Spotlight Exclusives

Supporting Families During the Pandemic: Learning from Front Line Staff Experiences

LaDonna Pavetti, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities LaDonna Pavetti, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, posted on

LIFT, a human services organization that provides coaching and unrestricted cash payments to families with children, is one of many agencies using their expertise and resources to address families’ needs during the pandemic.  Providing services in this environment has taxed the resources of even the most well-established organizations and the most skilled staff. But it’s also provided an opportunity to learn more about how to improve the circumstances and reduce hardship among families who struggle to make ends meet, even during the best economic times.

LIFT operates in underserved neighborhoods of color in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C.  About 90 percent of LIFT parents are female, nearly all of whom are women of color.   When they are able, they work mostly in retail, hospitality, childcare, home health care, and gig economy jobs that offer low pay and changing and uncertain hours.

Three key lessons stand out from the experience of LIFT’s coaches during the pandemic:

  • The pandemic, by worsening the hardship rooted in racism that LIFT families were already facing, is taking a significant toll on families and coaches. But it’s also showing families’ strength and resilience.
  • Accessing resources to alleviate hardship has been extremely taxing and has created additional stress for both families and coaches.
  • Short-term solutions may reduce hardship, but until we come to grips with the ways in which institutional racism restricts opportunities, Black and Brown individuals and families will continue to struggle to live the life to which they aspire.

Hardship impacts families and staff, but also highlights families’ resilience

LIFT staff are used to working with families experiencing hardship – the average family comes to LIFT earning an average of $15,700 a year and with $14,000 in debt.  Kathleen McCorn, a volunteer coach, describes families’ situation:

No matter what a member’s specific situation is, the pandemic has only complicated things further.  Though we have all been affected by the pandemic, the suffering has by no means been spread evenly.  The need for financial assistance, resources, and support has significantly increased, and many long-term educational and career goals have had to be set aside to address immediate financial needs. Many members have had to make difficult choices and sacrifices during this pandemic, and it has kept my heart heavy to sit with and support them through this time.

The pandemic has also given coaches an opportunity to fully experience the strength and resilience of the families they are supporting.  In senior program manager Laura Campbell’s words, “Amidst all the depleting circumstances and challenges that many parents were facing day after day as they did everything they could to provide comfort, safety, and security for their families, I was reminded to remain hopeful. The persistence of parents is powerful.”  Jessica Davidson, a volunteer coach, echoed that sentiment:  “Working with members during COVID has been extremely insightful because it has allowed me to see the resilience and determination of our members, in not only themselves but their families as well.”

Navigating systems to get help is challenging and frustrating

Coaches have been called on to help families navigate the complex processes for getting help to meet their basic needs. Restrictive rules and processes can prevent some eligible families from receiving assistance, while others have been left out intentionally. Often, families get help only after going through a time-consuming, frustrating process that adds to the high stress families (and staff) already feel.

In the words of program coordinator Lucy Smart, “Several members have had trouble accessing Unemployment Insurance and Economic Impact Payments, even though they are eligible. Some members still have not received them. These systems have been confusing, constantly changing, and the rules aren’t standard.”

Natalia Lantigua, a volunteer coach, notes that the problems accessing benefits have been widespread:  “The unfortunate reality of a pandemic is the exhaustion of available resources. My members are very resourceful and have utilized their connections to their communities to obtain resources that would benefit their families. Although I am happy LIFT is able to also serve as a support system for members as they look to have their immediate needs met, many members have experienced burn out due to the many resources they may reach out to and not receive an immediate answer for because a large number of people are also utilizing the same resource.”

The pandemic has laid bare the impact of institutional racism

Families come to LIFT because they want to create the best possible future for their children, but they are often held back by the constrained opportunities available to them because of the color of their skin.  In the words of program coordinator Kyle Lille, “My experience has been a stark reminder to me that the systems that should value and protect the lives of Americans do not value Black and Brown people. If these systems do not change, Black and Brown residents will continue to die at alarming rates and the events of the past three months can continue to happen.”

Program coordinator Michael Greer shares, “What this experience has done for me is highlight what I already knew; those in poverty are going to be more directly and intensely impacted by any crisis. The challenges our members face did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic, nor will they be cured when a vaccine arrives. To see how the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges is heartbreaking, but also motivates me to be a source of support, to be a part of the solution.”

LaDonna Pavetti is the vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

This information was provided by LIFT staff as a part of a collaboration between LIFT and CBPP to document how the pandemic is impacting families who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic hit. 

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