New Simulator Tool Designed to Aid Working Poor Avoid the ‘Cliff Effect’

If you’re among the working poor, what do you need to break even in Colorado? If you get a pay raise, at what point might you lose government benefits?

A new tool allows individuals and policy makers to mix and match expenses, income and benefits to show which combinations can help Coloradans get ahead, and which could push them off a financial cliff.

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The Family Resource Simulator includes data for Alamosa, Denver, Eagle, El Paso, Mesa, Morgan and Pueblo counties for different family types – one to two parents and one to three children – and different work scenarios, including single or multiple breadwinners working full- or part-time.

The tool was developed by Columbia University-based National Center for Children in Poverty, which is developing similar tools for Ohio and Florida.

A 2013 I-News analysis, “Losing Ground: The Cliff Effect,” found people close to escaping poverty can lose thousands of dollars in public benefits, plummeting off a financial cliff, if their income rises slightly.

To use the Family Resource Simulator, users select their location and family characteristics first. (Use “Colorado 2015” for the most recent data.) Then users plug in their personal income and and amount of monthly debt payments, or they can stick with the default selection of the county’s median wage. The final steps are plugging in which public benefits (“work supports” in policy-lingo) you obtain and how much you spend in child and medical care.

The tool generates four graphs that show a family’s benefits at different income levels. To see what your break-even point is, use the graph called “Net Family Resources,” which shows how much money remains (or is owed) after paying expenses. Use the “Benefits by Earnings level” graph if you want to see what income level would cause a cliff in certain benefits, like SNAP, or food assistance.

The creators of the Family Resource Simulator hope the “movers and shakers” of the public policy world will use the tool to model potential impacts of policy changes, the National Center for Children in Poverty’s Curtis Skinner said.

Many people might find the tool clunky because of its policy-wonk language and at-times inscrutable graphs. For example, you can type in your monthly food budget or go with the default value, “Low-Cost Food Plan developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” (Huh? You can find more about that here, if you’re curious.)

If you want to use it to make decisions about your life, you’ll need to exercise your powers of inference when looking at the graphs, or download the Excel spreadsheet and conduct your own analysis. There is no “You are here” label to see how close you are to the financial cliff.

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