Knowledge is Power
While in the long run, it might make financial sense for participants in public assistance programs to pursue steadier, higher income jobs, in the short term, many lose big. Panelists noted that key coaching, financial planning resources and information sharing were essential to helping people make better choices in the long run. Kershaw said: “[Participants] are actually making pretty good economic decisions to park themselves at a place that maximizes income for their family. It doesn’t get them economic stability in the long run, but it does maximize for right now”.
At its core, explained Altig, this is a tax problem. He shared the case of “Leia”, a movie theater concessions worker who refused overtime as well as a move to an “opportunity occupation”, that is, a job that pays higher than the median wage locally and does not require a four-year bachelor’s degree (Altig gave the example of a registered nurse). If Leia accepted overtime or took a job as a certified nursing assistant on track to become an RN, she stood to lose benefits and income in the short term. In this case, Altig explained, marginal tax rates are key, and these, he explained, are not just the taxes people pay to the government, but what the government takes away from people that it was previously giving. Altig shared his office’s goal: that “every single person in the United States of limited means has access to exactly the same financial planning resources as every person of ample means”. People need to be provided, he said, with information that allows them to make more informed choices. Non-profits, workforce development practitioners and employers should have assistance in identifying when and how supportive services and financial resources could help move people to skill acquisition and a more stable future. Additionally, policymakers should be made aware of the need for these services and resources.
Harder also underscored this point, stating that policy and practice solutions include various modes of gathering knowledge including mapping benefits cliffs, aligning eligibility levels, increasing family economic security through asset development, fostering culture and system changes in the public and private sectors through employer engagement, cost-benefit analysis, goal-setting, and career planning and coaching.
If participants, policymakers and coaches work together in what Harder calls “unconventional partnerships” to share key information and move policy and practice forward, we will begin to see changes at individual, local, state and federal levels.