Chapters Tackle the Cliff Effect, Pt. One: Circles Northwest Arkansas

CUSA chapters and Big View teams across the US are tackling one of the most pressing obstacles for families working to escape poverty: the Cliff Effect.

The Cliff Effect phenomenon occurs when a pay raise at work triggers a disproportionate loss of government assistance. Even a small raise can “push people off the cliff” when it comes to benefits. Suddenly ineligible for subsidized food, housing, healthcare, or childcare, the family is worse off than before receiving the raise. In 2020, Circles USA Board Chair Joan Kuriansky authored a Policy Platform identifying the Cliff Effect as one of six key issues affecting people and communities experiencing poverty. 

In this blog series, we aim to:

  • Introduce chapters and Big View teams taking bold, innovative actions to alleviate the Cliff Effect in their communities; and
  • Resource readers by sharing Big View media to help educate and mobilize your own communities.

This October, Circles NWA (Fayetteville, AR) hosted an in-person learning event titled “The Cliff Effect: When Earning More Means Having Less.” Panelists at the live streamed discussion included Circle Leaders who were part of the first cohort of the Circles NWA program and have personally experienced the Cliff Effect. Educator, performer, fashion designer, organizer, and entrepreneur Jeremiah Pickett (known professionally as Baang) emceed the event. The City of Fayetteville proclaimed October 18 “Cliff Effect Awareness Day.”

The event organizers noted that “the Cliff Effect is one of the biggest yet hidden barriers keeping people stuck in poverty. While a pay raise or new job should be cause for celebration, too often for low-income households, earning more is a risky move that can result in having less. The Cliff Effect disincentivizes economic growth, a strong workforce, and job retention.”

“No one in Fayetteville should become poorer due to working harder,” City Council member D’Andre Jones, Ward 1, told the crowd. “This is not conducive to the values of a fair, just and equitable community. I will continue to advocate for economic parity and support the work of Circles NWA and our community’s most marginalized.”

Recalling the participants’ complex discussion of the Cliff Effect and “benefits vs bootstraps” solutions, Christina Williams (Founder and Executive Director of Circles NWA) said that the team had “underestimated how emotional this topic would be…This work is hard.” 

But in the end, Williams says, “The experience of the event impacted the Circle Leaders greatly. Pastors, nonprofits, community members…all in the room! We had many people reach out afterwards. Several business people wanted to see the data, curious and moved by the event. Now,” she says, Circles NWA is “working on how to get equipped for the next steps of the work like advocacy, community dialogues, and connecting with policy makers. Cliff Effect brings all the people together.”

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