Assets can build the bridge from the safety net to self-sufficiency

An front-page USA Today article last week reported that government anti-poverty programs – including Medicaid health insurance coverage, food stamps, unemployment benefits and welfare cash assistance – are now assisting one in six Americans and are continuing to expand.  Anyone who has been following the monthly releases of our Numbers You Need bulletin is unlikely to be surprised by the trends reported by USA Today.  Oklahoma continues to see ongoing growth and record caseloads for Medicaid (just under 695,000 recipients) and food stamps (over 585,000), with fewer individuals receiving cash payments for unemployment benefits (weekly average of 36,000 initial and continuing claims) and TANF (21,640).

It so happened that USA Today published its report the day before the Oklahoma Asset Building Coalition held the first of five regional meetings around the state. These gathering are bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to talk about  challenges facing low- and moderate-income Oklahomans and strategies for achieving economic security. The meeting began with a presentation on the Oklahoma Self-Sufficiency Standard, a tool for calculating the amount of income that families of different sizes and compositions need to meet their basic household expenses – housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, taxes and miscellaneous – without public or private support or subsidies. For a single working adult with one infant and one preschool child, the hourly self-sufficiency wage is $16.43 an hour in Cherokee County and over $21.63 an hour in Tulsa County. For a two-parent family with kids that age, each working adult would need to make $10.28 an hour in Cherokee County and $12.39 an hour in Tulsa to meet its basic needs. It’s worth mentioning that this is a basic family budget with an austere set of assumptions – it includes no meals out or entertainment, no one-time purchases, no loan payments or money put aside for savings.

It’s obvious that for many working Oklahomans, there is a substantial gap between the actual wages paid by available jobs and the self-sufficiency standard. As jobs have disappeared and wage growth has collapsed over the course of the recession, the gap has certainly widened and more families have fallen into it. However, well before the downturn started, and presumably long after it ends, adults may work full-time and make the best possible decisions about how to budget their money and yet still fall short of making end meet without some form of ongoing help.

There are at least two major implications that can be drawn from the Self-Sufficiency Standard.  The first is that for this population of working families whose income falls short of self-sufficiency, identified sometimes as the working poor, access to public programs like Medicaid, food stamps, child care subsidies and rental assistance provide the critical supports that maintain family health and well-being. Research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that public safety net programs have cut the number of Americans living in poverty by nearly half, reduced the severity of poverty for those who remain poor, and helped protect Americans from the deepest extremes of poverty. As we discussed in this blog post, key parts of the safety net are seriously frayed, but for those who qualify, public benefit programs are frequently what allow low- and moderate-income working families to pay the bills and take care of basic needs from one month to the next.

Yet for families to get ahead, it will take more than public benefits and income supports. The second implication of the Self-Sufficiency Standard is the need for strategies focused on helping families achieve economic security.The Oklahoma Asset Building Coalition has chosen to focus on building and preserving assets as a key cornerstone and pathway. As OK Policy argued in a recent brief:

For individuals and families aiming to achieve economic success, the key to prosperity is the development and accumulation of assets. Assets are the basic foundations for financial security and the pathway to the American Dream.

Over the course of our remaining upcoming meetings, which will be held in Durant, Lawton, Oklahoma City and Woodward over the month of September, the Coalition will continue the work of identifying practices, programs and policies that can make a difference in building and protecting assets and expanding economic security. If you are interested in attending one of the meetings, click here for a schedule and registration information. Or click here to join the Oklahoma Assets Google group where you can share information, news, resources and questions related to asset building strategies and policies.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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