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: BenefitsCliff.org

 

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.

An epidemic of teen depression (and what to do about it)

An epidemic of teen depression (and what to do about it)

An epidemic of teen depression (and what to do about it)

teens helping and hugging mental health

An epidemic of teen depression (and what to do about it)

Key Takeaways:

  • In the last 10 years, the number of teens identifying as having “experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness” doubled.
  • School connectedness was a key barometer of how well teens fared mentally.
  • Teens tend to be more isolated than their peers of past decades, more reliant on social media and smartphones to create a type of “pseudo community.”
  • GCO’s priorities is to offer relationship enrichment classes in local communities and schools.
Full Report:  Click Here

Nothing in life can replace genuine community

The United States has a teen depression problem. And it’s only getting worse.

That assessment is based off a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in April. It found that 44% of teens “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” in the most recent 12-month period. What’s more, 20% of teens “had seriously considered attempting suicide” and 9% “had attempted suicide.”

What’s truly eye-opening is when you compare these statistics with the reported mental health status of teens a decade ago. In 2009, for example, just 26% of teens reported having consistent feelings of sadness and despair. That means in roughly the last decade, the rate of teens who feel this way has nearly doubled. Rates of teens attempting suicide (from 14% to 19%) or committing suicide (6% to 9%) also increased during that period.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the problem, as teens have been more isolated than ever. The CDC survey was of 7,700 teens conducted in the first six months of 2021, when the young people were still mired in the worst of the pandemic school shutdowns and social isolation.

“These data echo a cry for help,” said CDC acting principal deputy director Debra Houry in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental wellbeing.”

Importantly, the CDC report found that school connectedness was a key barometer of how well teens fared mentally. “Youth who felt connected to adults and peers at school were significantly less likely than those who did not to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” the study concluded.

What’s interesting about this anecdote from the CDC report is the emphasis on community and positive social relationships in maintaining good mental health. Today’s teens tend to be more isolated than their peers of past decades, more reliant on social media and smartphones to create a type of “pseudo community.”

As a recent article in The Atlantic points out, “Compared with their counterparts in the 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver’s license, or play youth sports.”

It goes without saying that the pandemic only worsened these problems. What’s more, our nation’s public discourse has continued to deteriorate and today has never been more toxic, in large part fed by a culture drenched in social media.

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.

Again to quote The Atlantic, “Outwardly, teens are growing up slower; but online, they’re growing up faster. The internet exposes teenagers not only to supportive friendships but also to bullying, threats, despairing conversations about mental health, and a slurry of unsolvable global problems—a carnival of negativity. Social media places in every teen’s pocket a quantified battle royal for scarce popularity that can displace hours of sleep and makes many teens, especially girls, feel worse about their body and life. Amplify these existing trends with a global pandemic and an unprecedented period of social isolation, and suddenly, the remarkable rise of teenage sadness doesn’t feel all that mysterious, does it?”

Solutions to this problem are not easy, but we know from our work at the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) that nothing in life can replace genuine community. That community ranges from a good school to a healthy family life to thriving relationships to meaningful work. Teenagers need this just as much as adults — perhaps even more so as they pass through these key years of development.

One of GCO’s priorities is to offer relationship enrichment classes in local communities and schools. That includes students in middle and high school. Joyce Mayberry, vice president of GCO’s family team, “Teaching young people the dynamics of healthy relationships is so important, now more than ever. We’re seeing the devastating results of a loss of meaningful relationships, but it’s not too late to reverse course. All it takes is a direct investment in sharing the tools and approaches that work with young people.”

The bottom line is this: A key way to combat this epidemic of teen depression and poor mental health is through real community, where teens experience relationships face-to-face with friends, family, and broader society. That’s also one of the best ways to break the social media addiction — substituting real relationships for fake ones in a virtual world. Ultimately, it all loops back to community.

Randy Hicks on taking a bottom-up strategy to state policy reform | Overton Window Podcast

Randy Hicks on taking a bottom-up strategy to state policy reform | Overton Window Podcast

Randy Hicks on taking a bottom-up strategy to state policy reform | Overton Window Podcast

GCO’s CEO, Randy Hicks speaks with fellow think tank podcast, The Overton Window

Below is an excerpt from the Mackinac Center in Michigan. The Mackinac Center recently invited GCO’s CEO, Randy Hicks to discuss GCO’s take on State Policy Reform on their regular podcast,  The Overton Window.

Like many public policy advocates, the people at the Georgia Center for Opportunity research and write about public policy. What makes them different is that they try to bridge the gap between people working at the community level and the people working on state policy. I spoke with their president and CEO Randy Hicks about this for the Overton Window podcast.

 

“One of the things that sets us apart is that we actually spend a lot of time in the community working on those who we believe could be or are most affected by various public policies that we’re interested in,” Hicks says.

The dynamics between working on state policy and working at the community level are different, and state politics is not very conducive to collaboration.

 

Building Resilient Communities so All Children can Thrive

Building Resilient Communities so All Children can Thrive

In The News

Building Resilient Communities so All Children can Thrive

More now than ever, major corporations are making an impact beyond providing great products and customer service. They are also giving back and creating more opportunities for the communities they serve. Over and above just turning on the lights, Georgia Power is helping empower families to move from surviving to thriving. Recently, Georgia Power donated $100,000 to Families First to support initiatives focused on education equity, criminal justice and economic empowerment, which are all areas of community assistance provided by the 132 year old family service organization…

To achieve equity in education, Families First invests in safe and supportive networks that stimulate learning, provide access to community programs, and prepare youth for high-paying jobs. Taking a two-generation approach through its Navigator Care Model, there is a focus on creating stability for children with an emphasis on reading at grade level and graduating from high school. The Parents as Teachers program offers in-home parenting education, advocacy, and skill building support to both pregnant and parenting teens, as well as families from households where English is not the primary language. These educational efforts are furthered through a myriad of partnerships in metro Atlanta such as Raising Expectations in Atlanta; the Georgia Center for Opportunity and Impact46 in Gwinnett County. 

Building Resilient Communities so All Children can Thrive

Resilience and Equity | Saporta Report

In The News

Resilience and Equity | Saporta Report

The challenges of the last two year have impacted all of us. From social injustices to racial inequality and COVID, our communities are suffering. We have also seen great acts of heroism with our front-line workers who have continued to serve our communities. A common thread that has emerged is the power of resilience. At Families First, we believe that resilience is the foundation of building strong communities…

We recognize the cycles of poverty are not broken by one program or service alone, so we offer a combination of services and supports with community partners, virtual services and locations throughout the state of Georgia. This holistic, comprehensive, results-driven approach results in awareness of the barriers to prevent families from achieving success and social equity, partnerships with community leaders to reduce barriers and increase advocacy for change and baseline assessment of the family to determine each member’s unique needs, care plan, check in timelines, and aftercare plan to measure improvement. Working with partners like the Westside Future Fund, Georgia Center for OpportunityThe Community Foundation for Northeast GeorgiaGwinnett Chamber of CommerceGoodwill of North Georgia, Raising Expectations and more, Families First is helping our families create a personalized approach to take their families from surviving to thriving. 

Perspective: The surprisingly simple ways to incentivize marriage

Perspective: The surprisingly simple ways to incentivize marriage

Perspective: The surprisingly simple ways to incentivize marriage

Some parents don’t wed because they fear losing government benefits. Governors in states like Utah and Virginia could solve this problem

Originally posted on Deseret News

“I chose not to marry,” Tiana said. “For one, I get a lot of assistance. I have a disabled child. So being if I did marry or put any other type of income in, I would not qualify for anything.”

Tiana participated in a focus group the Institute for Family Studies and the Georgia Center for Opportunity convened to understand major family issues facing working-class Americans. (We changed Tiana’s name to protect her identity.) Her comments are indicative of one of the major issues that emerged in our focus groups across the nation. Many of the parents gathered in those groups indicated that either they or family and friends had steered clear of marriage for fear of losing their government benefits, from Medicaid to child care subsidies.

 

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.

They are not alone. More than 1 in 10 unmarried Americans whose income falls below the median reported they were not married for fear of losing “access to government benefits,” according to a recent Institute for Family Studies/Wheatley Institution survey. These marriage penalties tend to hit hardest the working-class couples with children and household incomes between about $28,000 and $55,000. The research indicates that the penalties can amount to between about 10% and 30% of household income for many families in this income bracket.

With Republican governors like Utah’s Spencer Cox and Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin underlining their interest in helping parents and families, one big step they could take to help parents is to work to eliminate or minimize the marriage penalties that keep all too many parents from marrying. This is important because children are much more likely to thrive — to avoid poverty, flourish in school and steer clear of prison, for instance — when they are raised by their own married parents.

Much of the blame lies at the feet of the federal policymakers because of the way Congress set up tax and safety-net benefits over the last six decades. While Congress tackled many of the marriage penalties hitting upper-income families in 2017, they have left penalties hitting lower-income families in means-tested programs like Medicaid and child care.

Although some of the marriage penalties embedded in our social welfare programs can only be addressed at the federal level by Congress, there are some areas where state legislatures and governors like Cox and Youngkin can take action. For instance, states could take some funding from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which is designed to help lower-income families, to address this issue. After all, TANF was specifically designed to promote marriage, reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and assist with the formation and maintenance of two-parent families, goals that have all too often been ignored by both the federal government and the states.

Because TANF is a block grant, states control how the money is spent within the program’s broad parameters. Governors could take advantage of this flexibility to direct its funding at the marriage penalty problem. A first step would be to convene a task force to determine the best ways to use TANF funds to accomplish the goal.

One way TANF funds could be used to promote marriage would be to provide a bonus to low-income couples with children under 5 who wish to marry. This bonus could be pegged to remedying the actual penalty they would incur by tying the knot. (The Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution have a handy “Marriage Calculator” that estimates these penalties for couples.) Another way would be to let newly married couples with children continue to receive welfare benefits even after they marry for a full two years after they marry — so long as their total family income is not above the state’s median family income (about $79,000 across the country). This would mean that families like Tiana’s would not be so worried about losing benefits if the parents wed.

Another way states could minimize marriage penalties is by reforming their child care policies. Federal block grants subsidize child care for low-income families. These child care programs have some of the largest marriage penalties. States could fix this by doubling the income threshold for child care subsidies for married families with young children.

In his recent State of the State address, Cox said that much of Utah’s success “can be directly attributed to our family-centric identity — and yes, that includes our nation-leading marriage and birth rates.”

“We know that the family, the basic and fundamental unit of our society, continues to be the most effective and least expensive place to solve problems. When families are healthy and happy, society benefits,” Cox said.

By being proactive in making policy changes in means-tested programs like TANF and child care where states have more control, Cox and Youngkin — along with other governors who are committed to advancing the welfare of families in their states — can contribute to solutions that can help parents like Tiana access the long-lasting benefits of marriage without fear of losing government benefits.

After all, poor and working-class parents should not have to choose between seeking government benefits for their children and giving their children the benefit of two married parents.

Brad Wilcox is an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Erik Randolph is director of research at the Georgia Center for Opportunity and author of a three-part series on how to reform welfare to address welfare cliffs and marriage penalties.