Tackling the ‘cliff effect’: Pilot program addresses problem of people losing state benefits when they take jobs

  • Springfield At-Large City Councilor Tracye Whitfield shares her experience with the “cliff effect” at the Wednesday celebration for the Cliff Effect pilot program at TD Bank in Springfield. The event was hosted by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council. STAFF PHOTO/EMILY THURLOW

  • State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, speaks at the Wednesday, Dec. 7 celebration to honor the creation of the Cliff Effect Pilot program at TD Bank in Springfield. The event was hosted by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council. —STAFF PHOTO/EMILY THURLOW

  • Anne Kandilis, director of Springfield WORKS, speaks at the Wednesday, Dec. 7 celebration to honor the creation of the Cliff Effect Pilot program at TD Bank in Springfield. The event was hosted by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council. —STAFF PHOTO/EMILY THURLOW

  • Laura Sylvester, public policy manager of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, speaks at the Wednesday, Dec. 7 celebration to honor the creation of the Cliff Effect Pilot program at TD Bank in Springfield. The event was hosted by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council. —STAFF PHOTO/EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2022 9:41:01 PM

SPRINGFIELD — At-large Springfield City Councilor Tracye Whitfield considered quitting her job at Massachusetts Municipal Life Insurance Co. nearly three decades ago because she was making too much money.

At the time, Whitfield, who was a single mother of two children, was making a salary of $30,000 a year. That salary, combined with her child support payments, bumped her income over the threshold for public assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

“My food stamps went down, my rent payment went up. And then what hit me the most was my child care,” she said. “With the income that I had, and my benefits going down, I couldn’t afford it. So I went to my day care provider, in tears, like, ‘I’m going to have to take my son out, because … I can’t afford it.”

Fortunately, Whitfield said her day care provider referred her to a United Way program that helps low-income families pay for child care, and adjusted her payments from $100 a week to $50 a week.

Whitfield — who is now the executive director of the Coalition for an Equitable Economy, which builds opportunities for small businesses owned by people identifying as Black, Indigenous and people of color — was able to keep her job, gain a promotion, own her own house and move on to become a city councilor.

Whitfield said her story, which illustrates what’s now described as the “cliff effect,” is not an isolated one. At an event celebrating the creation of a new pilot program Wednesday at TD Bank in Springfield attended by local and state officials, she explained that the cliff effect discourages people from advancing in their careers and earning higher wages when more income can disqualify them for critical services and lead to a decline in their standard of living. The three-year pilot program seeks to address the negative impact of this economic hurdle.

“It’s not that people are sitting at home and want to be lazy or don’t want to work or want to stay on benefits forever,” Whitfield said. “And if it wasn’t for me telling my story, if it wasn’t for me just being blunt and being honest, I wouldn’t be a city councilor right now because I wouldn’t have got that job that empowered me to buy a house, that empowered me to learn more in my workforce career to advance and to become a city councilor, and give me the courage to do all that I do today.”

Incentivizing work

The creation of the Cliff Effect pilot program was seven years in the making, according to Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council.

Legislation for the program’s creation was first filed three sessions ago by former state Reps. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, and Jose Tosado, D-Springfield. Since then, Sullivan said the legislation morphed to become more regionally inclusive, transitioning from a Springfield base to a statewide program.

“There was a real focus and a real change about seven years ago when we sat around the table and began this conversation,” Sullivan said. “We recognized the fact that we had a large percentage of our population here in western Massachusetts that was not participating in the workplace. And quite frankly, in many cases, have not participated for generations in the workplace.

“And the reason for that is that there are just huge barriers to participation, and people will make the best financial decision for them, personally and for their families,” he explained. “And if they went into the workplace, and even took a minimum wage job for a few hours, or perhaps took a job promotion, their benefits began to almost immediately decline. In fact, there was no incentive, if you will, to work.”

Sullivan said the legislation recognizes looks to hold harmless people who have taken jobs, and then challenged the business community to better create career pathways within a relatively short period of time, so that people who enter the workplace can then in turn earn a living wage in western Massachusetts.

Laura Sylvester, public policy manager at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, said many of the households that receive emergency food at any of the 164 independent, local member food pantries and meal sites are directly impacted by the cliff effect.

“Fear of losing benefits prevents people from advancing in their careers, keeping them trapped in a cycle of poverty,” she said. “It is a major cause of food insecurity and economic instability.”

Led by Springfield WORKS, and the Western Mass Economic Development Council, in partnership with the Department of Transitional Assistance, the passage and implementation of this pilot program is a major step to helping solve the cliff effect in Massachusetts, said Anne Kandilis, director of Springfield WORKS at the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council.

The program will utilize monetary support to provide 100 households throughout Massachusetts with benefits tailored to fill in the gaps created by the cliff effect as those individuals work toward economic independence from public assistance programs.

“This pilot is a tremendous victory for workers and families throughout the Commonwealth,” Kandilis said in a statement. “To create economic opportunity, we must remove obstacles for people as they work to earn a livable wage by making sure that we do not strip away public benefits too rapidly.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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