact on the lives of 100,000 hardworking, lower-income families by 2020. We plan to do this by deepening our collaborations to find the most efficient, effective ways to move families from crisis to stability. For example, the United Way of Greater Houston is providing leadership and resources to a task force led by the Greater Houston Partnership. The task force's mission is to create a pipeline of skilled workers to meet the growing demand for middle skilled jobs in our region.

During the next 10 years, we expect to do many great things for Houston's lower-income families. I encourage you to consider a United Way THRIVE model for your own community as I am sure that many families across the country are eager to start the path to financial stability. It doesn't happen overnight, and it certainly can't be done alone. Our five-year results show that taking the time to gain the community's trust and establish a network of community partners can make a lasting difference.