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United Way, partners aim to spark discussion, change around 'benefit cliffs'

Cleveland Skyline
Posted at 9:50 PM, Jul 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-13 23:22:07-04

CLEVELAND — More than a million Ohioans are stuck in a system where a small increase in pay leads to a large loss in public assistance. Occurring when an increase in earnings disqualifies a person from receiving public assistance. These so-called "benefit cliffs" limit the economic mobility for a significant number of families in the Cleveland area, which already has a higher-than-average unemployment rate. However, non-profit leaders are trying to change that by bringing awareness and building policy changes on the grassroots level.

The United Way of Greater Cleveland and other community partners are seeking to address these benefit cliffs and other issues that limit a person’s ability to prepare for and enter the workforce before taking and growing in a new job. The "social determinants of work" is the United Way’s new initiative that has a broader goal of examining and correcting the societal and systematic problems that prevent people from elevating out of poverty. The problems include job flexibility, transportation, childcare, health care and sustained education. The list also includes home and community health, broadband access and access to the justice system.

The social determinants of work initiative will kick off with a summit on Thursday on benefit cliffs that aims to explore and identify tools on mitigating them. Benefit cliffs occur when people who receive public benefits have an increase in earnings that cause them to be disqualified from at least one form of public assistance. This cliff ultimately results in a net income loss.

Jasmine Price, a floating teacher for the YWCA, knows this all too well. Upon being hired at the YWCA, her small increase in take-home pay ever so slightly put her above the upper limits of being eligible for public assistance. An extra $80 in income precluded her from being eligible for hundreds of dollars worth of aid.

“You have to think with me losing food stamp benefits and the childcare voucher, I still have to maintain rent. Now, I have to worry about food. Now I have to worry about utilities, essentials,” Price said. “I had to make a choice between work or to stay home and take care of my daughter. I really wanted to be able to work so I could provide.”

By having such drastic cut-offs between being eligible for public assistance and being ineligible, the system has created a incentive for people to not take on extra hours at work and to not accept pay raises. All of this culminates in a stunted level of economic mobility.

“About 1.7 million people in the state of Ohio are right on this cusp of barely making ends meet and when they hit that increase in income, it drops them below that survival rate or ‘making ends meet’ rate,” said Renee Timberlake, the director of economic mobility at the United Way of Greater Cleveland. “It can be really really challenging for families and it ends up being a disincentive to work. The benefit cliffs are a great example of what happens when you get a raise and you lose your benefits. A lot of people turn down the raise and employers don’t understand why. It’s not that people don’t want to work. It’s not that they are too lazy to work. It’s because our system is not set up to support incentivize work.”

Fortunately for Price, the YWCA was able to provide assistance in order for her to afford summer childcare, allowing her to work and continue supporting her family.

“I love being around kids. I’ve been around kids for the past five years so it’s kind of my passion,” Price said.

Timberlake said the goal of Thursday’s summit and discussions on benefit cliffs is to bring the community together to find solutions. Additionally, the group wants to create awareness around the issue in hopes of sparking policy change on the state and federal level.

“Lots of people are having these conversations but there has not been this larger table where we can all come together as a community to decide how we are going to address this problem,” Timberlake said. “Ultimately the benefit cliffs are a state and federal policy issue; how can we at least change the narrative and begin to push back on the policies that create this problem in the first place. We want the entire community to come together to find solutions for this and so while we are sort of setting the table, we’re not going to be the dominant voice at the table.”