Lunch & Learn with Dr. Birken: Benefits Cliffs and Income Sustainability

counting dollar bills

Future Ready Collier welcomed Dr. Brittany Birken for an enlightening and engaging conversation with network and community members about the topic of benefits cliffs and career advancement related to income stability. Dr. Birken joined Future Ready Collier’s virtual Lunch & Learn series, which is offered at no charge, covering a range of timely subjects with local importance. Future Ready Collier was fortunate to be able to share in Dr. Birken’s expert perspective, and more than 60 session participants benefitted from her presentation and the interactive exchange that followed.

With the Atlanta Federal Reserve and based in Tallahassee, Dr. Birken is a Principal Advisor on Community and Economic Development. Her Florida roots run deep, and she previously served as a faculty member at the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, and as the director of Florida’s Office of Early Learning, among other leadership roles. She has extensive experience working with and developing systems that support low-income families seeking sustainable career pathways, as well as topics related to early learning, child development, and two-generational approaches aiding families in poverty.

What Are Benefits Cliffs and How Can We Help

Dr. Birken opened her presentation with a high-level overview of the term ‘benefits cliff’ and its implications. Simply put, a low-income worker encounters a benefits cliff when their earnings rise to a point that public benefits decrease, but that are still too low to generate financial stability. The loss of benefits relative to a small increase in income actually results in a net financial loss for the worker, by a magnitude of sometimes many thousands of dollars. This situation can persist for years before earnings eventually offset losses. This is a common, but not always well-known or understood, phenomenon.

There are ways we can work together to help counteract the negative effects of benefits cliffs and related economic distress. Both employees and employers need to be educated about these circumstances, the sorts of changes that can trigger them, and how to plan to minimize the harm done. This education should begin when future workers are still in school, including high school. As students explore their career interests, it is important to include conversations around the earning potential of a given job, what level of education or training will be required, and the costs associated. In addition, younger working adults should be given information about costs of living, including housing and childcare.

For employers, better awareness may help inform strategies that prevent employees from falling into these difficult conditions. For example, employers may choose to offer in-kind benefits to employees in the form of childcare or transportation assistance. These benefits have real monetary value, but taxable earnings remain steady.

Community Resources and Support

An online tool offered through CareerSource Florida makes it possible to assess likely earnings and potential benefits cliffs based on factors including: county of residence, family size and make-up, kinds of public assistance received, the time required for any supplementary training or education, and type of work. Advance planning leads to better understanding. Workers may choose to alter their career plans, or enlist other support where they can. Ultimately, of course, the intention is to help aspiring workers achieve their goals. However, it is essential that they receive the information and resources to do so sustainably, without bringing further hardship into their lives.

Across Florida, there are initiatives to support degree and career attainment. According to data from the Florida College Access Network, 39.4% of working-age adults in Collier County have 2-year degree or higher. Having that post-secondary degree or credential is typically linked to much higher earnings. However, as we learn from Dr. Birken, it is not always straightforward to assume that a worker can seek their desired job without additional complications and concerns along the way.

Future Ready Collier Involvement

These are topics that are of deep interest to Future Ready Collier, in the county, regionally, and throughout the state. Conversations begin as early as high school, as students pursue work-based learning experiences and complete their Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA). Programs facilitated through the Immokalee Foundation, Taste the Impact, and Greater Naples Chamber, among others, help students connect early with tangible skills they can take directly to an employer. Courses offered by the Lorenzo Walker Technical College can deliver career options for attainable costs in as little as weeks or months. Regional efforts by FutureMakers Coalition bring together aspiring workers and career opportunities.

If you or your organization would like to learn more about these conversations, the work being done, and how you can either take advantage of or support these resources, we welcome you to reach out.




Prepared by Caroline Ridgway of C1B1 Communications.