Spotlight Exclusives

The Not-So-Silent Barriers to Eclipsing Poverty

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This commentary is part of a series highlighting the work of the 2013-14 Ideas for Action Award winners, sponsored by The Northwest Area Foundation, University of Minnesota, and University of Washington. This award recognizes organizations that take practical and innovative approaches to helping low-income individuals.

When it comes to fighting poverty, we tend to think in terms of broad and impersonal macro trends and strategies. Many programs delivered at scale and according to standardized norms offer only a handful of potential paths for participants. In the process, the individual the singular story, the unique challenge, the personal perspective becomes diluted under the heft and weight of best and standardized practices.

Strategies delivered from an expert perspective and at a sweeping programmatic scale are often fraught with excessive expense and misaligned with the goals and challenges faced by low-income Americans as they strive to eclipse poverty. We must shift our approach to one that suits and respects low-income Americans and supports individuals and families in reaching their goals of education, employment, and sustainability.

Armed with a belief in the importance of personal drive and self-determination, we launched Benevolent in late 2011. We listened. We asked. We opened our ears still more. As low-income adults strive to reach their goals, what gets in their way? It became clear, for example, that current employment practices fail to account for the various expenses and barriers associated with getting and keeping a low-wage or entry-grade job. These seemingly small costs result in nearly insurmountable barriers for low-wage workers.

Benevolent represents a careful application of the now-prevalent mechanism of crowd-funding to break down such barriers. We found that oftentimes, making progress toward personal goals and self-sufficiency hinges on a one-time need or opportunitylike a laptop for college, a uniform or tools to accept a job, or bus fare for the first weeks of work. Benevolent partners with local providers and organizations to work with their clients to tell their stories in writing and via video. Once a person۪s story is posted to the Benevolent site, everyday givers step in and donate, eager to connect and help someone they can identify.

In the process, we capture and share dignified, first-person stories of striving and challenge. As the volume and breadth of these narratives grow, we۪re uniquely able to identify trends, gaps, and inconsistencies in the paths of progress for low-income families in America.

The experiences of the individuals Benevolent has helped illustrate everyday challenges that might derail a family. Anthony was trained as a solar installer but couldn۪t accept an offered job without the right tools. Jerome was required to have a truck to take a job installing broadband. Ms. Kat, a grandmother trained in the culinary field at the DC Central Kitchen, needed two full uniforms to accept an offered catering job. Javier got a temporary job as a truck driver, hoping to be hired as a permanent employee. Without glasses, he struggled to read boxes and perform to his capacity. For each of these individuals and far too many others, small, unaffordable, costs posed seemingly insurmountable barriers on the path to economic security.

When we look at our example of common barriers to employment, we do not find a simple issue of a singular, identifiable policy or practice impeding people۪s success. While the press and public have placed a great deal of focus on minimum wage and fast food workers this year, the roadblocks we see span far beyond those arenas to include access to transportation, federal and state taxes, and tool and uniform requirements. These often overlooked costs can be crippling.

There is no singular soapbox or policy target that will allow us to address the persistent obstacles that stand between low-income individuals and employment security. Instead, we must find protective and proactive supports to align with the real circumstances and proclivities inherent to one person among many. At Benevolent, we believe this requires surfacing real stories of real families so that we can begin to see how each institution can and must play its part in addressing the costly barriers to work.

By some estimates, up to 48 percent of Americans are living in low-income households. Almost half our country lives without access to discretionary income or a financial safety net. When you can’t come up with small sums, then you can’t enroll in classes, pay a security deposit, or buy beds for your children. When you can’t access funds to address what’s come up in your life, then you might well be stuck.
At Benevolent, we’re trying to change the conversation from a discourse on how to help “poor people” to one about decreasing the frictions between people and their goals, filling in gaps in systems of support and along pathways to education and employment. We۪re striving to listen to each individual when they tell us what stands between them and the stability they dream of, the sustainability they deserve.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Megan Kashner is the founder and chief executive officer of Benevolent.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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