Families should be able to achieve financial security through hard work and we should ensure that policies support working families. Financially secure parents can provide their children with adequate housing, child care, health care, food and transportation. As a state, one of the best ways that we can improve childhood outcomes is to create policies that help parents succeed.
Each year, our Kids Count in Nebraska Report provides a comprehensive look at how our state is currently doing on indicators of child well-being and where we can improve childhood outcomes. However, Voices’ commitment to telling the whole story often calls for us to go beyond this, and our new report, “I’m trying as hard as I can” Barriers to Economic Opportunity for Nebraska Women grew out of a desire to see how state policies are affecting Nebraskans on a personal level.
With the help of a grant from the Omaha Women’s Fund, we surveyed 296 low-income women across Nebraska. We did this not with the intent of creating generalized state-wide poverty statistics, but rather, we sought to provide a look for policy makers and others into the daily struggles that are facing low-income Nebraska women.
We found that number of state policies are actively harming attempts at economic mobility, with one of the most significant findings being the high number of women who were personally harmed by the “cliff effect.” The cliff effect refers to a challenge with the structure of our public assistance programs where families receive a small increase in income that results in a benefit loss that the income does not compensate for. The results also found challenges related to accessing public programs, accessing higher education and building savings create barriers to economic mobility.
Findings were grouped into four main categories: the Cliff Effect, Accessing Public Safety Net Programs, Education and Wages, and Savings and Assets.
Our study revealed that 46% of respondents who have participated in a public benefit program have experienced the cliff effect at some point. For many of those interviewed, this meant that they often had to turn down a small pay increase or extra hours to preserve child-care assistance that was necessary for their household to make ends meet.
Crystal, one of the focus group participants, ended up losing four times more income than she gained in a raise due to the cliff effect, “I was only getting $170 [through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] for my daughter but because I got a raise, a 50 cent raise [per hour], I only get $88 now to feed my daughter for the whole month.”
Accessing Public Safety Net Programs: 30% of respondents indicated that the most significant challenge in accessing public assistance was the ACCESSNebraska system. Many focus group participants had trouble with call wait times, including Beth, “I’ll call and sit on hold. I’ll literally put the phone on speaker and put it on my shoulder and walk around doing what I have to do because I know I’ll be on hold for at least an hour.”
Education and Wages: Education was the most significant barrier for 29% of respondents. Many of those in the survey indicated that despite having a desire to gain job skills and an education, cost remains a significant issue, with one participant noting, “Education is key for us…we can’t apply for jobs because technology has changed and advanced. More and more jobs are using that technology, but we can’t go and get trained unless we pay for it.”
Savings and Assets: Of the 296 women we interviewed, less than 1% had more than $2,000 in savings, and 65% had no savings at all. Additionally, there was an extreme lack of assets (resources of economic value like savings, homes, and retirement accounts) with only 14% having a retirement account and 11% owning a home. The low level of assets could be partially related to policy barriers imposed by the state as a result of “asset limits.” In Nebraska, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), SNAP and the child care subsidy program have asset limits that discourage families from saving money and building assets.
The report makes three main recommendations based on the findings. First, we should work to address the cliff effect in public programs by ensuring that families are able to transition off of assistance more gradually. Secondly, we need to restructure incentives aimed at building savings so that they reach lower income families. Finally, we should find ways to increase access to higher education for low income families.
This report was made possible by a grant from the Omaha Women’s Fund, and with the work of our graduate assistant Laurel Sariscsany.