How programs to help the poor can harm upward mobility – Sutherland Institute

How programs to help the poor can harm upward mobility – Sutherland Institute

Georgia news, in the news, current events, Georgia happenings, GA happenings

How programs to help the poor can harm upward mobility – Sutherland Institute

Imagine you’re offered a raise that, if accepted, would actually make your family worse off.

This is the experience of some families in poverty when they hit something called the benefits cliff. This “cliff effect” is triggered when a family’s increase in earned income prompts a disproportionately larger decrease in the benefits they receive through federally funded public assistance programs.

This week’s guest is Kelsey Underwood, vice president of strategy and product for the Georgia Center for Opportunity. She joins the show to discuss how the benefits cliff can disincentivize work, negatively impacting families struggling to escape poverty. She also touches on GCO’s efforts in various states to clear obstacles to upward mobility for impoverished Americans. The discussion centers around the dignity of work that fosters upward mobility and identifies resources available to policymakers and business leaders to help address the issue.

Are Work Requirements Good or Bad?

Are Work Requirements Good or Bad?

Man sitting with his hands folded

Are Work Requirements Good or Bad?

Key Points

  • The arguments around work requirements ignore the purpose of how our safety net services should work.
  • The public, in general, agree with the argument for work requirements because they see the system as a temporary solution.
  • We must reform the system so that we move people into opportunity and thriving.

As the federal government debates the debt ceiling and attempts to bring spending under control, one recurring topic is work requirements for adults on government benefits and safety net services. The argument is that implementing work requirements will encourage more people to leave welfare programs, which in turn would decrease spending on one of the biggest expenses in the federal budget.

However, the debate about work requirements should not, in my opinion, be connected to fiscal accountability. Instead, it should be linked to the central purpose of these services and the people needing them.


A look at work requirements

To understand these challenges we need to look at the differing opinions on work requirements. On one side you hear the argument that not requiring work for benefits like SNAP and Medicaid is a disincentive to work for those on benefits. In other words, people are staying on benefits longer than necessary because there is no benefit to getting off, and in many cases, it is more costly to get off.

On the other side, the argument requiring work is simply a way to save money which ultimately hurts the poor. The argument is people in need of food support and healthcare will not be able to work and thus will be forced off of services without work.

Both of these arguments ignore the full experience of those on safety net services. Therefore, I want to challenge us to set aside political talking points and have a real discussion on the issue. These arguments are fraught with finger-pointing and people assigning motivations to each other. The discussion around work requirements is important because it challenges us to ask, “What is the purpose of our welfare system?”


With The Alliance for Opportunity, we are crafting policies that will create a clear path to get off safety net services and into opportunity in Georgia.

With The Alliance for Opportunity, we are crafting policies that will create a clear path to get off safety net services and into opportunity in Georgia.

Work requirements aren’t a bad idea

At the Georgia Center for Opportunity, we generally agree with the idea of work requirements, but not for the reasons political pundits throw around. We are not trying to “weed out bad actors” or trying to reduce government expenditures. Those outcomes may come to pass but they cannot and should not be the intent of such measures. 

While there is a politicized debate currently raging, the idea of requiring work to continue to receive benefits is not new. FDR’s New Deal, the framework for our current safety net system, pushed for a system that helped those unable to work like children or disabled individuals. The expansion of such a system to cover the unemployed came later in the process and was designed to be a stopgap between employment.

As the system expanded even further, it became apparent the support should include systems to get people back into work—this led to job training and education programs.

That is where we are today and ultimately how we should be looking at the safety net system for those able to work. The system must be designed to ask, “How can we help you get back on your feet and be self-sustainable?” Not because you are only valuable if you work, but because you are a valuable member of society. This view of membership is probably why work requirements are very popular among the US population. We value and understand the importance of work.

The research on the value of work is expansive. It leads to positive outcomes for families, improved personal mental health, and deeper community value. It is what we should want for people. It is what we should build our services to provide people, not a paycheck but an opportunity.

The arguments against work requirements 

The issue becomes more complex when you recognize the valid arguments against work requirements. One of these is that work requirements don’t increase work rates—they simply cut people off of needed services

The argument is that these requirements add another stress level to people just trying to survive. This creates yet another hurdle for those already struggling to navigate a complex process. The result is people find a different means to survive or they simply give up. Obviously, no one wants to add to people’s burdens.

Rather than arguing against work requirements, these challenges highlight the flaws in our current system. The system is poorly designed and does not lead to the outcomes we want for people.

Work requirements are a good policy in a bad system

Policymakers are notoriously inept when it comes to policy reforms. Half-measures have resulted in a system that is not focused on outcomes. If the system were structured to reduce complexity and alleviate stress for those seeking job support, then a work requirement could be the positive encouragement it should be.

This is one reason we are working with other state think tanks on a One Door Model that would transform our safety net services and create a clear, supportive, and accessible path to work.

These types of policies are critical to ensure that we are helping those in need. They are also critical to ensure that we deliver dignity and hope as an outcome. 

About The Author

Corey Burres

VP of Communication and Marketing

Corey Burres is the director the award-winning education documentary Flunked. He served as a consultant with many state think tanks around the country to help them utilize marketing and story telling to improve public policy. He is active in the foster care community and working to help build a better community around him.

Brockway: Utah’s ‘One Door’ Policy Shows The Way Forward On Safety-Net Reforms

Brockway: Utah’s ‘One Door’ Policy Shows The Way Forward On Safety-Net Reforms

Georgia news, in the news, current events, Georgia happenings, GA happenings

Brockway: Utah’s ‘One Door’ Policy Shows The Way Forward On Safety-Net Reforms

Below is an opinion column by Buzz Brockway:

The April unemployment report shows that job opportunities remain at historic highs across the country. In fact, the report came in better than expected at a 3.4% unemployment rate, exceeding expectations for the resilience and strength of the labor market.

In this environment, no work-capable person should be without a job. But the sad reality is that the very safety net system created to help people who are struggling is the same one contributing to keeping them mired in generational poverty. I’m talking about America’s social-safety net system.

As it stands, our nation’s welfare system is a fragmented hodgepodge of programs. The dozens of programs that make up “the system” have different and, at times, competing goals, inconsistent rules, and overlapping groups of recipients. 

The complicated nature of welfare is more than a nuisance. For recipients, it’s a detrimental barrier to advancing to a better life. The scenario in signing up for welfare benefits is confusing at best. Even if people do find the right office, they must resubmit the same information multiple times, and often eligibility is determined by conflicting rules. Would-be recipients may end up with multiple plans and multiple caseworkers.

Ultimately, every hour someone spends navigating the safety-net system is an hour they aren’t spending looking for ways to escape it.

Adding to the confusion, there is often a disconnect between safety-net programs and welfare-to-work initiatives. This keeps people stuck in poverty. The safety net is essential for catching those who are falling, but it isn’t a destination. Although this truth is often politicized and used to advance a certain agenda, the vast majority of Americans recognize that work is the best way to escape poverty. It should be our goal to remove every barrier to a life of thriving, and that includes obstacles to work.

The path into poverty is deeply individual, and so reforms are needed for a more holistic approach. Streamlining the safety-net process is mandatory to avoid conflicting rules and inconsistent treatment of people between programs. A big part of this is consolidating and combining programs that serve the same families. For individuals, this will eliminate the need to go to multiple agencies for help. It will also mean that welfare recipients will be connected straight to work programs, setting a foundation to free them from generational poverty.

Is there an example of success in this arena? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes. We should look to Utah as an example of a state in the nation that is leading the way.

Utah’s “one door” policy has integrated human services with workforce services and provides citizens with a single program to work through. Welfare becomes work support, and people have a clear path to get the help they need while receiving education, training, and other support to find employment. On the fiscal front, the state also integrates federal and state funds using a unique cost model that has proven highly effective.

Why one woman turned down a $70K job due to the benefits cliffs

Why one woman turned down a $70K job due to the benefits cliffs

Frankie and Luisa

Why one woman turned down a $70K job due to the benefits cliffs

Key Points

  • Frankie made an unexpected choice when she turned down a $70,000 a year job opportunity while living in hotel housing.
  • Oftentimes people on safety net services make rational choices to stay on these services because the system would punish them before they have a firm place to land.
  • Frankie,  in a place of crisis, was unwilling to gamble with a stable choice despite a potentially great job opportunity.
  • Our safety net services must be reworked to address these “cliffs” and rebuilt to encourage and support the move into the workforce.

The thought of someone turning down a well-paying job to stay on welfare seems absurd. But that’s the exact scenario Frankie Johnson faced. It’s a real world example of the way benefit cliffs hurt people. Thankfully, Frankie found the BETTER WORK program and is on a new path to success.


An unexpected journey in life

Frankie Johnson, a Washington, D.C. native, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood and spent time serving her community. Through her community service work, she connected with many individuals who were victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, job loss, and poverty. By the time she’d reached her teens, Frankie knew she found fulfillment in working alongside others to improve their lives. 

At age 14, Frankie became pregnant with her first child, Evelyn. She gave birth just before her 15th birthday. She went on to get an internship through Job Corps, then earn her high school diploma. After graduation, she attended California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where she planned to study photography and 3D installation. 

But leaving Evelyn in Maryland with her parents while she studied in California proved to be too difficult a separation for Frankie. She moved to New York instead, which allowed her to see her daughter more often. 

At age 18, Frankie married a member of the military who was six years her senior. His deployments and resulting war-related trauma proved to be difficult on the family and the couple’s marriage. For the next six years, they lived in Texas and the Midwest before returning to Maryland. Steadily, the situation with Frankie’s husband deteriorated. 


It’s time to stop funding poverty.

And start finding solutions.

It’s time to stop funding poverty. And start finding solutions.

High aspirations, hidden pain

Despite the trouble at home, Frankie was a high achiever, building a career in human resources and working for firms such as Monumental Sports and the Nick Cannon Foundation. She worked as a high-end event planner, where she regularly brushed elbows with celebrities and influencers. 

When the family returned to Maryland, Frankie found herself heading up events for women who were victims of domestic violence. Meanwhile, at home, she was living in an abusive environment herself. 

“At home, I never knew what was going to become of my peace or if he was going to get triggered,” Frankie says. “I was serving in the community as a social worker. I put on events for women, took them on yacht parties, and tried to boost their self-esteem. No one knew I was suffering so much.”

Finally, the situation in Frankie’s home came to a head, and she fled to Atlanta with her children. Her uncle lived in the city, and she planned to make a fresh start there. 

But that fresh start didn’t come quickly or easily. 


Seeking safety in Atlanta

Without a job or a place to live, Frankie was forced to seek out government assistance and transitional housing in Gwinnett County for her family. 

“This was my first time being on the opposite side of transitional housing and understanding what the women who would talk to me [in the past] were going through,” she says. “It was strange to see the scarce resources, and to see women locked out of their hotels because the projects or community partners ran out of funding.” 

Transitional housing in hotels and apartments can cost women $500 or more per week, and according to Frankie, the living conditions are unsafe and unsanitary. Worse, residents got a chilly reception from their case workers when they raised concerns. 

“The water makes your skin itchy, and there are roaches coming up out of the sink and the drains,” Frankie says. “We were told we needed to boil our water to use it. It comes [out of the faucets] brown, and we had brown rashes on our bodies.”

While Frankie’s family was living in transitional housing, she experienced relentless prejudice, racism, and ridicule. 

“I had people come to my hotel, and ask me if I was a prostitute because my daughter said we were living in a hotel at school,” she says. “Someone from [the Department of Family and Children Services] came to my apartment and asked if I left my children [alone] at nighttime. He asked me if I was a stripper.” 


Forced to choose between assistance and higher income

While Frankie was waiting for available childcare and a pathway to affordable housing, she was forced to turn down a job placement that would have paid $70,000 per year. While she needed employment, she also needed the support from the government program. That was her ticket to a home she could afford, but she wouldn’t qualify if she took a new job that raised her income past eligibility requirements. 

“I never thought it would come to this,” she says. “I hadn’t prepared financially; I spent through my savings because I was waiting on childcare.” 

Frankie found herself trapped on what we call the Benefits Cliff — torn between taking steps toward a more secure future, but ultimately forced into making decisions that trapped her into long-term dependence on government benefits. Individuals and families who make over a certain amount of income per year are automatically struck from the list, and are no longer qualified for affordable housing, food support, or other government assistance. 

“They want to see your pay stubs, your bank statements. They want to make sure you’re poor,” Frankie says. “If you have a car, they want to know what kind of car you’re driving and if you have insurance. They want to make sure there’s no possible way you can work a job.”

“If there are no daycare facilities within a 30-mile radius of where you place me in my hotel and I don’t have a car to take my child a city over, I’m not going to be able to get a job,” she added. “Who’s going to watch my child all day?” 

Families in these transitional programs often find themselves stuck paying high bills while they await affordable housing. Frankie was forced to pay more than $2,000 per month for the hotel she and her children stayed in. Financially, staying put made no sense, but Frankie held on in hopes that affordable housing would come through. 

Leaving transitional housing puts parents at risk of losing their children to CPS, particularly if they’re perceived as living out of their vehicle. On the other hand, getting a higher-paying job disqualifies them from further government and charitable support. 

“It’s like a loophole to keep you destitute,” Frankie says. 


Dreams for a brighter future 

After three months in transitional housing, Frankie was able to connect with BETTER WORK Gwinnett. Her case worker, Luisa, formed a close connection with her, encouraging her and checking in on her as she prepared for a fresh start. 

“We lost our jobs during the pandemic,” Frankie says, “and that was the time when we needed encouragement and to find our way again — laugh again. Ms. Lusia provided a lot of that. She called me every day just to check on me.”  

After experiencing the frustration, humiliation, and helplessness of transitional housing herself — including witnessing another mother abandon her children when her time at the hotel was up — Frankie wants to help other women in similar circumstances. She hopes to go to law school to provide legal aid to other families who have suffered at the mercy of the system. 

“We need to get them their GEDs and diplomas. Start them off as home health aides, CPAs, LPNs, RNs, physician’s assistants, or doctors,” Frankie says, “But no one’s willing to help. They just want to enable their programs to get money for housing us. After that, you’re out on the street like a dog.”  

As for Frankie, she’s working with Luisa to get back into the human resources field, and considering a move to a more affordable city in south Alabama. 

“I’m not going to sit and wait for anyone to take care of me,” she says. “For the women who don’t have options, I’m going to school to fight for them.”

Why Nonprofits Should Care and What to Do

Why Nonprofits Should Care and What to Do

Why Nonprofits Should Care and What to Do

mother and baby
Key Takeaways:
  • Welfare cliffs and marriage penalties are discouraging people from work and forming families.
  • The cliffs and penalties may mean that our clients are locked into poverty for much longer than they would be otherwise and despite our best efforts.
  • GCO has created a platform that allows anyone to see when a particular family can expect to experience benefit cliffs as they earn more money through work. 

Important Link:


If you work in a nonprofit serving the poor, you need to know that the government benefits your clients receive are likely discouraging them from working or forming a family, two things that research shows could lift them out of poverty the fastest. 

This is an especially tough problem for nonprofits, like GCO, that work to get their clients into good-paying jobs and strengthen their family relationships.

What’s going on?

These disincentives to work are often called “welfare cliffs” and the disincentives to family formation are called “marriage penalties.” Essentially, “cliffs” are generated any time a person receiving government benefits gets a raise at work that causes them to lose more in benefits than they will earn in additional income from the raise. These same individuals can face a similar financial penalty IF they decide to marry. In many cases, they will lose more in benefits than their spouse is able to provide in new income to the household.

While you would think (hope?) cliffs and penalties are rare, they are not. Instead, they are baked into the structure of nearly all welfare programs and many of the cliffs are severe. It’s also important to know that welfare recipients don’t face a single cliff or a single penalty, but they face cliffs and penalties at a number of different points as they have additional income from working or through marriage.

Why does it matter?

For nonprofit leaders, the cliffs and penalties may mean that our clients are locked into poverty for much longer than they would be otherwise and despite our best efforts. For workforce development nonprofits, cliffs could be the underlying reason why your clients don’t pick up additional work hours when they are offered or seem less than excited when they are offered a good promotion. In extreme cases, clients may quit jobs that seemed like a perfect fit simply because they panic when they learn they may lose a major benefit – like housing or childcare.

For nonprofits trying to help strengthen family relationships, marriage penalties may be driving behavior that is otherwise inexplicable, like seemingly happy couples refusing to marry or live in the same home. These dynamics can lead to stress for the couples affected and to a sense that a parent (usually the father) has abandoned the family when, if the system would allow it, he would be in the home. In these cases, children pay the biggest price.

What can you do about it?

Fortunately, we have created a platform that allows anyone to see when a particular family can expect to experience benefit cliffs as they earn more money through work. For nonprofits working with these families, you now have a tool (available for 10 states, with two more on the way) that will allow you to help your clients plan for the future. In some cases, knowing when cliffs are likely to happen will allow your clients to seek a larger raise that will help them bypass or leapfrog a cliff. In other cases, maybe the answer is seeking additional training or certifications that will get your client into a different payscale entirely – one that avoids the cliffs.

In the coming weeks, we will be adding a tool that will allow users to see the impact of penalties on couples who decide to marry. We will also be incorporating a solutions tool that will allow anyone to see how reforming our government benefit programs can actually eliminate cliffs and penalties entirely, giving recipients every reason to pursue work and form stable households.

For GCO, it is this last point – reforming the system – that remains the ultimate goal. In the meantime, we are looking for ways to mitigate the harm caused by the welfare system, so that as many people as possible can escape the system and break cycles of poverty now.

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

Could guaranteed basic income replace the welfare system? | Daily Citizen News

Could guaranteed basic income replace the welfare system? | Daily Citizen News

In The News

Could guaranteed basic income replace the welfare system? | Daily Citizen News

Georgia is the latest state to experiment with something called a “guaranteed basic income.” It will be interesting to see if these pilot projects can avoid the same pitfalls as the welfare system they’re intended to supplement — and might be better off simply replacing.

The premise of the guaranteed basic income is that there should be a minimum level of income for all Americans. Those who fall short with what they earn from their job would receive a monthly supplement funded by taxpayers…

My friends at the Georgia Center for Opportunity have done as much work on this particular topic as anyone I know. They call the traps built by our system “welfare cliffs,” because of the sudden, sharp drop people experience when they take a small financial step forward.