October 20, 2021 under Happenings

Meet Zarin Ahmed

FPWA Senior Policy Analyst and co-author of Pushed to the Precipice: How Benefits Cliffs and Financial Gaps Undermine the Safety Net for New Yorkers

In April we issued our latest investigative report, Pushed to the Precipice. A year of intense research revealed hidden gaps in New York State’s system of public benefits that undermine its promise to be a safety net and bridge out of poverty for individuals and families who don’t earn enough to meet their basic needs.

We estimate in the report that in 2019 in New York State, nearly 1.5 million working-age households – a shocking 20% of all households – were unable to meet their most basic needs, including food, housing, healthcare, and childcare.

Zarin Ahmed, a Senior Policy Analyst and one of the primary researchers and authors of the report, is continuing this work and expects that the next report will be released in 2023. We had the chance to ask her why this work inspires her.

Q: Zarin, thanks for finding time to talk with us today. Can you tell us why it’s important for New Yorkers to pay attention to our state’s benefits system?

A: The Covid-19 pandemic exposed what benefits recipients and their advocates have known for so long – that the benefits system has been broken for years. It is important for New Yorkers to ensure that our benefits system treats people with dignity and that our dollars are spent wisely to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty in our state.

Q: Tell us why your team chose to focus on this topic now, and how Pushed to the Precipice supports FPWA’s mission to achieve economic equity for all.

A: As our city and state struggle to address the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on low-wage earners, we need to understand what hasn’t been working in the benefits system, figure out what we can do about it, and ultimately ensure that the recovery is fair and inclusive, and therefore sustainable.

At FPWA, we research how many aspects of financial and government systems seem to be designed to ensure a permanent economic underclass of people with low incomes, who are disproportionately people of color. Our safety net should support individuals and families onto a pathway to financial stability.

Q: You’re saying that the very system intended to help people can actually work to hold them down? Can you explain and are you seeing this in New York?

A: In New York State, FPWA actively fought for and won the passage of the $15 minimum wage several years ago. Now that it has been mostly implemented statewide, we thought it was time to dig into the data and see if hardship gaps, often called “benefits cliffs,” exist and if so, to describe their impact.

If you’ve never heard of a benefits cliff, you’re not alone. It’s a policy term that describes how an increase in income leads to terminated benefits, with the unintended consequence that the loss of the benefit is greater than the increase in income.

While we found that the minimum wage increase did not have a significant impact on the programs we researched, we found many other gaps in the system that stop people who need benefits from obtaining them and remove many individuals and families from programs before they are financially stable.

And this is in New York State, which has a relatively robust social safety net compared to other states.

The result is that recipients are often faced with untenable dilemmas, such as choosing between a slightly higher wage and childcare subsidies. Families might advance income-wise but could inadvertently lose the ability to afford quality childcare, one of the highest childhood expenses.

Q: Untenable indeed. I’ve heard you talk about the larger social context behind families’ failure to work their way out of poverty. Can you share some of your thoughts?

A: The big question is, what does our society believe families and individuals with low to no wages deserve. There is a societal myth that poverty is rooted in personal failure, therefore people who live in poverty cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. This false, unjust belief dictates program rules that police what benefits recipients can and can’t get.

Q: How does this biased perspective impact people and families in a practical sense? Can you give an example?

A: The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) was designed decades ago to supplement food purchases. Today’s high cost of even basic childcare and housing means that there are few to no funds available for many families and individuals with low incomes to purchase food without assistance. For SNAP recipients, the benefit does not adequately cover the cost of food, nor does it meet basic nutritional needs. I do want to note that the Biden Administration has taken steps to increase benefits by a significant amount starting in October. It remains to be seen how much the changes to the program will address these concerns.

Q: So, how should we effectively aid families and individuals on their path to financial stability?

A: For starters, we need to ask why the benefits system has been flawed since its inception decades ago. Discriminatory values permeate the benefits system and dictate what folks with low income, often of color, deserve from this system. Not surprisingly, the outcome is that for the many Americans stuck in low wage jobs, they must navigate an overly complicated, discriminatory patchwork system that doesn’t have an achievable path out of poverty.

One way to begin to address these issues is to include benefits recipients in program redesign. To do so, we must reject the harmful and inaccurate belief that benefits recipients aren’t capable of or deserving to make decisions in their best interests.

Q: Can you sum up the importance of this complex body of work?

A: At FPWA, we’re committed to identifying the gaps and shining a bright light on the underlying assumptions and biases that drive an inadequate and prejudicial benefits system. Our ultimate goals with this portfolio of work are to one, figure out how many families and individuals in New York State are impacted by these gaps; two, explain the impact of these gaps on financial stability; and three, identify a robust set of recommendations to eliminate the root causes behind the gaps and the patchwork system they create.

About FPWA
FPWA is an anti-poverty policy and advocacy organization committed to advancing economic opportunity and upward mobility for low-income New Yorkers. Having a prominent New York presence for nearly 100 years, FPWA has long served New York City’s social service sector, providing grants to help individuals and families meet their basic needs, and advocating for fair public policies on behalf of people in need and the agencies that serve them. FPWA’s member network of 170 human-service and faith-based organizations reach more than 1.5 million people in New York’s communities each year. Join us at fpwa.org, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.