“Raising the Floor” – Turning Good Theory into Good Practice

Mae Watson Grote
Founder & Chief Executive Officer

Helping the Working Poor Back into the American Dream

Helping the Working Poor Back into the American Dream

The evidence is loud and clear. Real wages have barely grown for decades and with fewer middle class jobs available, prospects for the working poor are dim. Does that mean we’re casting low-wage workers and their families into lives of financial instability? Does it mean that because there is no clear trajectory, there is no clear path out of financial problems for this country’s millions of working poor?

Absolutely not.

As far back as 2004, I wrote in Unrealized Gains: “Often workers struggle. Whether they lack sufficient skills to command higher pay or employers fail to provide adequate wages, frequently there is a gap between what new workers received and what they need.”

In their compelling report, Build Ladders and Raise the Floor: Workforce Strategies Supporting Mobility and Stability for Low-Income Workers,” Maureen Conway and Steven L. Dawson argue for helping workers raise their pay and pursue career mobility whenever possible. But they also acknowledge that for the vast majority of low- wage workers that will not be possible, and thus they pose a critical question:

“What strategies can we offer for those millions of U.S. workers who are destined to remain trapped within our country’s expanding low-wage labor market?”

While there is no one right answer and no all- encompassing approach, our accomplishments at The Financial Clinic have created a number of options for helping low-income Americans build greater financial security, even in the context of low-paying jobs. Many of our initiatives address the issues raised by Conway and Dawson including: very practical, day-to-day, job-quality elements that include stable and predictable hours, adherence to health and safety standards, good supervision, sufficient training for job demands, well-designed workflow, cross-training, internal career ladders, access to external public benefits, participative decision-making and shared ownership.

FIGHTING POVERTY ON THE FRONT LINES

The Clinic’s approach brings the battle to the front lines of nonprofit organizations and public sector entities. We provide training and technical assistance that embed financial security strategies into the daily interactions of the front-line staffs of organizations already delivering social services. Just as Conway and Dawson suggest, at the Clinic we:

  1. Help our customers build better budgets by accessing public benefits and work supports;
  2. Facilitate access to emergency loans; and
  3. Establish long-term savings for financial goals, like retirement funds.

In addition to these capacity building efforts, we use data and research learned from on-the-ground practitioners to keep us and our partners in the forefront of best practices. We deliver financial coaching and legal support to clients with more complicated financial security concerns, creating a financial security ecosystem. The Clinic has even developed a web-based financial coaching platform — Change Machine — to enable widespread use of its strategies and to connect the dots between its own initiatives.

THE FINANCIAL SECURITY ECOSYSTEM

The Financial Clinic has applied our three-pronged capacity building process to dozens of organizations across the country including housing services in Boston and Chicago, community colleges in San Francisco and domestic violence shelters in New York City.

The results of this approach are real and measurable and have positively impacted thousands of lives. By helping their working poor customers focus on improvements in their current situation, our partners have seen a wide range of positive outcomes for their customers including: higher earnings, improved working conditions, more bank accounts and more frequent savings deposits.

For example, the Clinic worked with New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to train Career Coaches to include financial security strategies in their work with low-wage earners. Low-wage workers whose career coaches assisted them in establishing automated savings had a 31 percent increase in weekly income. Those whose coaches assisted them in opening low-cost bank accounts had a 33 percent increase in weekly hours worked.

WORKING TOWARDS LASTING CHANGE

The Clinic is committed to lasting change for the working poor. Using the power of Change Machine to more comprehensively integrate financial security strategies into workforce programs, we have launched WorkBOOST NYC*. Like two sides of a zipper, this initiative meshes the Clinic’s strategies with the mission of our workforce development partners to provide a more complete solution for ending poverty. Our vision for WorkBOOST NYC is to leverage what we learn on the ground for lasting change that can be felt far beyond the parameters of this project.

“The world has changed,“ says Bret Halverson, a NYC-based workforce development consultant. ”Long term changes in the labor market require workforce programs to enhance and expand their services to effectively serve job seekers. The WorkBOOST NYC comprehensive approach to integrating financial security strategies into workforce organizations offers great promise for achieving better workforce outcomes for program participants.”

In Unrealized Gains, I also pointed out: “Employment does not necessarily guarantee solvency — that is, the ability to meet all one’s financial responsibilities.” Unfortunately, more than a decade later this is still the economic reality, but as Conway and Dawson argue and the Clinic has demonstrated, we can “provide hundreds of thousands of low-income people an essential level of stability and dignity.”

Every day, we help our partners “raise the floor” through our financial security ecosystem which is rooted in our belief that the working poor shouldn’t be dealt out of the American dream.

* WorkBOOST NYC is made possible by a grant from JPMorgan Chase & Co. The grant is part of JPMorgan Chase’s efforts to enable community partners to help individuals and families save money, build credit and improve economic opportunities in communities around the world.

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