Friday, June 26, 2009

"Don't Tell People You're Poor; Say You're Broke -- Broke is Temporary"

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said those were his grandmother's words when he grew up "broke" in Chicago. The Governor's comments came during the unveiling of the Massachusetts Asset Development Commission's report on an 18-month study of effective ways to help "broke" people move out of poverty.

Asset Development programs help low-to-moderate income people develop assets so they can move off of public assistance and out of poverty. It has taken advocates many years to get policy makers to understand that people will never be able to move off of public assistance if getting a job and moving toward self-sufficiency means they have less to live on and pay their bills than when they received public assistance.

The current system is filled with disincentives to people getting trying to get off assistance. Part of the dilemma is that many public assistance programs prevent people from having assets -- assets that are the means by which they can move off such assistance. When people are getting back to work, they get cut off of public assistance too soon. They are not permitted to have sufficient assets to cushion unexpected crises or to move towards greater self-sufficiency. If they're a single parent, child care costs are prohibitive and they need greater assistance in this area. If they're unskilled, they need job training. And the system prevents many people from getting to jobs.

For example, it's often difficult to get to job interviews or a job without a car, but a car is an asset. The value of that asset can prevent someone from getting assistance, or, eliminate assistance they are getting if the value of the car is more than a certain amount. The price of today's cars means even an older, deteriorating car is a barrier.

Among the Commission's recommendations; raise some of these asset limits, permit people to have more money in the bank, provide greater child care assistance, and more. I'll give more detail on the Commission's recommendations later, in a separate post.

An OpEd, How Not to Help the Poor, and an article, Sweeping Welfare Changes on Tap, in yesterday's Boston Globe have more information.

While the spotlight yesterday was on the Asset Development Commission, I was privileged to have worked with Sandy Venner, Policy Director, and Jonas Parker, then Principal Researcher, of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, over the past few years. They not only worked closely with the Commission and many agencies to design and collect the study data, but they made themselves available to us (agency staff) to help us understand what the data meant. Both are able to present the information in non-jargon terms and with a human face behind the data.

The report is available as a download via the link to Brandeis above and at the Asset Development Commission website.


  1. This is really good post. I just downloaded the pdf. Lot to read. but on the principle I agree that people need to feel that support they got is not going away and at the same time the same support is needed for people who are more "broke" then them self, and this has to be achieved with limited resources.

  2. Good morning option_newbie. Thanks for the feedback. I've skimmed the report and need more time to read it thoroughly myself. But I know what the data that fed the report is and believe that we are making progress in this area. The IDA program, where people have special savings accounts that are matched 3:1 (up to $4,000 added to their account in matching funds) are helping, one person at a time. Come back and comment again after you've had more time to digest the report!