METRO ATLANTA — The widening wealth gap creates a financial minefield for the unemployed and working poor fraught with economic pitfalls.
And for many, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made those hurdles harder to overcome.
A group of Fulton County advocates, non-profit stakeholders, faith-based and community leaders gathered for a virtual conference Sept. 24, seeking strategies to put the county’s workforce on even footing after coronavirus.
Financial vulnerability was the topic of discussion, and attendees sought solutions to create “workforce resilience” once the toll of the global outbreak dissipates.
The event was organized by North Fulton Improvement Network, a coalition of leaders from all Fulton cities that focuses on helping the working poor and shedding light on “financial vulnerability” in the county. The group, formerly dubbed the North Fulton Poverty Task Force, re-branded itself after conducting a mail-in survey last year. According to the organization’s chairman Jack Murphy, the study showed that many people didn’t identify Fulton as a pocket of poverty despite the fact that about 29,000 residents in the county were living below the poverty line at the time.
The Sept. 24 panel was the first in a series of monthly “fireside chats” the organization plans to host to find strategies to assist people living in financial vulnerability.
Alex Ruder, a principal adviser for the Federal Reserve of Atlanta, gave a presentation on the outlook for the county’s workforce in the post-pandemic climate.
Ruder said many of the institutions that the Fed is working with now are trying to gather data on the impact COVID-19 has had on families’ pocketbooks. They’re also studying to find opportunities to stabilize households now and in the near future.
Ruder said one key to finding those answers will come from looking at safety net programs like SNAP, TANF and Medicaid.
He demonstrated that point through the story of a fictional woman named Leia, a 25-year-old single mother raising two young children in Atlanta. In his hypothetical scenario, Leia works as a full-time food-service worker earning a $9 hourly wage and receives public assistance and tax credits to help support her family.
Ruder walked through the career path Leia could take to mobilize from her dead-end, low-wage job to a higher paying nursing career, where she’d likely earn more than $45,000.
In his scenario, as Leia progresses through her early career and her pay increases, she gradually becomes ineligible for many public assistance benefits. As a result, her overall financial picture actually worsens or remains stagnant for several years at the front end of her climb up the ladder, according to his model.
Ruder said support programs need to take those factors into account instead of simply using wage as the litmus test for career planning. He suggested a more comprehensive “holistic” self-sufficiency model that incorporates the burdens struggling workers could face in the early years as they strive toward upward mobility.
“The takeaway from this is that career advancement is a clear payoff,” he said. “But what we like to point out is that this is going to mask some of the challenges of what’s going to happen when Leia loses her public assistance...And at the same time, it doesn’t think about the financial vulnerability that Leia would be in as she climbs up this career path and struggles to pay basic expenses.”
Often, he said, overcoming these short-term barriers and thinking about how to mitigate them so workers can advance is the key to long-term gains.
Nesha Mason moderated the discussion. Mason is executive director of The Drake House, a Roswell shelter for homeless mothers and their children.
She conceded that her organization still looks at the problem through the lens of the old model, but recognized that earning potential is a large part of understanding the full scope of economic instability.
“I think in our work that we do at the Drake House, we work with Leia’s every day,” she said. “And I think what you have illustrated in the study that you’ve done are examples of the families that we serve on a regular basis.”