Social Safety Net Can Become a Network for Low-Income Los Angeles Families
The social safety net aims to improve the lives of families and low-income people. But as assistance programs have become more complex, families find it difficult to navigate them. As a result, people with low incomes risk slipping through the safety net and falling into cycles of poverty that are difficult to escape.
In a new report, researchers at the USC Price Center for Social Innovation within the USC Price School of Public Policy have documented more than a dozen different benefits – including housing, income, utilities , health care, child care and food assistance – available in Los Angeles. families at different income levels and have identified scenarios where the safety net can become an obstacle to economic independence.
“The research clearly shows that families have to be truly poor to qualify for the full safety net. It’s tragic, ”said report co-author Gary Painter, director of the center and the USC Homelessness Policy Research Institute. “In addition, they must be able to find housing in order to have sufficient resources to ensure a minimum standard of living for their families. “
The authors say their findings are particularly timely given that Congress plans to significantly expand the social safety net for the first time in decades.
The research was conducted in partnership with the nonprofit Imagine LA, which works to prevent first-time homelessness and repeat and enables families to maintain housing stability and thrive for the long haul. term. The researchers were particularly interested in whether an increase in income could worsen a family’s financial situation – a so-called “cliff of benefits” – or not better – a “plateau of resources” – than before the increase. of income due to a sharp decrease in the benefits of the safety net.
“Perk cliffs and resource plateaus are important to understand. At some point, they can be a deterrent to seeking higher wages or adding more working hours if individuals do not see an overall increase in resources or quality of life, ”said Soledad De Gregorio, co- author of the report, postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Social Innovation. “Because most programs gradually diminish their benefits, we see a fairly gradual shift in resources as incomes rise, and few cliffs. “
However, it also means that the family works more and earns more money while seeing its benefits decrease by the same amount. Overall, their total resources are flat, and they’re no better off, the researchers point out.
The findings shed light on the large and long plateaus of resources that low-income Los Angeles families experience as their wages rise. For a single parent with two young children who earn about $ 15,000 to about $ 65,000, their total resources – a combination of salary and help – may not make much difference, Painter explained.
Rather, the sources of these benefits are changing. For example, benefits may take the form of tax credits at certain income levels, but families and case managers may not know how to handle this change in benefits.
Add up the benefits of the social safety net and find out where they are lacking
The research team identified all federal, state, and local sources of income and benefits for families, studied the eligibility requirements for each, and combined them to estimate the total resources available to families at different levels. of earned income. Next, they compared a family’s total resources – the sum of their net income and benefits – to the estimated basic living costs for Los Angeles.
The report’s findings focused on a single-parent family scenario consisting of a mother and two young children, based on real families enrolled in Imagine LA. The family needed a total annual income of at least $ 66,982 after tax to cover all basic living expenses in 2020.
Highlights of the LA Social Safety Net report include:
Only extremely low-income families who receive both childcare and housing assistance can cover basic living costs.
- The most important expenses are housing and childcare. Programs such as the CalWORKs Child Care Program and Section 8 Housing Vouchers provide the most significant benefits to eligible families.
- Most families do not receive enough resources from the safety net to cover their expenses. Only 1 in 4 eligible households receive housing permits, which are currently rationed with waiting lists of several years.
- Single-parent families who receive all allowances except the housing voucher are unable to achieve a subsistence income in low-wage employment, regardless of the number of hours worked, part-time full time.
Families lose some benefits but gain others as their wages increase.
- Often the loss of one benefit is offset by the gain of another, as is the case with health care and child care. This facilitates the transition as earned income increases.
- The earning of benefits, especially at higher wages, can occur through the tax code. But families have to file a tax claim and can only receive the allowance after the declaration.
Navigating the safety net is complicated.
- Families and case managers must navigate a disjointed set of federal, state and local programs. It is very difficult to understand the eligibility and estimated benefits of each, especially as incomes rise and fall.
“This research arose out of Imagine LA’s initial effort to find a comprehensive resource that summarizes how the social safety net benefits available to families overlap, both with each other and with increasing income. We found out that it just didn’t exist, ”said Jill Govan Bauman, President and CEO of Imagine LA. “With this report, we can now see clearly where we can begin to improve the social safety net for low-income families and help transform it from a sticky spider web to something that promotes financial independence. “
Housing assistance is essential to provide sufficient support to families to pay for living expenses.
Soledad De Gregorio
The authors of the report say that in the short term, creating a new digital tool to simplify navigation through the safety net could help families estimate where they might lose benefits and plan ahead. To this end, Imagine LA is working on the development of a benefits calculator for case managers and families – including an initial collaboration with the student organization of USC Code the Change – that uses algorithms developed by the research team to quickly identify and avoid loss of benefits.
For longer-term solutions, leaders at the federal, state and local levels must work to coordinate, align and streamline key benefits, according to the study’s authors. In addition, benefit providers should review best practices, including support for universal benefits, self-filling forms, and benefit advice.
Finally, a more effective safety net must also include increased access to housing benefits.
“Housing is the key,” De Gregorio said. “Because the cost of housing in Los Angeles is so high and the availability of housing subsidies so scarce, housing assistance is essential in providing enough support for families to pay for their living expenses. “
Additional authors of the report include doctoral research assistant Rebecca Smith and USC Price School alumnus Molly Creighton. The report was funded by Imagine LA through a grant from the Carl & Roberta Deutsch Foundation.
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