Aloha United Way addresses “benefits cliffs” for Hawaii’s low-income families


Nicole Pasia


A new dashboard will provide critical insight for low-income families in Hawaii to improve their social and economic well-being. 

The Career Ladder Identifier and Financial Forecaster (CLIFF), launched in late February, will allow people to analyze financial impacts of new career pathways, with a goal of minimizing “benefits cliffs”—when a person loses eligibility to certain welfare programs as their income increases, but they have not yet amassed enough income to fully support their families. 


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More agencies are recognizing the importance of data sharing as a tool to advance the social, health, and economic well-being of vulnerable communities. The CLIFF dashboard is a result of months-long work between Aloha United Way (AUW), the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (Atlanta Fed) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last week, AUW held a presentation for policymakers and other community leaders to review the dashboard’s logistics and benefits.

“What we hope is that by using this information and using our partnerships, that our community and philanthropic resources are aligned and expanded so that we have an environment where every family and individual is thriving,” said AUW Vice President of Community Impact Lisa Kimura.

Approximately 42% of households in the state were at or below the ALICE threshold, according to Kimura. Over the years, Kimura said Hawaii’s cost of living has outpaced median and low wage increases, which has kept these families from remaining financially stable.


Image: Aloha United Way


While the CLIFF tool only offers estimates, it can provide a useful reference as ALICE individuals map out a potential career path to a higher-paying job. 

Through the dashboard, users can enter their specific life circumstances (county of residence, current occupation wage, number of dependents). They can then compare the effects of transitioning to their “target” occupation and use the tool to identify potential barriers that come from changes in benefits, expenses, and taxes. 

For example, a person looking to transition from a minimum wage food service job to a registered nurse would first need to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or other entry level position. For a single adult working a minimum wage job with one child, CLIFF predicts becoming a CNA would increase an earner’s annual income by nearly $10,000 before taxes in the first year. 

However, it would also cut the amount of public assistance the family receives by over half. The family would lose access to some programs completely, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Head Start, and pre-K assistance. Due to the loss in benefits, this adult would need to work for as a CNA for over eight years before their annual net financial resources would surpass those of their current minimum wage job.


Image: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta


Alexander Ruder, Atlanta Fed principal community and economic development advisor, says the benefits of moving on to the higher-paying licensed practical nurse position (LPN) from a CNA will pay off in the long run. 

“Sometimes people are afraid to advance, because they think they are going to be worse off,” Ruder said at the briefing. “This [tool] is telling us right here that you are better off moving into that LPN role than staying as a CNA. It’s just managing these barriers that we’ve identified.”

Identifying financial barriers is just part of what can be done to aid ALICE families. Ruder said workforce development, policy changes, and cross-system collaboration are other actions the CLIFF dashboard can influence. 

A few of these next steps are already in play for Hawaii, with community-based organizations spearheading many of these efforts. At the briefing, Kimura announced a new development to the ALICE fund, which invests in non-profit organizations to provide scalable economic development projects on Oahu. Over the next three years, AUW will partner with the Hawaii Community Foundation, which distributed over $142 million in grants in 2020.