IBP: Taking Budget Data to the Public: Creating Tools for Citizens

The following post is by Oliver Bernstein of the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) in Texas. Cross-posted from the newsletter of CPPP partner and TABridge co-organizers, the International Budget Partnership. 

The Center for Public Policy Priorities is an independent nonprofit public policy organization based in the U.S. state of Texas. We use data and analysis to advocate for policies that will offer all Texans the chance to compete and succeed in life, covering issues such as healthcare, education, and economic opportunity.  Whether it’s documenting the amount of money it takes to support a family, or chronicling the tough choices working families must make to survive, the Center provides data and stories that highlight the challenges low- and moderate-income Texans face each and every day, as well as the consequences for Texas if we fail to act.

Source: forabettertexas.org

Over the last decade, the Better Texas Family Budgets Project has helped answer the question what it really takes to “get by” and “get ahead” in Texas. That means we help define the income it takes to cover basic needs (rent, food, child care) without any additional public support and to save a little something for the future. One of the primary strengths of the tool is the ability to produce customized data by family size and for each of Texas’ 26 metro areas. In a state as large and diverse as Texas, where wages and cost of living vary dramatically, it’s important for users to be able to access data specific to their home areas.

For most families to make ends meet, they would need to earn twice the federal poverty level (e.g., approximately $50,000 for a family of four in Austin, TX). The family budgets also analyze whether the most common jobs in the area can support a family’s basic expenses.

Making Budgets Come to Life

But the tool is not just about estimating family budgets. It is about engaging users over the question of what happens when families do not earn enough. By highlighting the specific basic expenses that make up a family’s budget, it is easy to see how families are forced to make tough choices such as choosing low-quality child care, living in unsafe housing, or going without health insurance to stretch their limited income. Unfortunately, these choices can put their family at greater risk for safety or health issues.

In 2013, we also created a documentary, A Fighting Chance, to help put a personal story behind the eye-opening statistics of the family budgets data. The documentary explores the diverse conditions and events that can spiral a family into crisis and poverty.

Our goal is to increase public awareness of the hardships faced by families with limited income and provide a realistic benchmark for planning and evaluation at the local and state level so that we can build political will for smart public policies that increase economic security for all Texans.

Results from the Family Budgets “Roadshow”

The Family Budgets tool is both powerful and easy to use, but busy people still need a guide to provide context and narrative. To promote the tool and help people understand what it can do, we embarked on a series of “roadshows” in communities all across the state. At each roadshow, a speaker helped people “connect the dots” – presenting how to use the tool, fielding questions from the community, and helping people understand some of the implications of the findings. To date, we have shared the Better Texas Family Budgets tool and documentary in 18 cities with over 2,200 Texans.

At the local level, a Workforce Development Board used the Family Budgets data to determine which community college certificates they would fund with public money based on whether or not those occupations paid a family-supporting wage. The

Source: Flickr/Pak Gwei

Dallas Women’s Foundation used our family budgets work as a way to raise awareness about economic issues for women in Texas and nine metro areas. And in an effort to educate statewide policy on voter’s rights, the family budgets data was used to demonstrate how additional fees to obtain more restrictive voter IDs would be cost prohibitive, effectively amounting to a poll tax on low-income Texans, and “create an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote. . . .” Although the ruling by the federal judge in Corpus Christi was overturned by the federal Supreme Court, it showed the impact of family economic security data on shaping state law.

What We’ve Learned

Building the Family Budget Tool has also taught us some basic principles that could be usefully applied to a wide variety of data tools. These include:

  1. Customizing data for local communities makes data more relevant.
  2. People benefit from a guide that can provide context and “connect the dots” between budget data and daily lives.
  3. Providing information on both revenue (in the Family Budgets tool, revenue would include jobs and income) and spending creates a more complete picture of budgets.

For more information on the Center for Public Policy Priorities, visit www.forabettertexas.org.

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