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Facing a financial shock

There’s a cliff that so many of our families are standing on. They are staring down at the edge and one small thing could be just enough to throw them over.

— Frontline Staff

Where we are

Millions of American families face financial shocks every year like an unexpected medical bill, the loss of income, a raise in rent, or loans coming out of deferment.

As a result of a tangled web of information about services, burdensome application processes, and payment systems, many families miss out on getting critical support to re-establish financial stability. More than a quarter of eligible people facing a financial shock receive no help from any Federally funded program, and Benefits Data Trust estimates that across just five programs, more than $60 billion/year in benefits are unclaimed1. And even for the families that do get access to benefits, millions waste countless hours and miss important days of work getting the help they qualify for and need. Transitioning to better jobs often requires training and gaining new skills, but this can be difficult for people to manage while still working to cover day-to-day essentials.

 

Of Americans who face a financial shock, 38% of Americans would face difficulty absorbing an emergency expense of $400.2

1 in 4 workers rely on safety net benefits at some point each year.3

1 Source: Benefits Data Trust

2 Source: Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021, Federal Reserve

3 Source: The State of Financial Security, Aspen Institute

Challenge
How might we better design access to available supports to meet urgent needs and transition to long-term stability?


Our approach

To start, we listened to people’s stories.

The Life Experience research team spoke with people nationwide about this moment in their lives and where the government process could have been simpler and more helpful. The listening sessions captured honest conversations about peoples' experiences, candid feedback on what could have worked better, and what really made a difference for them. Their stories have been combined and are represented here through illustrations. The quotes are real, but names have been changed.


Jordan
Recently laid off from waiting tables
Single dad
Renter

Alina
Gig worker
Car owner
Delivery driver

Elise
Employed as a dishwasher
Recent widow
Mother of four


Jordan
Recently laid off from waiting tables
Single dad
Renter
Experiencing a sudden job loss:
The restaurant Jordan was working at downsized, and he was suddenly laid off.
Applying with many challenges: Jordan attempts to apply for unemployment and SNAP, but their offices are on separate sides of town. As a result, it takes additional time and money for him to submit these applications.
Relying on alternatives: To cover immediate life needs, Jordan decides to take out a payday loan. He struggles to pay back the loan and the interest continues to compound.
“With the situation that I’m in, it [pay-day loan] just kind of put me behind even more.”
Pain Point
Disjointed and unpredictable application process
People are asked to provide the same information for different benefits, adding to drop-off and confusion. Also, sometimes there is confusion about how much time it can take to receive benefits once they submit applications.

Alina
Gig worker
Car owner
Delivery driver
Experiencing a sudden expense:
Alina’s car breaks down, eliminating her source of income as a rideshare driver. She needs to get her car fixed as soon as possible so she can return to work.
Making tough tradeoffs: With no work to support her family and accumulating bills, Alina chooses to sell her car.
Spiraling into deeper financial shocks: Without a car, Alina cannot return to rideshare driving. She also struggles to make the switch to another job she’s qualified for.
“My car would break down, I wouldn’t have the money to fix it [essential living costs like food have to be first].”
Pain Point
Managing essentials while waiting for benefits
Common unexpected shocks like home, car, or health costs can trigger financial instability for many Americans. Between the shock and receiving benefits, people must make hard choices about what living needs to prioritize.

Elise
Employed as a dishwasher
Recent widow
Mother of four
Becoming a sole provider:
Elise was scraping by before the sudden death of her husband sent her into financial turmoil. Now the sole provider for a single-income household, Elise begins to search for a higher-paying job.
Navigating career choices: She gets an offer for a higher-paying job, but the minor pay increase would make her ineligible for the benefits her family relies on, so she decides to decline.
Sustaining recovery: Elise values the benefits she receives but feels insecure in her ability to transition to independence and resiliency. Completing the training she needs for a better job will take time.
"[People] want to be independent, they don't want to be dependent on the system, everyone wants to work towards their goals and achieve them."
Pain Point
Training while working
Navigating education, training, apprenticeship, and credential programs that could provide access to better jobs can be overwhelming in moments of turmoil. Taking time to complete these programs competes with working to cover living expenses and immediate needs for families.

 

The team conducted interviews in-person, virtually, in English, and in Spanish. Participants included people nine states and territories who represent a variety of life experiences—including those vulnerable to shocks, such as low-wage workers.

The team spoke with:

  • 61 members of the public
  • 12 frontline staff
  • 17 state/program administrators
  • 33 subject matter experts

Discovery insights

Framing for collective thinking about customer pain points

How might we improve people’s experience navigating and applying for different benefits at the same time to increase awareness, avoid confusion and redundancy, thereby improving efficiency for both program administrators and customers?

How might we encourage states and localities to use their federal funds to help people more quickly re-establish stability with available resources, and design with the most common financial shocks that may occur in mind?

How might we think about recovery and resiliency to include how we empower people through career transitions to better jobs and lasting stability?

Next steps

Teams are currently working on identifying and scoping projects to move into the design phase. Please check back on this page in the coming months for updates.

Project Documentation

Agency collaborators

  • General Services Administration
  • Department of Labor
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Office of Management and Budget
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Health & Human Services
  • U.S. Department of the Treasury
  • Social Security Administration