Partner Perspectives: Erica Bouris of the International Rescue Committee on the Financial Volatility of COVID-19 and Its Impact on Low-Income Families

Wednesday November 11, 2020

From just about any vantage point, 2020 has been a volatile year.

A global pandemic has led to more than a million deaths worldwide—and caused massive economic disruption. In the United States, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police led to a national reckoning over the continued reality of systemic racism and inequality. Adding to the instability is the fraught political backdrop of the 2020 presidential election.

In responding to these shifts, the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) economic empowerment team has found itself with a renewed focus on 2020’s impact on some of our society’s most vulnerable members. Our economic empowerment team works to address the needs of this demographic, many of whom are immigrants and refugees, through workforce programs and initiatives that support rebuilding and success in their lives. Through our partnership with the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, we’ve been able to provide direct assistance to workers economically affected by COVID-19.

In our recent brief, Low-Income Families and COVID-19: Financial Lives Rife with Volatility Become Even More So, we highlight the results of this work. The brief reveals that it is not just low incomes that make financial life challenging for poor families, but the instability they experience day to day, week to week, month to month. This unpredictability ramped up in 2020, putting pressure and stress on households that were already struggling.

Through IRC’s economic empowerment team, we reach 50,000 of these individuals each year, helping them to build lives in communities ranging from Seattle, Washington, to Abilene, Texas, to Atlanta, Georgia. By conducting this work, and through our collaboration with other practitioners, we’ve established set practices and policies that can help these people—immigrants, refugees, and the roughly 60 million Americans who earn less than $15 an hour—to not only survive 2020, but thrive in the years ahead. Outlined below are just a few of the practices and policies we hope to see take shape in the upcoming months to achieve this goal:

  • Emphasize financial coaching, incentivized savings, and credit-building as a part of job training programs to ensure that low-income families (and especially new Americans) have the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills they need to manage their often complex household budgets as well as the opportunity to build tangible assets (savings, a good credit score) to lean on in difficult times.
  • Use existing flexibility—especially in federal block grant-funded programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), special COVID-related flexibility provisions, and the state-funded portion of unemployment insurance—to identify and address benefit cliff issues. The goal should be to smooth the way changes in income will impact benefits received. This is especially important as it pertains to childcare and housing, which have an outsize impact on low-income families.
  • Pursue and support legislation that requires greater accountability among businesses to decrease work schedule instability. This can include requirements to provide work schedules with reasonable notice, requiring pay when workers must be “on call” for work, and requiring a minimum period of pay when a worker shows up for work, even if they are sent home early.
  • Strengthen legal requirements regarding the accessibility of information about benefit programs, especially for people with limited English proficiency and/or limited digital access and literacy. In addition to current federal requirements around language access and ADA compliance, stronger legislation is needed to ensure that information is accessible to those with limited digital access or literacy skills.

Let us hope that the remainder of 2020 and the years ahead offer the opportunity to further execute on these practices, moving toward a more inclusive and equitable society that serves and supports the lives of those most vulnerable to volatility.

Erica Bouris, Ph.D. is the Director of Economic Empowerment at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), leading a team that provides technical assistance and programmatic support to IRC’s workforce development, financial capabilities, and small business development in the U.S. and Europe.

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