Which is a more effective way to lift families out of poverty in San Antonio: unconditional cash assistance, financial mentoring or a combination of both?

That’s the question a local partnership aims to answer with a first-of-its-kind study of the two different approaches to economic mobility.

At the end of the two-year study, researchers will analyze how the different initiatives impacted participants’ health, well-being and finances.

There have been separate studies done on cash assistance and financial mentoring that have proven success, but there aren’t any on both together, said Jaime Wesolowski, president and CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas.

“Our theory would be that if you did both … it would be more effective than either one by itself, but you don’t really know that for sure unless you study it,” Wesolowski said. “We also want to know, just to what degree is it better? Is it 1.1% better? Or is it 100 times better?”

The faith-based, not-for-profit organization commissioned the $7.2 million study, called the San Antonio GOALS (Generating Opportunities for Achieving Lasting Success) Initiative.

A team from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Health, Community and Policy, led by Professor Melinda Denton will conduct the survey in partnership with Family Service and Empower House, local nonprofits that provide services for people in need.

Family Service is currently accepting applications from individuals who want to participate in the study. Bexar County residents 18- to 60-year-old with a household income of 150% or less of the federal poverty level can qualify. They also must live in one of the 13 zip codes in Bexar County with the highest poverty rates.

Once chosen, 575 participants will be randomly assigned to one of four groups from September 2022 to December 2024: those who will receive $500 each month through Empower House (formerly Martinez Street Women’s Center); those who will receive financial coaching through Family Service, which will be using Economic Mobility Pathway’s Mobility Mentoring approach; those who receive both cash assistance and coaching; and those who don’t receive either.

There will be 125 people in each group, except for the control group, which will consist of 200 people, since more of this group might drop out of the study, Wesolowski said. They will be given H-E-B gift cards as an incentive to stay.

All participants will be asked to complete surveys every six months, with some asked to attend in-person interviews with researchers.

Ultimately, the study will help guide Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ funding decisions, Wesolowski said.

Methodist plans on stepping up its investments to help boost poor residents’ economic mobility, he said. “Our issue was … which one do we do?”

In the meantime, 250 residents will have a guaranteed income for two years and 125 will receive mentoring, he said. “I think there’s gonna be a great return on investment. … I hope that similar organizations [looking to] make a difference in economic mobility will learn from this throughout the United States and hopefully throughout the world.”

The study comes during the second year of another cash assistance program in San Antonio, launched by UpTogether, a national nonprofit focused on anti-poverty efforts, and also funded in part by Methodist Healthcare Ministries.

In that pilot, participants received an initial cash investment of $1,908 in December 2020 and will receive eight quarterly payments of $400 through January 2023. UTSA is also slated to analyze this program, although a preliminary review indicates the payments aren’t large or frequent enough.

Both initiatives speak to the expanding strategy of Methodist Health Ministries to disrupt generational poverty — to not only address downstream health care issues that low-income families face, but also, Wesolowski said, the upstream “systemic and root causes of inequity.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...