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Building Economic Security for All (BESA)

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Strategies to Build Economic Security,
Shortcomings of the Official Federal Poverty Measures,
Better Tools to Measure Economic Need,
Improving Lives Using Better Measures,
What Our Partners Are Saying,
Our History

Millions of people across America are working hard to take care of themselves and their families, but still struggling to get by. However, the official federal poverty measure captures only about a third of the people who really need assistance. The other two-thirds fall through the cracks of our support systems, unable to qualify for many programs that would strengthen their efforts to gain economic stability. Building Economic Security for All’s (BESA) mission is to help all people achieve a basic level of economic security in the U.S., so they have enough money to not only cover the expenses of everyday life like rent, food, child care, health care, transportation, and taxes, but also enough to begin to develop and/or draw on savings and assets. Savings and assets are what enable people to cover the costs of emergencies, build an economically secure future, and leave poverty behind, for good.

Strategies to Build Economic Security

Having been a leader on this issue since 1997, the Insight Center uses a combination of strategies to build economic security for all. We:

  • Research to inform decision-makers about what it truly costs to make ends meet and which populations are struggling the most in which regions of the country
  • Organize statewide education and mobilization campaigns to develop systems which support, rather than hinder, families in their own efforts towards economic stability
  • Advocate to transform the way we measure and combat poverty in America through legislative  and administrative reforms, and  by developing best practices on the ground
  • Educate policymakers, foundations, businesses, and the media about proven practices to support and
  • Build Capacity of local organizations to design and advocate for effective policies and programs to move families toward economic security through training and one-on-one technical assistance

Using these strategies, the Insight Center leads California’s efforts to build family economic stability through our coalition, Californians for Economic Security (CFES). We have expanded this effort nationally, advocating for improvements at the federal level, and building the capacity of other state leaders to design new programs and policies for working families. For example, we are currently working with local organizations in Mississippi to create a diverse, statewide coalition of stakeholders dedicated to the economic stability of all Mississippians, called Building Economic Security in Mississippi . With the launch of the Elder Economic Security Initiative™ in 2008, we have also expanded the impact of this work to help retired older adults age with economic well-being. 

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Shortcomings of the Official Federal Poverty Measures

Poverty reduction programs in the U.S. use outdated measures, the Federal Poverty Thresholds and Federal Poverty Guidelines, to determine who needs and receives assistance for many programs. The Federal Poverty Guidelines are "frozen" at the level of a basket of goods and services adequate for families in the 1950s, and updated only for inflation. They do not reflect rapidly increasing costs, such as health care (of particular concern to elders) and taxes or "new" costs such as child care; nor do they reflect local differences in the cost of basic goods and services. As a result, millions of working Americans who are not making ends meet do not receive the support they need: the official poverty measure captures only about a third of those who need assistance.   

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Better Tools to Measure Economic Need

Our organizing and advocacy work focuses on what it actually costs to make ends meet in communities across America, as defined by the Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard (Self-Sufficiency Standard) and the Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index), county-and family-specific measures of the income needed to cover basic needs.  

Unlike the official federal poverty measures, the Self-Sufficiency Standard, developed by Dr. Diana Pearce of the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington, uses publicly available data sources to quantify the actual costs of meeting the basic needs for working families by county – without public or private assistance. The Elder Index uses similar data sources to quantify the actual costs of meeting basic needs for retired adults age 65+ by county, and is the only elder-specific financial measure of its kind. The Elder Index methodology was developed by Wider Opportunities for Women and the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and is analyzed and applied in California by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

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Improving Lives Using Better Measures

Over the past decade, policymakers, service providers, advocates, labor unions, foundations, businesses, working families, and retired elders have used the Self-Sufficiency Standard and Elder Index to improve lives. They use these tools to:

  • Evaluate the impact of programs and policies
  • Advocate to reform the official poverty measure
  • Adjust eligibility thresholds for certain public benefits
  • Inform wage levels in union contracts
  • Measure the return on investment in grantmaking
  • Evaluate budget proposals at the national, state, and local levels
  • Provide career counseling to educate students and workers on how much income they will need to cover their costs
  • Fundraise to expand programmatic capacity

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What Our Partners Are Saying

    • "The Elder Index information provides a reality-based way to plan, and enable older adults to age in place; the Federal Poverty Line is the ‘bury your head in the sand’ way”. – Paul Downey, Senior Community Centers

    • “We revamped our grantmaking and advocacy work to focus on the overall goal of economic self-sufficiency for women, using the Self-Sufficiency Standard as the underlying blueprint for these changes.” – Carol Penick, Women’s Fund of Mississippi

    • "We use the Self-Sufficiency Standard to educate policymakers and the public about the needs of low-income households. It is a very useful and credible tool for examining and contrasting the impacts of budget and policy proposals.” - Mike Herald, Western Center on Law and Poverty

    • "We use the Self-Sufficiency Standard to educate the media about how much families have to spend on housing and other basic needs. Getting folks comfortable with the federal poverty line and having them understand that this is what we’ve used for years, but it’s not any good, is one thing. It’s another thing to say, ‘let’s flip it on its head and let’s look at what’s adequate income versus what’s inadequate income.’” – Dena Wittman, formerly with Back Bay Mission

  • "SETA uses the Self-Sufficiency Standard to define self-sufficiency wages in Sacramento County. We raised the eligibility criteria for intensive case management and training services to the Self-Sufficiency Standard, which has made our employment and training programs available to more people in our community." – Robin Purdy, Sacramento Employment & Training Agency

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Our History

The Insight Center was one of four leaders that, in 1997, launched the Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Project: an innovative, nation-wide effort to gain support for proven practices to help working families reach economic security, using realistic benchmarks of what it takes to make ends meet in today’s economy.  With partners in 37 states and Washington D.C., this work has developed into a national movement to transform the way we measure and address poverty in the United States. The impact of our work includes the Census Bureau's efforts to develop a Supplemental Poverty Measure.

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