Project Profile

Enhanced Family Self Sufficiency Program

Bangor, ME

Enhanced Family Self Sufficiency Program

June 9, 2019

Bangor, ME

With Bangor Housing, the John T. Gorman Foundation helped supplement and strengthen a 30-year-old initiative for building family self-sufficiency—after promising results, it’s now being replicated in other communities across the state

HUD Program offers a novel approach to helping families overcome the “benefits cliff”—but challenges hamper its effectiveness in Maine

The path out of poverty is steep, circuitous, and whipped by a constant headwind. On it, increased effort does not always yield an equal measure of progress, and unseen pitfalls can wipe out these gains altogether. For even the most committed and persistent, it is a daunting journey.

One of the most common challenges that keeps poor families from getting ahead is the “benefits cliff”—a challenge that families face when increased earnings trigger decreased eligibility for public assistance. So as parents work more or take better-paying jobs, their financial gains can be offset, partially or entirely, by declines in the benefits they use to cover the essential needs of their families.

The benefits cliff creates several hurdles for families trying to improve their financial situation. For one, it acts as a deterrent to participating more fully in the workforce by creating a situation where the costs of doing so outweigh the rewards. It can also prevent these families from setting aside savings, leaving them vulnerable to any number of unforeseen financial emergencies.

Since 1990, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program has aimed to help families over some of these hurdles—by both softening the impact of the benefits cliff and helping them build assets.

Working with local public housing authorities, FSS participants who receive HUD housing assistance get support in developing and working toward a set of financial and career goals. As they enter the workforce or leverage training to earn more money, their rents increase with their income. However, under the FSS program, the additional money they pay for housing goes into an interest-earning escrow account, which they can access if they accomplish their goals within a set amount of time.

With the financial incentives and counseling it offers, the FSS program has shown success in increasing participation in the workforce, growing family income, and building savings to weather financial storms. But these results are only seen when there’s a level of outreach, programming, and staffing that can be difficult for participating housing authorities. Organizations serving relatively small populations—including those in Maine—only receive a limited amount of HUD funding to administer the FSS program. Typically, it is not enough to provide the dedicated staffing needed to make the program truly successful.

Filling in the gaps of the traditional Family Self Sufficiency program

Seeing the potential the FSS program could have in Maine if those challenges could be overcome, the John T. Gorman Foundation approached Bangor Housing about the possibility of creating an enhanced model. The Foundation provided funding for Bangor Housing to work with the Institute for Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University to conduct a needs survey of its clients and shape an FSS program that could help them meet their goals.

The Foundation then provided a three-year grant to Bangor Housing to support the program, which enhanced the traditional model in key ways:

  • Having dedicated outreach staff and strategies to spur recruitment
  • Supporting intensive case management services to help participants overcome barriers to their goals
  • Developing a robust network of partner organizations to meet needs in financial management, career counseling, education, coaching and other areas
  • Setting aside funds to help participants with unexpected emergencies and costs related to their career and training goals, as well as incentive payments for moving toward full-time work or completing education and training objectives
  • Completing extensive tracking of economic stability outcomes, including income, credit scores, debt load, and savings

Foundation funding allowed Bangor Housing to hire additional staffing to run the program, as well as to establish the incentive/emergency fund.

Promising outcomes show an approach worth replicating

IASP recently completed a multi-year evaluation of the program, with very promising outcomes. For participants who have been in the program for at least two years:

  • The average increase in monthly income was $1,156, or $13,872 per year
  • The average debt reduction per family was $8,100
  • Credit scores rose by 60 points on average
  • The total savings for all of these families combined is now $73,571

To date, Bangor Housing has 125 families participating, well exceeding their target of 60. Importantly, with so many participants, Bangor Housing has now met the threshold to receive enough funding from HUD to pay for a full-time coordinator for the program.

Building on these impressive outcomes, the Foundation is now working to replicate the enhanced FSS model in other communities. With Foundation funding, Bangor Housing and IASP are currently providing enhanced FSS technical assistance to housing authorities in Portland, Brewer, and Old Town.  A report was also published with lessons learned from the program in Bangor with the hopes that it will be a useful resource to other organizations looking to start similar initiatives.

The Foundation is very proud of this partnership, which is being recognized as a model nationally. Its success has also driven policy changes needed to help housing authorities bring the FSS program to more of their clients, thanks to the work of Maine Senator Susan Collins.

The road out of poverty will always be difficult, but this model shows that we can make it easier and more straightforward for hard-working families to travel.

Related Partners


  • To date (June 2019), 221 families have participated–159 are currently enrolled and 62 have exited or completed the program
  • After three years in the program, families have seen an increase in annual income of over $14,000.
  • Average escrow balance among participants is $2,038
  • Aggregate savings for participating families is now $171,523
  • Although tenants can participate in FSS for up to five years, 20 participants have already graduated. On average, the monthly incomes for graduated rose from $749 to $3,047 over the course of the program. During that time, those 20 graduates collectively saved $51,826; the saving helped six purchase homes upon program completion.
  • Bangor Housing’s enhanced FSS programming has now met participation thresholds to receive HUD funding for some of its staffing.

Relevant Strategies

Relevant Populations

  • Families
  • Young Children

Locations by County

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