Atlanta Fed Community and Economic Development staff members and guests discuss how career advancement is tied to household financial well-being. They also consider the systemic barriers that pose challenges to economic self-sufficiency.


Julie Siwicki: Hi, everyone. Thank you for being here. My name is Julie Siwicki, and I'm an adviser in the Community and Economic Development group here at the Atlanta Fed. And I want to welcome you to the latest installment in our Inclusive and Resilient Recovery series, which we're calling Career Pathways to Household Financial Well-Being. In our last conversation, we introduced the idea of financial well-being.

And today we want to connect some dots between that concept and a body of work based at the Atlanta Fed that's all about removing structural barriers to career advancement. We have to look at these connections with the understanding that we're in the middle of an economic recovery right now, and that economic recoveries have a history of excluding groups that already tend to be on the economic margins.

So, people who have lower incomes, lower wealth, women, mothers, and Black people, indigenous and Latinx people, other people of color. This series really allows us to take a look at that and to elevate ways to make sure that this recovery can be more equitable. If you go to the next slide, I do just need to say up-front that the views expressed today are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or the Federal Reserve System.

And on the next slide, I also want to share a little bit about our work here at the Community and Economic Development group at the Atlanta Fed. We work at the intersection of research and engagement where we have the guiding goal to promote economic mobility and resilience in the Southeast. We're engaged in this work because of the central bank's mandate to promote stable prices and maximum employment, and that includes us working to make sure that everyone who wants to participate in the economy can do that.

So, like I said, today we're continuing our focus on the topical area of household financial well-being. And without getting too technical, I do just want to take a minute and one last slide to ground us in what we mean by that. So, if we go to the next slide, here's the summary of the framework that we discussed in our last Inclusive and Resilient Recovery webinar.

The top panel here, the top chart shows the definition of financial well-being, which was developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is essentially the ability to have both security and freedom of choice now in the present and into the future. And, again, this definition is not arbitrary. It was grounded in really rigorous research and consumer voice and existing literature.

The three arrows below this table are the three pillars that families need to have financial well-being that were developed through another set of rigorous research conducted by the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program. So, the first pillar is routinely positive cash flow or having income that's enough to meet your expenses every month. The second pillar is personal resources or savings, rainy day funds, even family and friends who can support.

And the third pillar is public and private benefits with the acknowledgment that personal resources aren't always going to be enough for people to insure against economic shocks. That the safety net is essential, especially in the face of massive shocks like the pandemic has created. So, now the question is how this framework shows up in the real world.

And we'll hear a lot about that today. We see that financial well-being is not evenly distributed, and we can trace a lot of that unevenness to systemic inequities, and a lot of those inequities are caused by racial exclusion and discrimination. So, as we get into the complexities of career advancement today, my hope is that the components of this framework can help us think really clearly and critically about interventions that can address those inequities as directly as possible.

So, with all this in mind, and without further ado, I'd like to get into the rest of the program. I'd like to introduce our executive vice president and director of research at the Atlanta Fed, Dave Altig. He will share additional welcoming remarks. And then our colleague here, Alex Ruder, he'll join to share more about the Atlanta Fed’s work around Advancing Careers. So, I'll turn it over to Dave.

Dave Altig: Well, welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I'm Dave Altig. I'm the director of research at the Atlanta Fed, and it's my pleasure to add my introductions to you for joining us in this session on Career Pathways for Financial Well-Being. You might be asking why it is that we are invested in this kind of program. It's a part of a broader initiative, broader priority at the Fed, the Atlanta Fed in particular, on economic mobility and resilience.

So why is the Fed interested in this topic? Well, you've already heard one reason. One of our mandates, particularly with respect to monetary policy, is maximum employment. And it's very clear to us as it is to you, I'm sure, that maximum employment is not a sustainable goal without a sustainable path to career advancement. So that's why the Fed is interested in this topic. Why is the Atlanta Fed interested, in particular?

The answer is we represent the Sixth District of the Federal Reserve System, which is essentially the Southeast, and all of you are well aware that the Southeast is the place in the country where the issues of economic mobility, inequality, and economic resilience are among the worst. It's very clear, that as I said, that career advancement is the key to both mobility and resilience.

If you cannot find a meaningful job that allows you to at least meet your basic expenses, then financial well-being is completely out of reach and not an attainable goal. So, resilience requires mobility. But one of the things we've discovered here at the Atlanta Fed is that mobility and career advancement is not as simple as it seems at first.

It's more than just taking a training program or aspiring to a better-paying job because there are many obstacles, particularly for lower-income individuals, on the way to that career advancement. In particular, impediments, obstacles, disincentives that relate to the loss of public benefits by low-income individuals as they earn even a little bit more income.

And in our Advancing Careers initiative here at the Atlanta Fed, one of our objectives is to shine a bright light on these benefit cliff problems, as they're typically called, and to assist partners throughout the Southeast, throughout the country, to figure out ways to address, mitigate, and ameliorate those benefit cliff and disincentives for the career advancement that is so essential to financial well-being.

So, you'll be hearing a little bit more about that from my colleague Alex Ruder in just a second. But I do want to thank you once again for taking the time to join us today. I hope you will join us for the longer term on this journey as we really try to address the issues that are confronting the most vulnerable people in our populations and provide for them through best efforts that we can muster a better future. Thanks.

Alex Ruder: Thank you very much, Dave, and thank you, Julie. Before we get into our panel today, everyone, I'd like to offer some framing comments about the Atlanta Fed’s Advancing Careers initiative, but also career advancement is prominent in today's discussion. I'd like us to think about what does financial well-being mean in the context of career advancement? It's a way we don't typically think about financial well-being, for the most part.

And it's important, however, because it's going to allow us to really look at some of the topics we've already talked about today. If you think back to Julie's table at the beginning, we saw that financial well-being involves the past, or excuse me, the present and the future. So, we really need to think about financial well-being over time.

And it's going to ask us to think about critical things such as your cost of living, the ability to meet basic expenses, and the critical role of public assistance, in terms of the financial support public assistance can provide for families as well as some of the barriers that families will face as they transition off of public assistance. So, let me offer some remarks about how the Advancing Careers initiative combines financial well-being and career advancement. Next slide, please.

Very often when we think about career advancement and career choice, we have a mental model that looks something like what you see on your screen right now. This is the career path to become an entry-level health care worker, a licensed practical nurse or an LPN, versus a near minimum wage job. This is the mental model we may have if you're thinking about college major choice, if you're thinking about job training, if you're thinking about a career in technical education.

You move into a job like licensed practical nurse, you're going to have a slight dip in income that first year, maybe when you're in school, but over time, your earnings are going to look very good. And just in this chart here, you can see income growing over time. It's a win. Career advancement pays off. Now, if this is the framework we often have in mind, I want us to think about, well, what's the reality a family may face once they actually start to face the financial barriers such as benefits cliffs?

That's the difference of the framework that I'm going to propose to you today. So, this is the model we may have. And if we go to the next slide, we can look at the reality. This chart here shows you a slightly different picture. This is called annual net financial resources. It's the same career path, but what we're doing now is accounting for benefits cliffs and cost of living.

Now, we're not going to go through all the details here, but I want everyone to just take notice on how much different this looks compared to the chart we just saw. Early on, the licensed practical nurse and even that near minimum wage job is not even above the breakeven line. They're struggling to pay their basic expenses. And then for roughly a nine-year period, this licensed practical nurse, their financial well-being is ultimately no better than, or slightly better than, that near minimum wage job.

Clearly, the model we were just looking at in the previous slide is not the same as what the financial reality that families are facing actually is. Now, I think intuitively many of you on this webinar understand this issue, and you know about what causes this, but looking at it over time allows us to see that these barriers are not just today, but they do extend into the future. And let me show you an example of how we're thinking about that extension into the future. Next slide.

Now the financial barriers that are going to present to workers and families, as we try to move them into careers that promote economic mobility and resilience, we need to think about the pretraining phase. So, before workers even walk into the door of a nonprofit, a workforce center, a college, they're going to be facing financial barriers. So even before that initial training phase, what can we do to support workers as they transition into that difficult period where they're enrolling in training? So, that's one.

Next slide, please. The next financial challenge that will present to families is, well, what about when they're in training? When they may have to increase their transportation costs to get to training, when they may have to spend money or take out loans to support themselves in training, or reduce their work hours?

This in-training phase is the second financial barrier families may face. And we, of course, know from workforce development evaluations that have been done, it's often this particular time in the career advancement process that most stresses families financially, as they're trying to move up a career pathway. And then finally, the next slide presents a period of a worker's career that we perhaps don't focus on enough. But what about when they finish training, or they get their new job?

This highlighted piece on the slide here is showing you that this family's financial barriers are extending out at least six years. And it's highlighting that advancement is not an immediate payoff, and, in a sense, our work as community development professionals and workforce development professionals is not necessarily done when they start that, perhaps, entry-level job. And they're facing a financial situation you see here in this chart. Next slide.

Now, I would like to just briefly mention how the Advancing Careers for Low-Income Families initiative at the Atlanta Fed is trying to work with partners across the country to develop solutions for that three-phase problem we just talked about: benefits cliffs, standard of living, job training and the financial barriers associated with getting into job training.

The vision of this Advancing Careers initiative is to eliminate benefits cliffs and structural financial barriers to career advancement and economic self-sufficiency with our partners. And that's a crucial part. Our research and analysis cannot do this alone. How are we doing that? Next slide, please.

The structure of our work is built on two foundational projects. The first is the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Policy Rules Database, a national database of major state and federal public assistance rules and tax credits, which is going to allow us to really estimate what is the financial situation that families face locally. And we do that because we also account for local cost of living such as housing, childcare expenses, that are really important for understanding what are the barriers that families face. And then the second dimension to that work is our CLIFF tool.

You may have heard of the CLIFF tool, Career Ladder Identifier and Financial Forecaster. This is both a job coaching tool and a policy analysis tool that we work with partners to really understand how their career pathways intersect with public assistance and local cost of living. The partnerships are centered on five dimensions of work. And you can see that on the right side of your screen.

First, community, state, and federal policy solutions. I want everyone to know that we're working with partners right now to think about and analyze proposed policy solutions to some of the financial barriers that I just showed you in those slides. For example, we're working with states right now to think about, well, what would the effect be if we change income disregards for programs such as TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families]? What would happen if we changed some parameters in a state housing program?

What would happen if we adjust the cost of childcare? These are all questions we're able to simulate and provide to our partners so they can make informed decisions about what's the right direction to take as well as estimate what the potential net return to the taxpayer would be for these changes. The second dimension is career and financial coaching solutions.

We're working with a number of partners, some of which you'll hear from today, that are using these tools to actually guide families, not just about potential gains or losses of public assistance, but how that interacts with a longer-term career advancement project. So, it's not just about identifying the short-term barrier a family may face. It's about planning for a longer-term strategy for success. And that's critical.

We're working also, number three, with employers. And I think we would all recognize that no one knows career pathways and career advancement better than the employers themselves. And we're working with employers through formal agreements to really allow them to analyze their own internal career paths and how their career paths are going to intersect with the public assistance and expenses from the geographic area from which they recruit talent.

A new area of our work, for those of you who may not be aware of this, is guaranteed-income pilots. We have a new suite of tools that allows both policymakers and families to understand how the impact of guaranteed income will affect the social safety net. So, for example, some families may be concerned or have questions about how a guaranteed-income pilot project may affect their receipt of public assistance. We have a new set of tools that can answer that with very local precision.

We're very excited about that work. And then finally, of course, being the Atlanta Fed, our research portfolio continues to investigate the incredibly complex ways that both the tax and public assistance system really does either pose a barrier or pose an opportunity for workers trying to move up from entry-level jobs into in-demand occupations that support business, that support economic development, and critically support the economic mobility and resilience of workers.

Next slide, please. With those opening remarks in mind, I'd like to transition into our panel discussion and introduce my colleague, Brittany Birken, who's a principal adviser in our Community and Economic Development Department. Brittany?

Brittany Birken: Alex, I really appreciate you providing that overview of both the Advancing Careers work and portfolio as well as some of the complex barriers that families may encounter on the path to economic self-sufficiency. It is now my great pleasure to moderate a panel of experts so that we can further unpack the challenges that families may encounter, but importantly also the considerations, actions, potential mitigants, solutions, and opportunities that exist for thinking about how community and state leaders could address these barriers. To kick us off, I'm going to ask some questions after I introduce the panel, but then also welcome the audience to add questions in the Q&A feature.

We are going to work to get some of your questions asked as well. So please share them as we go. With us this morning is Monesia Brown, the director of public affairs and government relations for Walmart in Florida. Alex Camardelle is the director of Workforce Policy Program at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; Talethia Edwards is a wife and mother of seven who has turned into a community leader, parent navigator, and advocate; and Alicia Johnson is the executive director for Step Up Savannah, a community nonprofit supporting economic opportunity and financial security.

Thank you all for being with us today. To start us off, I really want to hear from you, Talethia. You help families that are navigating public benefit programs and working toward economic self-sufficiency and know well some of the challenges that are encountered. Would love for you to provide some insight to kick us off on some of these very real challenges as well as some of the changing dynamics that have occurred in this last year.

Talethia Edwards: Yes, Brittany. Thank you for having me here. When we talk about economic self-sufficiency, people ask, what is that? It's being able to take care of family or an individual, being able to take care of their basic needs, housing, childcare, utilities, all of those things. And this last year has, for the working class individually and those who are particularly serving my community, has exacerbated that, right, with this COVID-19.

And it has really been the perfect storm for widening the gap that we've seen financially, economically. We see a greater need for childcare, access and affordability, which was already an issue, economic mobility, the ability to work from home or not work from home, transportation, health care, the ability to take off if someone's sick.

All of these things existed prior to this pandemic year. However, we've seen now we can't ignore it. We have to actually address it and face it head-on and really invest in order to help families who are experiencing these increased barriers.

Birken: Thank you, Talethia. I appreciate you providing that context. And, Alicia, I would like to transition to you. As Talethia described, there's been challenges that predated the pandemic.

Certainly, they've been exacerbated in many cases by the pandemic and would love to hear a little bit as a leader of a community nonprofit who's focused on increasing economic self-sufficiency for low-income working families, where do you see opportunities to increase the coordination of safety net benefits and other resources in order to support an equitable recovery? And in that, are there any challenges that are now being better addressed as a result of the difficulties last year?

Alicia Johnson: So, great question, Brittany. And Talethia, you hit the nail right on the head. So as an organization that's focused around asset poverty, which is primarily those working families, and asset poverty meaning they don't have a sufficient net worth to cover three months of expenses without income, we saw this pandemic, as Talethia mentioned, highlight and create what may have been a gap to make it a chasm.

And so, our work is focused around in our community helping community leaders build bridging capital across the social safety net for these families. There's opportunity. For example, some of what we're seeing around the country, with the narrative of people not returning to work, has been exacerbated. One, children are at home and daycare prices have skyrocketed because daycare spots are at a premium.

With COVID, there's restriction to how many kids can be in a daycare spot. And the costs have become prohibitive to families who are working or who have multiple children and families that have single heads of household. So, some of the things that can be done is one, increasing those quality-rated daycares at the community level, allowing funding to help raise those daycares that exist or home daycares up to quality-rated facilities to increase the number of spots.

The second thing we've seen is that families abandoned low-wage work on that frontline and went to places during the pandemic where they're working and where they can receive self-sufficient wages and benefits.

So, increasing opportunities to continue that mobilization as well as networking opportunities across the social safety net to support families with transportation support, childcare stipends, and things that can bolster them in becoming self-sufficient. And using the bridging capital that's been provided by things like the Child Tax Credit that starts today to reinforce that bridging capital and keep people from falling off of that cliff again.

Birken: Thank you, Alicia. So, Alex, we've heard Talethia really provide additional context on the experiences of families, and then Alicia talked about some of the potential needs and opportunities that exist.

We'd love to turn to you now to talk about from a research perspective and thinking about collaboration opportunities, what can community and state leaders do in this time to really address some of these challenges? And, in particular, how can we think with a focus on inclusive recovery and really be laser focused on meeting the needs of those who have the greatest challenge?

Alex Camardelle: Yeah. Thank you for that. Thanks for having me. That's a really big question, but one I'm happy to try to take on. I think collaboration is interesting. It's not a silver bullet and the evidence is actually really mixed when it comes to understanding whether or not collaboration is effective.

At best, it's often irregular and these collaborations are really underresourced, particularly between community-based organizations and the state or any of our arms of our public sector. But we do have strong evidence that indicates that community and state partnerships are really at their best when there are strong power-sharing agreements between organizations on the ground doing the work that are proximate to low-wage workers and to people that are experiencing poverty and those that are in positions of power and making policy decisions.

So, there needs to be those strong power-sharing agreements there. For instance, community-based organizations need to be at the table when officials are making decisions about how to deliver safety net benefits quickly to most of those in need, and state leaders need to agree that public benefits are essential for career advancement. And there is big disagreement there.

So, I wanted to just underscore the vast differences in power that exist at the state level compared to those on the ground doing the work and providing services. To the second part of your question about tangible contributions, I wanted to focus more on what states need to do, given the differences in power there. One of the chief roadblocks to achieving economic resilience for those in poverty is long-term state disinvestment in public benefits.

And evidence shows that states that rely on spending cuts to the safety net in order to balance their budgets actually make people worse off financially than those states that counter those cuts with investments and raising revenue. So, cuts to public benefits, in particular, actually increases income inequality in states.

And those cuts do fall disproportionately on the backs of women, Black and Latinx communities, and others who are marginalized and more likely to experience permanent economic insecurity as a result of recessionary events. So, cutting state spending in the safety net not only explodes economic hardship for individuals, but also for the community-based organizations that are tasked with serving them, who also, like I mentioned earlier, are significantly underresourced.

I also wanted to highlight the matter of public benefits and the benefits cliff is a lot more nuanced and complicated than I think a lot of us understand. When we talk about disincentives, it often defaults to income and rises in pay and how that implicates career advancement and disincentivizes folks from taking on additional roles.

But in my research, we've also expanded our view of public benefits cliffs to also include what we refer to as cracks and canyons because people are also disincentivized from achieving or maintaining career advancement because of things like work requirements, because of layoffs.

And I don't know if people know this: there are actual barriers in public benefits that tell people that they can't remain on public assistance if they want to go back to school, if they want to get additional education and training so that they can move up the career ladder.

So it's incumbent upon state leaders to actually review and evaluate those policies so that they can get rid of them, frankly, and stop blocking people from moving up the income ladder by obtaining the skills and education and credentials needed to benefit from higher-wage employment, better job quality, and others. So very limited, there's so much more that I could say there in terms of the contributions, but those are just the few that are top of mind for me.

Birken: Thank you, Alex. I really appreciate you talking about the importance of the community and the state bridge building and working together, recognizing that within the communities—that is where all of these services ultimately are provided and where we have either challenges or opportunities. So, Monesia, I want to shift to you.

With Walmart being the largest employer and your work in Florida, in particular, that's a state that has vast diversity and rural and urban communities. I know that you have a unique perspective in the work that you all did during recovery. I would love to hear about your focus and perspective on how prioritizing traditionally underserved populations was really critical, and some of the work that occurred in this last year.

Monesia Brown: Great. Well, thank you. Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to participate in this important discussion. There are definitely some similar themes across all of our points today so far. And I think I'll be maybe duplicating a little bit of information, but certainly giving a different perspective.

I want to thank the Atlanta Fed and Dr. Birken for leading in the convening of this thoughtful discussion on equity and inclusive recovery. The more I think we share and share our experiences and our ideas, I think the better we are at supporting and lifting these communities up that so desperately need it.

At Walmart we are truly committed to our mission, helping our customers save money so that they can live better. And to that end, our customers and associates have been top of mind as we develop strategies to respond to the pandemic and the racial equity opportunities. But many ask, how does Walmart fit in this discussion? And I think it's important to start with, Walmart was on the forefront of responding to COVID.

As an essential business in many states, we had to develop a plan to keep our customers and associates safe in our stores, in our clubs. And then as the third largest pharmacy chain in the country, we began working with the federal and state governments to provide COVID testing in communities. Many of these COVID testing sites were developed as partnerships with community organizations.

In most cases, we had never worked with these organizations in the past. So that was brand-new for a lot of us. Then next, we pivoted to providing COVID vaccines through the process. And we continued to learn, as a result, about the communities that we serve. And I think this has just enlightened us and helped form how we continue to support the communities as we move forward in developing not just our business strategies, but supporting the communities that are, frankly, the base and foundation of our work.

So, we took the testing and vaccines to the communities that needed access to this health care and frankly, needed access to health care professionals who could advise and educate them on how best to care for themselves to protect against COVID. And as I mentioned, we learned about communities we serve through this experience. As the largest employer in most states, the communities we serve are our associates and their families.

And we had to lean in to really understand their needs to even keep them safely coming to work every day. In Florida, I learned that rural communities had limited access to basic health care and technology resources, which we kind of all know, but in this circumstance, both of those were essential to just obtaining a COVID testing appointment, which were often made through a phone app.

And those individuals also did not have information about how to protect themselves against COVID and how to get the necessary treatment for them or their family members if they tested positive. In the urban communities, we saw lack of access was not the largest impediment. There was a lack of affordable resources like transportation to get to a testing or vaccine site.

In these communities, it was also difficult to communicate critical information in one mainstream forum. For example, we had to determine in the urban communities the best or primary resource for information. In some cases, it was radio; in some cases, it was neighborhood churches; in some cases, it was locally elected officials and their newsletters that they send out to the community.

In both cases, though, we began working with new local partners to identify and understand the community and develop the best plans to support the community needs for those who are most vulnerable. And that has helped us evolve in terms of our action items, as a company who's invested in these communities to really develop action items that are not just strategies but are strategies that we know will help with those communities.

Birken: Thank you, Monesia. Really appreciate it as you talk about the importance of being within a community and figuring out the working strategy from there. Alicia, I would like to pivot back to you to talk a bit about Step Up Savannah as a community nonprofit and how your organization and related community efforts help target resources that support economic mobility.

Johnson: Oh, absolutely. Monesia touched on so many great points around community access because we sometimes as service providers, or the people planning at the table, presume that access equals opportunity. And that is not the case when there's a gap there between resources and what people have on hand, their own social capital, and being able to do that.

And likewise, what Alex mentioned about that's why it's so important for community-based agencies to be at the table, to work with corporate partners, public sector, to kind of draw that intersection for those who are willing to serve there with people-centered policy and programs. Because if we've learned nothing else during this time of the pandemic, we've learned that trickle-down economics don't really work.

We need some bubble up from programming from the community base. So Step Up Savannah does that on a number of levels to include capacity building, looking for gaps across our own regional social safety net as opportunities for some to pivot or innovate programming such as the Career Opportunity Dashboard for Economic Mobility that we just recently launched that planner here, that CLIFF tool that Alex Ruder alluded to.

We provide other direct servicing programs around public benefits access, workforce development that seeks to place unemployed and underemployed individuals in self-sustaining wages by not only skilling them up, but with soft skills and hard skills, that stackable credential that allows them to walk in the door and ask for more money when they apply.

But we also provide for them, in the context of that workforce development, tools in their tool kit. Resources like counseling, conflict resolution, mediation, record expungement, record restriction, helping them navigate health needs, and then providing support to stabilize them in self-sufficient employment such as those childcare stipends and transportation stipends, and even clothing to go to the first interview or work boots or whatever the case might be for that particular family.

And so, what we found is those kind of direct servicing programs and supports are needed, again, as bridging capital across that social safety net to support those working families. And we can't provide those kinds of supports without partners like our corporate partners in the private sector like Walmart and some of our others. But it's important that also our policymakers and community leaders are also invested in ensuring that those kinds of programs are available across the community.

Birken: Thank you, Alicia. Talethia, I want to come back to you now. Monesia and Alicia both talked about some real tangible examples, recognizing needs of families. And I want to ask you, what do you see as the most important opportunities to help support economic mobility for families with young children? And in your experience working with families, what are the resources that are absolutely critical for supporting families in achieving their career goals?

Edwards: Yeah. So, Alicia touched on it when she talked about advocates, and all of us working together to make sure that these particular things get down to the families. And so, I like to consider myself as a translator between community-based organizations, government, and other things.

And what I see as opportunities here is for us to actually use some of these resources collaboratively to actually meet the needs, to provide more slots for childcare for families who have young children, accessibility of actually these networks that are formal.

I think that we need to actually begin to look at more informal networks as we're navigating through systems now that are different. We're in a pandemic. And so, you heard Monesia and Alicia both talk about capacity being limited, access to resources being limited, all of these barriers. So now, instead of focusing on the formal systems that have actually been put in place, we need to look at the informal systems.

How do we gird those up, the people who are actually providing assistance for those who are in need that are not being looked at because they don't fit in this kind of traditional model? Also, you asked, some of the things that I see as pressing career opportunities for families is actually being able to have mobility and to come off of, not lose the benefits that they have because they're looking to increase wages so that they can have mobility in their income or in their spaces.

It's just I'm taking in all of what we're saying and I'm thinking about where we are and what's actually happening. We're talking a lot in my community in theories of what can be. But actually, really looking at what's happening and what the needs are, and what families with young children who are working are facing right now. These things haven't changed.

We're noticing just that now we're having more mental health issues on top of the access to health care and those different resources. And so how do we, as a full network, look at the benefits cliff, the economic mobility, the structural racism, and inequalities that exist, and actually combat those head-on? It's a big, big feat, but we do that one step at a time through collaboration with local leaders, nonprofits, businesses such as Walmart, and then we're going to see some changes, some movement for working families.

Birken: Thank you, Talethia. I really appreciate you underscoring the point and opportunity of collaboration and coordination, which is I think the theme across many of our answers and with each of the roles that you all have. Monesia, I want to pivot back to you and talk about the contributions of employers.

So, we'd like to ask you, with that in mind, how are employers like Walmart bridging the resource gaps that Talethia is mentioning, and that we've heard about this morning. And can you speak to strategies that are being employed, and how they can support career advancement and economic mobility?

Brown: Absolutely. And I tell the story about what Walmart is doing, not because I think we're uniquely positioned unlike other major corporations, but I think a lot of corporations are doing their part to really try to make a difference. And I can tell you a little bit about what Walmart has done and how we have really changed our focus.

Last year, following the death of George Floyd and the racial unrest, our CEO, Doug McMillon, put a stake in the ground and committed Walmart to racial equity efforts, not only with words communicating that we will do more, but also committing dollars to those efforts.

And I think a lot of people see companies say they're going to do something, but we never really see what the result is. We never really know if there's any true action. But in our case, our CEO committed $100 million from Walmart to the cause. We created shared-value networks, four networks to focus on four key areas: health care, finance, education, and criminal justice. In addition to creating our own internal racial equity institute.

These groups are working to identify both internal and external opportunities to revise practices and policies that, whether intentional or unintentional, restrict access to these key areas for diverse populations. So, we're bridging resource gaps by expanding both the internal and external programs. As we develop more conversations internally, a lot of folks said, "Well, we need to look in our own house."

And we've also taken that very seriously. So, for example, one area that we are leaning into is education. And we already offered an education program for $1 a day for college education that's called Live Better U. Under that program, Walmart subsidizes the cost of higher education, beyond financial aid and the associates' contribution, equal to $1 a day.

Degrees through this program are offered through universities that we're familiar with, like the University of Florida. So, we're finding schools to partner with that have a special focus on serving working adult learners in that program. But beyond that, now that we've had a chance to really dig deeper and look more closely at the program, we're realizing that we can expand those offerings, and we're looking to develop relationships with historically Black colleges and universities.

We're focusing on informing our associates about these programs that are not only available for them as individuals, but also available for their families. We're also identifying and working with new and local partners who are doing the amazing things on the ground, but they may not have access to the financial resources to scale their amazing work.

And through our grant process, we're helping to scale those projects, which are organically grown and they're making a significant difference in key areas that I've identified. My goal in Florida is to really tell the Walmart story, but lift up the organizations and their work so that we can all continue to grow that and develop the fabric of these communities.

And frankly, given the new post-pandemic environment, really figure out where do we go from here? I'll give you two examples of programs that we supported that I get really excited about. The first one was Do Good for One out of Miami. And this was a program that was basically a one-man show.

This gentleman works to support the technology infrastructure for those students in the Miami-Dade school district who don't have a lot of access to technology. And, of course, once the pandemic hit and all of the schools had to provide for virtual learning, those were students that didn't have access to devices.

So not only was he supporting kind of the technology support for students and understanding how to use their technology, but he pivoted to having to help support them by getting them the technology. And so, we've worked with him to get devices and access to the internet to a significant number of students in the Miami-Dade school district. And again, it was an organic program that existed.

We didn't have to create something new. We could just support and lift that program up. Another program that I get really excited about supports the workforce training that Alex referenced, that really supports the career advancement leading to financial well-being, is a program out of Gainesville, Florida.

The Gainesville Housing Authority created a program before the pandemic where they were providing training in the Housing Authority to a small number of individuals who lived there so that they could learn how to do electrical work, learn how to do maintenance and landscaping. And they would provide that training on-site to a small number of individuals, and then guarantee that those individuals would get a job within their community where they live.

So, they would train them, then they would employ them. And then they also, obviously by virtue of this investment in themselves as a worker, they're also giving back to their own community and helping to support those around them. We were able to join forces with them so that they could expand the number of training programs that they were able to offer to, again, lift up those communities.

So, like I said, it's not that these are new or innovative ideas, but we're working with new partners that we had never really connected with before, but realizing that we don't have to start from scratch in developing these programs, we just have to lean in and get a better understanding of where these great programs exist and help them build.

Birken: Thank you, Monesia. I really appreciate you sharing real, tangible action items. And somewhat relatedly, Alex, if you thought my first question was loaded, you might really find the second one fully loaded, but I know you can handle it.

So in thinking about changes in practice like those Monesia just described from Walmart, when you think about approaching economic recovery, what strategies or approaches, be it changes in practice or policy or funding, can community and states really think about for how to better align systems and resources in a way that can meaningfully support career advancement and economic mobility?

Camardelle: Yeah, of course. I actually love that question. So, I want to reiterate the investment piece, and I'm trying to make it a practice to point out that budgets are moral documents, or they should be. So, if the budgets where you are locally or in your state don't reflect investments that are meaningful enough to impact or fight poverty, then it's not a very good statement of priorities. At least not one that's rooted in economic resilience.

So that's something that we should keep in mind as states and local municipalities are exploring new investments, how to deliver resources that are provided through the federal government, through the ARP [American Rescue Plan] and all of these additional recovery plans that have been passed in recent months.

Another opportunity to think about is, with each of these public benefits programs that we're discussing, there are plans associated with all of them, right? So, for instance, for childcare, there's a state CDBG [community development block grant] plan for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]. There's a SNAP Employment and Training plan. There's a TANF state plan. There's a CDBG, community development block grant plan.

And all of these plans are statutorily required to have some input from the community, from community-based organizations or from directly impacted individuals. And rarely, if ever, are those groups or stakeholders truly reflected or represented in those plans, at least their perspectives.

So I encourage folks who are making decisions around this, and those who are looking to get involved, to seek out ways to democratize the plan development so that we can address some of the roadblocks in public assistance for people who are struggling with economic mobility issues. And a lot of people don't know that.

I mean, there are ways that we can think about explicit goals for delivering resources to people that are in need. You could even incorporate racial equity goals. There are a lot of ways to make these plans more attentive or more responsive in a way that could improve economic recovery in states.

And so, my point there is that a lot of these are federally distributed.

I mean, these are federal programs, but states have great latitude on how they design and develop and provide those benefits. And it's important for us to know how we can plug in. I mean, even our workforce plans, right? States have to submit federal work workforce plans, workforce development plans. And sometimes the windows to provide public comment are really short, and it's not always as accessible, and you have to have good internet access.

So, there are challenges there. But there are intermediaries and community-based organizations that can help people engage in those processes. Also, less practical for a lot of folks, but something that really needs to be considered is narrative. Discourse or narrative. I mean, I may use those interchangeably, but when it comes to public assistance, we have a huge narrative problem.

Narrative is shaped by media, by public officials, and others, and that has material effects on public policy. And then, in turn, has real-world day-to-day effects on the experiences of people navigating antipoverty programs. And I want us to hold that we have a history in this country, especially in the Southeast, where really harmful narratives have been used to control and worsen the material conditions of people of color in the South.

So, we're seeing this now manifest in our unemployment insurance/labor shortage debate, where people are considered lazy. There's this notion of a culture of dependency. I'm a historian of, I guess, the safety net and public assistance. And I think back to the '70s, late '60s, early '70s to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's work in Congress around guaranteed income with Nixon, which is really interesting, which got shot down, but eventually was built on this notion of trying to combat pathology in Black families and dependency in Black families.

And Moynihan is complicated because later on in life as a senator, he actually evolved and opposed a lot of the really harmful elements of our public assistance programs we have today through the 1996 Welfare Reform. But I digress. That narrative contributed to the welfare queen tropes and the others around laziness that I mentioned earlier, and it's still embedded deeply in our public assistance system.

So I think we have to be honest about the roots of those narratives, where they come from, and how they've been deployed intentionally to construct rules that hurt people, primarily women and people of color, that have no place in our society today. Which is one of the reasons why I'm excited about the movement for guaranteed income, which is a movement toward unconditional support for children and families who are at near the bottom of the income ladder.

So that's something else that I want to contribute. The narrative piece is a big one. Again, it feels very abstract, but addressing narrative and discourse around this by telling the truth, the unvarnished truth about the history of TANF and AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], and what people used to say about the people receiving these benefits is really important.

If we think about moving toward an antiracist public assistance system, I think we have to be very clear about why these programs exist in the first place and why the rules within them exist to begin with. So, I'll stop there. But those are a couple of ways that I think about this post-pandemic new normal that I hope we can get to with these new innovations around unrestricted support for families.

Birken: Thank you, Alex. I appreciate your thoughtful response to a very complicated question, and it tees up very nicely a question that I will open up to any and all of you for your reflection, which is: in thinking about more traditional economic recovery efforts of the past, those efforts are often race neutral. And so, would ask and invite you all to share perspectives, opportunities, and strategies on how efforts can be more explicit to ensure an equitable and inclusive recovery.

Edwards: Brittany, I really like that question, and I think about when these programs are developing and they're race neutral, they're created from a place of privilege, right? Not considering and really thinking about the cultural and systemic issues of the past and those that currently exist. And what happens when that is done is it makes it very difficult for communities, specifically, communities of color to access these particular resources or programs.

And therefore, there needs to be someone translating, who is now saying, how do we make these resources available where people are not using them? I heard that a lot with the COVID vaccine. No one is using them. No one is applying for the funds. Why not bring those funds, or programs, or benefits into the community so that those who do understand or leaders who are working closely with community and agency can be that bridge or connector between program and people and can really help connect the dots.

And I get really passionate about this particular point because I love to say, "You didn't create that for us." And they say, "What do you mean? It's for everybody to access." But how do we, and I mean, communities of color, those who are working class or in the community, how do we sift through the language? How do we understand?

How do we overcome the barriers and access the benefits when it seems to be formed or created in a way that's race neutral? And we understand, culturally, we've been disadvantaged. We've been left out of policy creation, program creation, and all of these things.

So, I say all of that to say that one, we should stop creating race-neutral programs, that we should be specific on who we're serving or who we're targeting. And when we know we want a particular group of people to access or have opportunity for a benefit, that we take it directly to the community so that one, you got trust building, you got familiarity, and then you have a kind of a walk-through process.

And you don't have that timidness or maybe even shame of accessing benefits, or asking questions, or saying, "I can't read." We run into that. So that's a big question, but it's a good question. I think that concept of race neutral is definitely developed from a place of privilege. It needs to be rethought.

Birken: Yeah. Thank you, Talethia. Alicia, I'm going to come to you next. I know, Talethia, and the life that you live, and being very busy and being in the community—I know you have some time constraints. I'm so glad you were able to help contextualize why this is such an important question. And Alicia, we'll pivot to you now. I think you were about to respond on maybe some of the how.

Johnson: Yeah. So, to pivot from what Talethia said, when we think about economic mobility overall, for every dollar owned by the average White family in the United States, the average family of color has less than one dime. And so, the wealth gap or the divide is only exacerbated by the growing barriers to economic mobility.

And we also know that most of those who are economically disenfranchised live in the country's southern region where there is traditionally high African American populations, and economic mobility and wealth indicators highlight economic equity issues, mostly along the lines of color. So, to have race-neutral protocols, programs, policies, and any pathways to those are not helpful.

In fact, we see in essence what continues to be created, in the great words of W.E. Du Bois, which is a poor race in a land full of dollars. Because those families of color are typically disenfranchised, as Talethia mentioned, from even accessing the opportunity. So, I think it's important in our planning, as Alex mentioned earlier, about having moral budgets that recognize that people-centered programming and community investment is necessary to reach the groups that need it the most.

Camardelle: I want to provide an example. A, I want to say, I fundamentally believe that we can't improve racist structures with race-neutral solutions. It's in the law. It lives in the law. How are we expected to address those through race-neutral solutions? So, an example of that, when I think about public assistance, I think about TANF. I think about our main cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

And there's a policy within TANF called the family cap. And I don't know if everybody is familiar with it, but it is a rule that tells you—and it's not in all states. Select states that decided to opt out of it…but essentially, if you are receiving TANF with a child and you have another child, you are denied benefits.

And the purpose of that law is to presumably restrict illegitimate child rearing and baby having. It's a reproductive tool, right? To restrict reproductive rights for women. And back in the 1950s, Georgia, where I'm based and Alicia is based and where our Fed friends are, became the first state to actually pass a family cap law. And it was so egregious that the federal government basically said, "No, you can't do this."

Now, this is the '50s telling a southern state that they can't pass something so egregious. And the governor of Georgia said, "Seventy percent of the cases of multiple illegitimacy in a family were in Black families." And I quote. That is from his State of the State Address in 1951. If they implemented the family cap, it would save the state $400,000 annually. So, there was a fiscal component to this as well, right?

It's fundamentally racist. And the numbers don't stack up. The evidence behind this law has been disproving the effects of the family cap time and time again. But it became crystallized in the 1996 Welfare Reform law and is a component of our safety net of TANF today, which is extremely troubling and why there's been a movement to eliminate that particular policy all across the country.

But my point in sharing that is because that policy was developed from racist ideas and attitudes about Black women, about Black families’ illegitimacy. And it is literally on the books today. It exists in several states. So, that's why I believe and wanted to center that we have to be race explicit, we have to acknowledge that historical component and track down the origins of a lot of these rules, which is a difficult task.

To track down that quote, I had to go through a lot of really old newspaper clippings to find that what was reported on about that, or go through old legislative documents to look at the actual record of what was said that day in the legislative debate. And that takes a lot of work and energy, but it's so necessary to confront these policies.

I would say another one is work requirements, which expands across all of our public benefits programs, which are frankly, just racist outright. I mean, they are an artifact of enslavement and post-Reconstruction labor laws, and they exist without much critique across the political spectrum because it is baked into who we are as a nation, right?

The bootstrap mentality: you have to work, pull yourself up out of poverty yourself. And what it does is it tells people that nothing gets in the way of their economic resilience or economic mobility, not even racism itself. So, something that I've been encouraged by and have encouraged others to support, are looking at, in the meantime, until we eliminate work requirements completely: assess labor markets desegregated by race.

We change the rules around work requirements based off of aggregate measures and we don't look at the disproportionate unemployment rates for people of color. So, for instance, for SNAP, we say if in an area the unemployment rate reaches a certain level, we'll suspend the work requirement. And then whenever it goes back down to what's acceptable, we'll re-implement it. Well, guess what, the unemployment rate is going to vary.

It's going to be two times or three times higher for Black folks than it will be for White workers. It'll be much higher for folks living in communities that have disparate access to transportation, to training opportunities, etc., compared to those who live where I live, in metro Atlanta, which by the way, doesn't have the best transportation infrastructure still.

So, I think looking through these policies through a race-neutral lens definitely ignores a lot of those dynamics that distance people, primarily people of color from economic security, and they're penalized for it, for things that are completely out of their control. They're penalized for it.

They're cut off of assistance, which has not just effects on their household financial security, but also their health, also their food insecurity, and educational outcomes, and so many other matters as well. So, 100 percent endorsing race-explicit goals and looking at the data and evaluating programs based off of disaggregating data by race and ethnicity versus not doing that. And I think that would be a start. That's the floor, right? That's where we should start. And so, I'll get off my box.

Birken: No, thank you. I really appreciate your responses and thinking about the importance of not continuing race-neutral approaches and thinking about improving economic mobility. We had a question come in from the audience that's somewhat related to where you ended, Alex. And so, we'll offer it.

It said: Hearing Talethia speak about the need for informal supports in addition to formal benefit programs, and Alex speak about the history and narrative built into formal programs, do we need to start shifting toward GBI [guaranteed basic income] programs, or is there a way to fix existing benefits programs? And so, does anyone want to offer your thoughts on that question?

Johnson: I mean, I think Alex pretty much answered that when he talks about dealing with some of the issues. One of the things that we see that is very limiting to families are those work requirements. So, I think, again, having that people-centered policy and program approach could help us solution for the barriers that we're seeing for our families to even make it to the front line to economic mobility. And so, I think what seems difficult is actually a simple fix whereas when we began to go in and dismantle some of those things.

Here in Georgia, conversations around making a work requirement for Medicaid, we're talking about health care here for working families and not expanding those benefit options for families during a time of a pandemic with federal supports and reserves. And to redirect, as Alex mentioned, redirect our approach to budgeting where we're looking at siphoning off resources from the social safety net to preserve rather than making long-term community investments in the economy that will produce economic mobility for years to come. And that's not what we're seeing overall in states.

Edwards: Yeah. And very good, Alicia, what you just said. When I talk about informal systems, the word I'm not seeing is equity, right? That we need to really look at how do we make economic mobility and access equitable. And so how you do that is by removing...people don't like when I say remove the system, and I'm not necessarily saying do away with them, but when you talk about equity, you really have to look at equity happening in the policies and the resources and those such things.

And you do that by looking at how's it being done. I think about my life and I decided, me and my husband, that I was going to be a stay-at-home mom. And for the majority of what I would like to think is my young career-building days, I was at home raising kids. And when I entered working into the workforce, and even now trying to develop professionally, I realized there are so many inequities in the system that even being an advocate, I'm addressing them all the time, and that gets tiring.

So how do we create equity by acknowledging that things are done outside of the system, the traditional way, that is working? How do we resource those things? And how do we provide technical assistance so that families can understand, you can remove the stigma, the shame, all of those things for asking, how do I do this? Another example, when you talk about financial mobility and financial equity and moving up, where do I start?

When I don't even understand what that means to make a living wage, it's to save money and to invest money and all of those things. So, we got to think about making all of this access and economic mobility and benefits cliff equitable for everybody by first acknowledging that the systems that we have are not equitable. And in seeing what systems that are informal systems that are working, that can help us get to an equitable position.

Brown: Yeah. I would just add on to exactly what to Talethia is saying. Traditionally, the only people who know what those barriers are, are the people who are trying to get through those barriers. And for all the turmoil that we've had over the last year, we're all understanding more about where those barriers exist and where those impediments are. And as a result, for all of the challenges we've had to face, I think we're all more knowledgeable about what exists when it comes to getting access to health care or access to a job, access to education.

And so I think inasmuch as we're having this conversation about the challenges that exist, I think we're also becoming so much more aware as a country and as corporations, as leaders in our communities, about something small that may exist—just because it was, to Alex's point, something that came out of 1950, that no one is even aware of because they haven't had to experience—it is now in the forefront. So, while I look at the question about, do we fix what we have, or do we start all over?

I think it's a little bit of all of that. But the education piece that's happening right now, and that comes out of these conversations and bringing the right people to the table is, I think, what's going to change the future, whatever that strategy looks like. It's really starting with, let's all be aware of what exists and how we make it better.

Camardelle: I 100 percent agree. That's where I'm at mentally. How are we telling the truth about these programs and educating people about the origins there? Which, we're entering into a new world where even that is dangerous for folks, particularly in education. But I digress on that point. We can have a different offline conversation about that.

I think the operative words is to "start to shift" because I believe in the practicality of—in the moment, the window that we're in politically and policywise, where we need to think incrementally about these things. In the South, we're just going to be slower to get there. It just is what it is.

And I think until we get to that kind of unrestricted, unconditional vision of our safety net, then we need to put the things that—we can weed out the horrible components of what exists in order to make it as good as it can be until we win on the other front, on the guaranteed-income front at a bigger level.

And we're winning, right? Today, the CTC [Child Tax Credit] is in effect, and millions and millions and millions of families woke up to deposits in their bank account today. And we got income payments, Economic Impact Payments, multiple times over the last year. So, we are seeing some monumental change there.

But at any rate, the safety net, as we know it, still needs to exist. Even though it has bad elements, we still need it in place to fill the void and fill the gap for people who will miss out on the other things that we've been experimenting with over the last year. So, I look forward to what's to come.

I do think TANF, for example, we can replace it one day, but we need it now because families are using it now. It just needs to be overhauled significantly. Same for SNAP, childcare, housing vouchers, LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], the whole gambit there. I think if I had to sum it up in a few words, it's both/and for now.

Birken: Thank you, all, for sharing your expertise and your perspectives. This is really complex issues that we've unpacked a bit this morning. And I really just thank you for making the points that you've made about the need to be investigative and to think, but also for proffering some good practices and solutions that are setting in motion important changes when we think about an inclusive economic recovery. So just thank you to the panelists. And with that, I will turn it back over to my colleague, Julie.

Siwicki: Wow. Thank you, Britt, for holding that space. Thank you to Alex, and Monesia, and Talethia, Alicia. You've all brought really powerful insights to this discussion and I think you're leaving us with a lot to chew on.

I'm hearing themes around the need for collaboration, the need for investments and plans for those investments, and we're hearing it needs to stay grounded in these hyper-local constraints and opportunities. And all of it needs to stay grounded in this idea that the existing structures around safety net, around training opportunities, around all these components of financial well-being—these structures are not having race-neutral outcomes. We really need to think critically about what that means for restructuring them.

So, before we close, I wanted to point everyone to a few resources. This slide has a whole lot of them that we work on here at the Atlanta Fed. Some focused on people, some focused on communities. And you can find more details about all of this at our website

And there's one that's not here that I did also want to point out, we have a Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity, which works on very relevant issues to this conversation. So, you can find more about that center at our website as well. I also wanted to encourage you to check out the Federal Reserve’s Racism and the Economy series. This is another series of conversations being hosted by all 12 Reserve Banks.

Just this past week, we held the seventh installment, and these will continue throughout the year. All of the sessions are being recorded and available online. And you can find more by looking up Racism and the Economy, the Federal Reserve. And lastly, I just would like to thank you all for joining us.

And also think our colleagues here at the Fed who made this happen: Mary Hirt, Jasmine Burnett, Jennifer [Leak], Tameka [Gunn], Alex [Ruder]. Thank you, all, for putting this together. And if you go to the next slide again, thank you to the audience here. We hope you can stay in touch.

We hope you can share with us what's resonating with you today because we really want this conversation to continue in a way that is valuable for you and all the great work that you're doing here in the Southeast and beyond. Some ways to reach us are here on this slide, whether by email, text, or on social media. We look forward to continue dialogue and partnership with you all. So, thank you again, and have a great afternoon.