McCormack Speaks

Center for Social Policy’s Research on Cliff Effects Drives Systems Change


two women testifying at the State HouseFor over a decade, the Center for Social Policy has been a pioneer in “cliff effects” research. CSP Senior Research Fellow Randy Albelda has conducted extensive research to show how a small increase in earning can result in the sudden loss of public assistance that can leave a family with lower total net resources–known as the cliff effect. As demonstrated in CSP’s signature On Solid Ground Report, cliff effects are a growing concern due to the rising costs of living, especially housing, coupled with stagnating wages, making it nearly impossible for thousands of low-income working families to make ends meet without supports from public benefits.

Transforming Research into Policy

Consistent with its strong commitment to turn its research efforts into action, the Center for Social Policy is the lead research partner for the On Solid Ground Coalition, a cross-sector group of over 40 partners committed to a research-based, family-centered approach to ensuring access to housing stability and economic mobility for Massachusetts families. Now in its third year, with major support from the Oak Foundation, the coalition is led by CSP, Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), and Homes for Families (HFF). Research Associate Marija Bingulac (Public Policy PhD, ’17), senior project manager of the coalition, ensures alignment between research and advocacy efforts, encouraging cross-regional collaboration, and engaging families impacted by cliff effects.

The center’s research is written directly into legislation. For example, the coalition filed An Act Relative to the Economic Mobility and Stability Program, sponsored by Representative Aaron Vega and Senator Linda Dorcena Forry. The commission, which will include an array of stakeholders including the Center for Social Policy, will examine the impact of cliff effects and determine ways to adjust public assistance in response to changes in income.

Center for Social Policy research is also cited in Senate Bill 79, An Act relative to public assistance for working families for the creation of a pilot program to address the impacts of the cliff effect. The bill was filed by Senator James Welch and organized by the Springfield Works Initiative.

Center for Social Policy Senior Fellow and Professor of Economics Randy Albelda has submitted testimonies for legislative hearings to back bills with rigorous research. Bingulac has also coordinated the testimony of parent leaders on the challenge of cliff effects, so that families are ensured a voice in the policies that will impact their lives.

Converting Policy into Practice

CSP Director Susan Crandall provided technical assistance to Governor Baker’s interagency working group (consisting of Executive Offices of Labor and Workforce Development, Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Economic Development) and potential grantees on the Learn to Earn (LTE) Initiative. This initiative, proposed by Governor Baker and adopted by the Legislature in the FY18 General Appropriations Act, is a comprehensive approach to help unemployed and underemployed individuals with the supports, skills, and credentials they need for successful employment. LTE programs will help participants achieve goals necessary for employment and sustained economic stability, such as maintaining and growing family net resources, including job training, improving coordination across benefit programs, and reducing benefit cliff effects.

Deploying Research to Build the Capacity of the Families and Program Staff and Advocates

With support from The Boston Foundation, Center for Social Policy research is being deployed to create an online cliff effects tool that will enable case workers and families to understand and plan for how increases in earnings will affect the family’s ability to grow their net resources. In partnership with Project Hope and Code for Boston, a group of volunteer coders who work with nonprofit organizations on social justice projects, the tool is an essential building block of policy and practice change. To ensure a user-friendly tool, CSP will interview case managers and parents to understand the lived experience of cliff effects.

CSP Director Susan Crandall and Marija Bingulac presented their session on The Road to the Cliff Edge: Understanding Financial Gaps Faced by Workers and Job Seekers to five regions across the state through the Center for Social Policy’s new Commonwealth Workforce Coalition program to bolster the capacity of workforce professionals to manage cliff effects. In addition, they presented to financial coaches affiliated with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley Financial Stability Centers.

The Center for Social Policy and On Solid Ground Coalition also conducted an “Advocacy 101” webinar.  This online training attracted an audience of over 100 people across sectors to learn how a bill becomes law in Massachusetts and how to support cliff effects and related policies.

Commissioner Jeff McCue, Department of Transitional Assistance in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, reflects on the Center for Social Policy’s impacts in the state. “The Department of Transitional Assistance has relied extensively on the Center for Social Policy’s research on cliff effects to design new programs and applications to assist our clients as they take steps toward economic advancement. The center’s research was instrumental as we developed and launched Governor Baker’s Learn to Earn initiative, a first-of-its-kind program that integrates job training with support to mitigate the cliff effect so that workers can access and advance in jobs critical to Massachusetts’ economy.”

Spreading the Word Beyond Massachusetts

CSP Director Susan Crandall presented on cliff effects for a New England convening of the Conference of State Legislators in Portland, Maine, focused on a Whole Family Approach to Jobs, sparking conversation about a more comprehensive approach to solutions for cliff effects. She also spoke about the cliff effect during her remarks at the “Investing in America’s Workforce” in Austin, hosted by the Federal Reserve System at the Ray Marshall Center of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

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