Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

Fixing the Social Benefits System for Working Families

Imagine LA volunteers and staff assist families working to break the cycle of generational poverty. (photo from Imagine LA)



Editor’s Note: Imagine LA, a local non-profit whose executive director and several board members live in the neighborhood, is working to help families break the cycle of poverty through mentorship that transforms lives, builds relationships, well-being and economic mobility. We asked Imagine LA to share it findings from a recent study the organization conducted with the USC Price Center for Social Innovation.  


The Social Benefits System is a Sticky Spider Web for Working Families. Imagine LA Has Set Out To Fix It.
By: Brian Rosenbaum, Community Engagement Director, Imagine LA


For families, poverty is a trap that gets handed down from one generation to the next. Homelessness is poverty’s most extreme form. For the 2 million kids in LA County living in poverty, it has trapped their grandparents, their parents, and it will trap them, too, if we don’t do something about it to break the cycle.

And yet: what if you made $26,000 a year and were told that you no longer qualified for food stamps because you were “middle class?” The median annual household income in LA City is $65,000. What if you lost crucial income because your child turned 18? What if you were offered the perfect new job but didn’t know whether you would lose your housing when your salary increased?

Over the last 16 years, this has been the lived experience of Leilani Reed, a graduate of Imagine LA’s Family Partnership Model, a holistic program that helps families break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

“At every turn, I felt like I had one hand tied behind my back!” she said. “How are families supposed to get out of poverty with the system like it is? How can I create a better life for my kids when I hit these roadblocks at every corner?”

“The social benefit system seemed like a black box that would randomly punch our hardworking families in the stomach and leave them mired in poverty,” said Imagine LA’s CEO Jill Bauman. “So Imagine LA, determined to help our families break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, decided to figure out what was happening inside the black box. We engaged the USC Price Center for Social Innovation to help – and the answer turned out to be, “It’s incredibly complicated.”

The USC research revealed exactly how the benefits system works. It found that as families earn more money, they lose roughly the same in social benefits, creating resource plateaus and benefit cliffs that leave a family no better off in terms of total resources available to them. These create disincentives to work and fear of losing benefits.

The study also found that given the high cost of housing in LA, it was impossible for a single mom working full-time to get out of poverty with a housing subsidy such as Section 8. In addition, the research revealed that the entry point for receiving benefits was so low that families had to essentially hit rock bottom – that is, become homeless – before qualifying to receive benefits.

Simply put, the social safety net, while well-intentioned, has become a complicated, sticky spiderweb, that neither acts as a safety net nor a springboard out of poverty.

The research also helped Imagine LA identify another startling gap: a vacuum of leadership in the family poverty and homelessness sector.

“Nobody is responsible for this problem,” said Bauman. “No clear measures of success, accountability, transparency, or dedicated funding streams means that families experiencing homelessness are left invisible.” For example, while the 13% increase in overall homelessness in LA County in 2020 made headlines, the 46% increase in family homelessness was nowhere to be seen.

Now let’s imagine something different: A set of programs and innovative toolsets that own the problem and actually empower families to free themselves from the sticky spiderweb. That’s the gap that Imagine LA is filling.

Imagine LA’s innovative Economic Mobility Program (EMP) addresses basic family financial empowerment through its living-wage career pathways, childcare access, and Financial Fitness programming. It has helped put many Imagine LA families on the path to economic success. But Bauman sees an opportunity for greater impact at scale.

Imagine LA is building an online Social Benefit Calculator, which will serve as a tool for families and case workers to navigate the broken social safety net system. After serving 208 families in 2021, Imagine LA’s EMP Expansion Plan will bring the whole program to 100 more families in 2022 through partnerships with four other agencies. The pilots are testing the Calculator’s scalability, and if successful, the sky is the limit for impact in LA County and beyond.

“Imagine LA is building such innovative programming to help families like mine,” said Reed. “But as long as the social safety net remains so broken, every family’s journey out of poverty will be that much harder.” That’s why Imagine LA is building an alliance of organizations to identify and advocate for more streamlined policies and administrative access that actually prevent family homelessness and promote economic mobility.

“We call on LA’s next Mayor to take this problem head-on,” said Bauman. “Our city will never be all it can be if families living in poverty remain prisoners of a system meant to free them. Join us, Mayor, to give families a fighting chance at accessing the American Dream of economic independence.”

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