Chattanooga shut out of pilot welfare reform grants

State awards $25 million pilot grants for innovative approaches to aid recipients

Chattanooga may pride itself on its many public-private partnerships formed to address local needs and development, but the city is being shut out of $175 million being awarded across the state to public-private groups picked for innovative pilot projects to help more Tennesseans get out of poverty.

Among 17 competing proposals reviewed by the Families First Community Advisory Board, seven will be awarded $25 million grants each for their projects.

Public and private coalitions created by the city of Chattanooga for better job training and by the nonprofit First Things First for better connections and support for recipients were not awarded any of the extra welfare money that Tennessee has built up over the years, funds being distributed over the next three years through the Tennessee Opportunity Pilot Initiative.

The Chattanooga proposals, which previously gained some state aid for planning and development, ultimately lost in the East Tennessee district to a coalition created by the United Way of Knoxville and the First Tennessee Development District Foundation in Northeast Tennessee.

An advisory board comprised of state officials, relief program experts and former welfare recipients picked the winning projects in each of the state's three grand divisions after reviewing both written proposals and in-person pitches made during a kind of Shark Tank for anti-poverty ideas last month.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced the grant recipients at the state Capitol on Thursday. Lee said he was pleased with the innovative approaches the pilot programs will test out to support families and help welfare recipients find training, jobs and other needed assistance.

"We should create an environment where Tennesseans can thrive, and that includes every single Tennessean," Lee said.

Tennessee Senate Speaker Pro Temp Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, one of the architects of the grant program, said he hopes the ideas being tested out will aid more Tennesseans to break the cycle of poverty and ultimately reduce the welfare rolls.

Watson was a board member who watched the selection process but had no vote over which agencies were picked. Although Watson said he was disappointed that no Chattanooga project was chosen, he said the review process was fair and designed to help ensure greater success in getting more people to become self-sufficient.

"This is a very innovative and private-sector way to address this need, almost like how startup ventures must pitch their ideas to prospective investors and prove that their ideas work," Watson said.

As part of the program, the pilot projects will be subject to a random, peer-reviewed analysis to determine what impact they are having against a controlled sample of similar individuals.

The winning proposals were selected from 17 study projects that previously got limited funding for planning and development by the state after being selected from among over 80 initial funding requests.

Chattanooga created a training coalition of nearly a dozen area agencies to help provide a stipend, child care and other support while participants train for high-demand jobs in growing industries. The idea is part of Mayor Tim Kelly's One Chattanooga project to help broaden Chattanooga's economic gains for all people and bridge more of the racial, class and income differences in the city.

For its part, First Things First offered a digital platform known as the Thread to help welare recipients more easily connect with local services, training and other programs that can aid such individuals to find better jobs or cope with their social needs in a quicker, more effective manner. By using their smartphones, which studies show 97% of those in poverty have, the Thread provides scheduling, reminders and counselors for each participant to meet their individual needs and to encourage them to find ways to get out of poverty.

Although the city's collaborative wasn't chosen for state funding, officials are using a similar training approach for the Google IT training course at the city Youth and Family Development Center, which includes training backed with student stipends, child care and other assistance for the in-demand jobs.

"We did not get the ... grant but we are actively in conversations with the U.S. Department of Labor and other organizations to ensure that the incredible work and partnerships created during this process will not go to waste," said Ellis Smith, a senior policy adviser to Kelly. "This is a strategy to which we are committed."

The chosen projects should begin to receive funding by this fall, and their future funding will ultimately be determined by the outcomes of their projects. Successful projects may be replicated across the state, Watson said.

Clarence Carter, the commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, said the unique pilot program takes "a comprehensive approach to serving those who are the most economically vulnerable, in a truly transformative way" that is different than any other U.S. state.

"Through this collaboration of multi-disciplinary partners dedicated to engaging all sectors of the state, these pilots offer an opportunity for innovation and best practices to match the needs of low-income families in their journey forward," Carter said in an announcement of the grants.

The lead organizations for the seven collaborative groups that were selected include:

- First Tennessee Development District Foundation in Northeast Tennessee.

- United Way of Greater Knoxville.

- Martha O'Bryan Center serving Middle Tennessee.

- Upper Cumberland Human Resources Agency for Middle Tennessee.

- Family & Children's Service for Middle Tennessee.

- Families Matter for West Tennessee.

- The University of Memphis for West Tennessee.

Carter said with pilots spanning all three of Tennessee's grand divisions, in both rural and urban areas, "these public-private groups are positioned to identify and address the unique needs of the families living in their areas."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.