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93: Pathway of Hope: The key components of psychological self-sufficiency with Dr. Philip Hong

This season, we’re studying up on The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope—a national initiative to provide individualized services to families with children, addressing their immediate material needs and providing long-term engagement to stop the cycle of poverty.

Last week, we discovered the one question that kicked off this initiative and how Pathway of Hope came to be.

In the roughly 10 years since, The Salvation Army has carefully cultivated the ins and outs of the effort.

For those who provide social services, one of the biggest benchmarks or ways to demonstrate success is the measure of one’s self-sufficiency. But what is self-sufficiency, really? And how do you measure it?

As it turns out, it’s not only about economics—in fact, Psychological Self-Sufficiency and its components are key in reaching one’s goals.

And one of those components, hope, is a driver, an anchor to be cultivated along the journey.

Dr. Philip Hong is the Founding Director of the Center for Research on Self-Sufficiency (CROSS) at Loyola University Chicago. That’s in addition to his roles as a professor, Associate Dean for Research and Director of the Doctoral Program.

With CROSS, he’s been involved in studies of the Pathway of Hope as the center’s research focuses on the psychological empowerment process.

As he’ll tell you, hope is psychological capital—a character trait that reflects the inner strength necessary to overcome barriers.

He’s here to share more about his research on self-sufficiency and what he observed and learned through the Pathway of Hope.

Show highlights include:

  • More about the Center for Research on Self-Sufficiency (CROSS) and what Dr. Philip Hong does there.
  • The uncontested programmatic goal of self-sufficiency and a lack of agreement on what the term means even as it’s top priority for benchmarking and demonstrating success.
  • What self-sufficiency is and how it is measured.
  • How self-sufficiency differs from self-reliance, self-support or independence.
  • What happens when we focus only on the economic outcome.
  • The psychological variables that affect economic self-sufficiency.
  • Self-sufficiency as a process versus an outcome and what stands in the way of it.
  • More about Dr. Hong’s participation in the Pathway of Hope.
  • Why hope is an important measure.
  • What Dr. Hong has seen in the data on increasing hope and self-sufficiency in Pathway of Hope.
  • How readiness to change is associated with goal setting and goal achievement.
  • Why the Pathway of Hope approach to working with families with a desire to take action is key?
  • How to best motivate someone working toward self-sufficiency.
  • The effect of widespread traumas, for instance a global pandemic.
  • Dr. Hong’s hopes for the Pathway of Hope program.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Christin Thieme: Dr. Hong, welcome to the Do Gooders Podcast, and thank you for being here with us today.

Dr. Philip Hong: Thank you for having me.

Christin Thieme: Can you share more about the Center for Research on Self-Sufficiency and what you do there?

Dr. Philip Hong: Yes, I’m the director of the Center for Research on Self-Sufficiency, and we call it the CROSS Center. And CROSS was established about five years ago with our focus on a process element of self-sufficiency that is more human-centric, more about the true journey that everyone’s on to reach their success goals as they would define the success, but also to have the process owned by themselves. So, it’s more like a true self-sufficiency process because you own that process rather than being on your own to reach the outcome that’s imposed upon you because you happen to be in a certain situation. So, rather than that, it’s more coming from who you are, where you are in life to reach the goal at your pace and on your terms. We are really trying to tell that story through CROSS.

Christin Thieme: So, what does an average day look like for you?

Dr. Philip Hong: The average day is a series of meetings. But I would start out reflecting on my own purpose, and why I would sit in this role as the director of CROSS to be doing this work to begin with. That is really to debunk the myth of our members of our community who happen to be in certain situations that they would need help from somebody to reach their goals, and to paint the picture of them being really very precious and very honorable, respectable individuals and families.

I would just paint the picture of them, or us together. It’s not them versus us. It’s more we as together as one brother and sister community society. That’s what my day would look like to reflect on that first and say, then what are things that I need to be doing with some of these meetings. And going out in the community, doing research with the data, focus group interviews of that sort. To be somewhat academic, but also being connected in the community.

But also I’m a faculty member in the School of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago. So, I teach and do service work through committees at the university level. So, those are things that I do. What I love doing of all those are to be connected in the community, listening to our participants in programs who really thrive in the way that they most care about, especially their own families and the people that they most want to be with and be there for. Those are the things that really inspire me to go at it every day.

Christin Thieme: And you wrote now, it’s been almost 10 years ago, in a piece on the research on social work practice about this goal of self-sufficiency. You guys wrote that it’s one of the biggest dilemmas in social services, and said that it was because there’s a lack of agreement on what the term means. And yet, it’s also a priority for demonstrating success in social work. So, can you help us understand what is self-sufficiency? How do you measure it?

Dr. Philip Hong: Yes. In a series of papers that came from came out of that paper, we have tried to unpack what self-sufficiency means. Not from the literature, not from the policies and programs, because there are definitions out there, but one definition coming from the community, from participants themselves. How would we define self-sufficiency from the perspective of participants in programs? Are they different than what is to be expected?

Typically, we understand self-sufficiency could mean economic self-sufficiency. Those are more outcome-driven where we want to leave welfare or public benefits with jobs that are going to be able to pay…that’s going to pay us to be able to afford all the bills, rents and all the things and necessities in life without getting help from government, families, or even churches.

So, those are typical definitions that exist of self-sufficiency, truly being independent from any help out there. But in true sense, whose really self-sufficient was the question at hand when we were trying to jump into that exploration of what self-sufficiency would mean in the community. Not the program administrators or policymakers, but those were in the programs, are they even aligned with this mission of getting people off welfare to get them jobs earning enough to pay their bills and rent, or do they have a different trajectory in mind when they’re participating in the program?

So, what we learned was that it’s a process, not an outcome. Often we would think that it’s an outcome. Like you leave welfare, get a job, stay in those jobs for one year. Could be a one-year job retention outcome that defines economic self-sufficiency, or earning enough. Some would argue that it’s 200% of poverty line, that if you earn that above that, then you’re self-sufficient. But psychological self-sufficiency is one that’s defined by the community, that it is a process of moving from barriers to hope.

And how do you switch the barriers that you might be encountering in life? And also, especially if you’re committed to a goal that you want to achieve, there will be more barriers. Because the greater the commitment, there will be more barriers to achieve that goal. Then with the barriers, how do you stay not stuck in those barriers, but to be able to move forward with hope, very concrete goal-oriented steps that you would commit to, to reach the goals.

And that process, switching from the barriers to hope, that would make up the psychological self-sufficiency process to lead to economic self-sufficiency, employment retention, and so forth of forward progress and upward mobility. That’s how we understood the theory of psychological self-efficiency from all the interviews and focus groups and surveys that we conducted in the community.

Christin Thieme: So, you mentioned hope. What are the psychological variables that affect someone’s overall self-sufficiency?

Dr. Philip Hong: Yes, there are quite many that we’ve investigated. But first of all, to talk about hope that we measured from the focus groups and interviews had four different components. Originally there may have been six, but then we combined, collapsed some of those categories into four. The first is psychological empowerment. It’s about self-worth and feeling capable as being able to achieve the goal. And that’s really important, the psychological empowerment piece.

The second component of hope that we looked at is the futuristic self-motivation. And that is to say, I can see the future, I’ll be on a future orientation, and I want to motivate myself to move forward to reach the goal. That piece is also important as part of the hope that we look at. And we called it employment hope because we were looking at it in the context of employment.

And the third component is being aware and utilizing the skills and resources. And that’s really important because often we see skills as those that are required by employers to get a job, and also resources needed to get those jobs by being connected to community resources or other things that we would need in terms of training and others to be able to reach that job employment outcome. But resources may exist inside, outside, in their family network and friendship network, and the community resources might be there. So, all those things are things that would make it unique. The person you are, the most precious and honorable and respectable person you are, those are all skills and resources that we need to capitalize on.

The fourth and last piece of hope that we looked at was goal orientation. Are you on the path? Are you in the process of moving towards your goal? Are you standing still, or are you moving forward? That’s really the question. And are you moving toward the goal that you’re trying to achieve? So, those four components, psychological empowerment, futuristic self-motivation, skills and resources, and goal orientation are the four pillars, I would say, that make up the hope that we are talking about.

There are many things to your question that contribute to this hope. Of course, the barriers would limit it to hope. So, that’s a piece that we call it perceived barriers. Those are barriers not necessarily marking do you have this or not, but you see these as barriers? Sometimes you have barriers that you may not consider them as barriers. So, how you perceive them is really important. So, to your question, that is a psychological piece that’s part of the psychological self-sufficiency theory that would have an impact on hope to reach the economic success.

Other pieces that we’ve looked at were self-efficacy and self-esteem. You might say that those might be precursors to hope or precursors to psychological self-sufficiency. And of course, some other psychological elements that might be affected by psychological self-sufficiency are grit, resilience, and executive functioning. So, your decision-making is going to be enhanced, your resilience is also going to be enhanced, and your grit level is going to enhance as a result of you practicing the switching from barriers to hope. So, that would lead to those three, we would call psychological capital, that would then lead to economic self-sufficiency.

Also things that we have looked at were humility, forgiveness, and gratitude are the psychological variables that would also affect psychological self-sufficiency. So, the greater the forgiveness level, the tendency to forgive, would a greater bearing on your PSS, or you would call… that would have an impact on both your barriers and hope, particularly hope. And also your gratitude level or your tendency to be grateful is going to have a stronger effect on your barriers and hope. And also, humility would have…

How authentic and genuine can you be in this journey as you’re moving into what we call the process, the PSS process? It’s really important. It’s not just like cognitively I’m going to switch the barriers to hope and that results in these behaviors. It’s really almost a spiritual journey for a lot of people in being authentic and genuine.

And the last piece that I can, from our papers that we’ve published, is spirituality. Really has a strong effect on hope and also the barriers. We call both of them a PSS process. The spirituality is defined in these papers as your relationship with a higher power to make it just open to any other types of spirituality. But particularly in the Christian tradition, we’ve interviewed and surveyed.

And many of them who were of Christian faith saw that relationship with God, the walking the walk, and living by the word, and engaging in prayers, and they’re being in a spiritual journey would help increase the hope level, decrease the perceived barriers. Even though the barriers are structural barriers or even individual barriers that they might be facing, it would decrease the barriers to then would help lead to economic self-sufficiency in one of the papers that we’ve published. So those are things that give us the broad stroke of psychological variables that come before the PSS, and those that might come after the PSS as resulting enhanced psychological capital to lead to economic self-sufficiency.

Christin Thieme: All part of that process, like you mentioned.

Dr. Philip Hong: Yes.

Christin Thieme: So, I know you’ve been involved in evaluating The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope program. Can you share a little bit more about your participation and what you’ve done with it?

Dr. Philip Hong: Yes. So, we’ve done a series of evaluations. I guess there were two rounds with the central territory in the past. And the original one was to use the data that was in the Bowman system to look at readiness to change and self-sufficiency matrix. And there was a Herth hope scale that the Pathway of Hope was using. And then also the Pathway of Hope uses the barrier scale that we developed at CROSS.

So, we put all those two together. So, with the barrier scale and the Herth hope scale, we’ve combined them to look at the PSS component. It’s not exactly the same measure, but it’s close enough that we were able to use those two as the PSS components. And then readiness to change was used to see whether that has an effect on the PSS processes, particularly focusing on hope, and then how that would lead to the self-sufficiency matrix outcome.

So, we found the same theory of change being validated through the Pathway of Hope as the research started out separately. But there was convergence and findings with the Pathway of Hope actually enhancing the PSS process through its structure that it has with pastoral support, the regional coordinator supporting the case managers. So, those components are all critical. And what we were finding through the survey that we conducted with the PSS survey that we did, also focus groups of the Pathway of Hope staff and participants, we were able to learn that the relational component is really critical through the pastoral care that would help the case managers to be empowered to continue to bring through their relationship with clients and the families what the case manager was asked to give as part of the program.

But it’s just more than just giving case management. It’s very much relational. It’s almost where there is a strong compassion and the love that is being provided. What we found was that this love and the relational care is not… It is Pathway of Hope, but Pathway of Hope was helping Salvation Army live out its mission in an era when a lot of social services is being counted by these outcomes. So, going back to its core mission of care and compassion that Salvation Army stands for, and in the love of God. I mean, through its faith-based approach, not imposing its faith, but living out the faith through love and compassion in these relational care provision through the case managers has been… And of course, the referrals and other collaboration happens, but it’s really about relationship with case manager was critical.

And it’s authentic and genuine relationship is key, but that is empowered by the pastoral care, and also by the regional coordinator coming in to support. Not just with resources, not with just coordination with other case managers or other programs in the region, I mean Pathway of Hope in the region, but it’s really about ensuring that there is mission alignment.

There is a system level care that’s being provided by the regional coordinator. And also the pastoral care being provided by the team that’s providing spiritual and pastoral support. It’s critical to that case manager maintaining, not running out of gas, and being able to continue that relational care of the clients and families.

Christin Thieme: So, in this program and just in general on the path toward self-sufficiency, why is hope such a key ingredient and an important thing to measure?

Dr. Philip Hong: It is critical. I would say hope is the driver that would lead to goals, goal attainment. But it’s also critically connected to one being, one’s spiritual wellbeing, and one that is representing the existential meaning of why I would go toward my goal. And also the reason why I am to be doing this, not just for my own self and my own being, but the meaning comes from my relationship. The reason why I want to show my children that mommy can come stand back up and be in charge and be in support of our family, be responsible, be a caring and loving mom and the leader of the family, all back up again. There’s a lot of healing that happens in the Pathway of Hope through the journey. It’s a journey.

So, that’s why I hope it’s important. It’s not just whether you have hope or not type of hope, but it’s the hope that gets cultivated through the journey. It might be up and down along the way. But you’re never out of hope. You’re never lost or you’re completely empty of hope because you’re alive. You stayed alive. You stayed strong without giving up. So, you start with some level of hope.

But with resources, with goal attainment along the way, small step goals, large goals, those all get measured in Pathway of Hope. They all have a feedback loop coming back to increase your hope along the way. So, now the meaning-making happens where you can say it matters to hold on to hope. It matters that I hope that I can now… And it’s also contagious to people around me that my hope is no longer my hope. It’s hope for the family. It’s hope for the community. And it’s hope for me moving forward to show my employers and even Pathway of Hope staff that what you instilled in me didn’t go to waste. It’s now in me, and now I’m showcasing it through my performance and my whatever I was able to achieve. But now it’s contagious to other people around me now.

So, we’re paying forward our service to the community through Pathway of Hope where hope gets instilled through the process, cultivated, and then grows to where it becomes a tool to serve others as the beacon of hope ourselves, and we can be agents of change for other families. So, Pathway of Hope impact is no longer this one person, one family that we serve and counting those numbers together in aggregate, but it is one where those people that have been served then go on to serve others. It’s kind of a pay forward model of how we would go provide love and compassion to our community.

Christin Thieme: Yeah, it’s really inspiring when you think about it that way. You mentioned a couple of the measurement tools that you looked at in your research with the Pathway of Hope. Does hope increase over time during participation in this program?

Dr. Philip Hong: Yes, it does. As from what we were able to find through the Herth hope scale, we found hope scale score continued to increase. And that has bearing on other outcome level variables, especially the self-sufficiency matrix increasing along the way parallel to that increase in hope.

Christin Thieme: One of the pieces of the approach is that families must have a desire to take action. So, why do you think that is a key part of it and as part of this human-centered approach toward building hope?

Dr. Philip Hong: A family’s desire to take action is really critical because hope in a vacuum is just… it could just end up being wishful thinking hope where we were just feeling good about it, and it could just disappear or evaporate. When you take action towards the goal, it’s actually what we call it CROSS, we call that hope action. So, it’s not action and hope separate, but the action that really comes from or stems from the hope that you have, and now it’s being delivered in the most concrete way that you can most best manage. So, those actions are not actions that you’re suddenly taking, but it is connected, and it’s rooted in the hope that’s been increasing over time in Pathway of Hope. So, the actions come as a natural kind of a course to lead to your goal attainment. So, that’s why it’s really important.

And going from hope to action is almost like an iterative process. It’s not where one happens and the next happens, and then you go linearly to the goal. But it’s constantly going back to your hope as your anchor and to keep moving forward with these actions, which allows you to come back and check back in with hope to keep moving forward with your actions, and adjusting your actions, even, to reach the goal. In that regard, it’s human-centered because… And the most recent work of human-centered design, or design thinking, stem from empathy. Empathy is where everything begins for any type of social innovation. And when you go back to hope as your anchor, that is empathy with yourself, and that is empathy as you’re connecting with your own goals. So, it’s really using that as an anchor is truly the human-centered approach.

Christin Thieme: I love that. So, lastly, you mentioned that you had learned about this relational component being critical as part of the Pathway of Hope, but could you just share a little bit about what were some of your takeaways from looking at the program and maybe any hopes that you would have for it in the future?

Dr. Philip Hong: Yes. As we’re trying to expand the program nationally, and possibly to other parts of the world, a lot of it is this localized, experience-based… Because a lot of the Pathway of Hope case managers are removed from the families that they serve by maybe a few years, or maybe a few more experiences, or maybe a few more educational attainment. And they know what it’s like to have been living in those situations of vulnerability and not having the economic resources.

So, in that regard, keeping those very… It’s relational, but it’s really connecting because there is this empathy with the families. And those pieces have to be saved, and I would say even savored, in moving to the larger expansion and scaling up of the program. And when you do try to do it at the national level beyond the localized kind of the community level innovations, I would say, sometimes the program can get regimented to say, you ought to do this or this or that by the design of the curriculum, or some of the instructions that are given for case managers.

So, I would say, bringing in that true self of who the staff are, the pastoral care regional coordinator and the managers, the case managers, would be really critical. And even to bring in their own vulnerabilities into it as if we’re not elitist in saying that you ought to do X, Y, and Z to reach your goal out of poverty, or out of any vulnerabilities or any type of tough situation, and here’s a formula for how you would get out, is not the takeaway. It is really Pathway of Hope is a vehicle and a tool for engaging… While it could be national, it could be global, but keeping that localized innovations in the hands of the case managers in their authentic relationship with their clients and families is really what it could be and what it could be amazing for the entire nation.

So, I would say keep those things as they may be somewhat idiosyncratic, but truly in the hearts of people who want to serve, because they truly care about clients and families. And that’s the only way that those connections as relationships happen in a trusting way that people will be invested in the care, not only providing, but receiving and building that relationship to where that you will have measurable outcomes. So, those are some of the takeaways.

I would say also, don’t overlook the barriers that one would face as a negative thing. Because in the PSS theory that we are looking at CROSS, it’s not just the hope. Hope is a driver, but it could be amplified if you were to use the barriers as a dynamic force to move the hope forward.

The barriers in the beginning might be the negative forces that might keep your hope from materializing. At the same time later, that same barrier can actually provide a positive energy because now I’m able to conquer my barriers. I’m able to overcome. I know I’m aware, and I know I can have action plans to overcome these barriers. So, those things actually come into play as positive reinforcer to have hope be stronger in reaching those goals. So, I would suggest maybe through our research that that barrier can be looked at more closely, and that could be integrated more intentionally into Pathway of Hope for nationally.

Christin Thieme: That’s also fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing today, Dr. Hong, and thank you for the work that you have been doing and are doing and helping The Salvation Army to continue to drive this hope forward, so thank you.

Dr. Philip Hong: Thank you very much. And all the best wishes and prayers to everyone doing this wonderful work at The Salvation Army. Thank you so much.

Did you catch that? When we have hope—that positive psychological capital as Dr. Hong called it—we have the inner strength necessary to overcome barriers.

Our actions stem from hope. And the relational component is critical.

Next week, we’ll hear from one woman who can share firsthand what it takes to overcome. Quick spoiler: She went from POH participant to this year, a commissioned officer, or pastor in The Salvation Army. And her testimony is full of tiny and monumental miracles.

Until then, keep on doing good.

Additional resources:

  • Subscribe and listen in this season to the Do Gooders Podcast with episodes 88-94 focused on exploring the Pathway of Hope.
  • You’ve probably seen the red kettles and thrift stores, and while we’re rightfully well known for both…The Salvation Army is so much more than red kettles and thrift stores. So who are we? What do we do? Where? Right this way for Salvation Army 101.
  • Are you best suited to join the Fight for Good in disaster relief? Mental health? Social justice? Take our What’s Your Cause quiz and discover where you can make the biggest impact today.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now.

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