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Addressing the $1,000 Problem: Experimentation to Evolve our Social Safety Net

Alyson Wise — Former Associate Director, Economic Equity Opportunity
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Five months ago, The Rockefeller Foundation teamed up with The Workers Lab to launch a design sprint for social change to address the $1,000 problem with a promise to share real-time learning from our work. Over the past few months, we’ve gathered insights on the merits of applying product development methodologies from the tech industry to experimentation in the social sector. We have also reflected more deeply as a team about the evolution of the social safety net system—how it has evolved over time and how our experimentation can help advance its evolution in a positive direction.

A Design Sprint for Social Change

Design sprints are fundamentally a process for gathering information, making things, and getting feedback in a quick cycle. The purpose of a design sprint is to move fast and use a time-bound process to create something tangible. Expediency and targeted focus on delivering a “product” made the design sprint methodology right for our work. We set out to avoid the analysis paralysis surrounding “the future of work” to build a modern benefit that will meet the needs of workers challenged by accelerating volatility.

The design sprint is yielding positive results, but we’ve found that the application of this methodology to addressing a social challenge, i.e. the $1,000 problem, has caused us to deviate in some significant ways. First—and unsurprisingly—we required a longer time horizon than the five days typically allotted to developing tech products. Second, we saw a need to take a fluid approach to sourcing the knowledge and skills required to drive the design sprint forward. As a result, we added experts and advisors along the way, welcoming partners David Weill and Commonwealth.

A Step Towards Reimagining the Social Safety Net

We created the design sprint to address the $1,000 problem, acknowledging the financial security challenges that millions of workers face across the country. As we engaged workers directly, dug more deeply into relevant research, and allowed the design sprint process unfold, we were continuously confronted with the stark truth: The scale and gravity of the challenges facing workers in the U.S. require a complete reimagining of the social safety net. Our experimentation can be a welcome step forward but our nation has miles to go.

This realization did not dissuade us from pursuing the action-oriented approach we committed to at the outset of this process. To quote The Workers Lab CEO, Dr. Carmen Rojas: “We find too often that people pass the buck too often when it comes to creating real change for working people – it is always someone else’s job to make sure workers are living lives of abundance.” Instead, what we did was analyze the current safety net to highlight elements that can endure in the modern economy, identify the elements that have become anachronistic, and challenge our assumptions around the language we use to describe what is earned or deserved. Not only will this analysis inform our design sprint for social change; it will also inform broader conversations around reimagining the social safety net and building a new social contract in this country.

The Workers Lab’s Carmen Rojas distills our conversations to date and presents her institution’s point of view for reimaging the safety net here and through the excerpt below.

Workplace Benefits to Benefits for Working

Dr. Carmen Rojas, CEO, The Workers Lab
Rachel Schneider, Co-author of The Financial Diaries, and the Omidyar Network Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program

Workplace benefits helped to create a strong middle class that could purchase homes, afford higher education and, most importantly, raise children knowing that their lives would have greater opportunity and mobility than their own.

Today, as the nature of work shifts in dramatic and uncertain ways, we have an opportunity to imagine, test, and scale a new set of policies to promote workers’ well-being. To do this, we should begin with this question:

What system of social and economic benefits would we create — if we were starting from scratch — to enable all working people to live lives of dignity, abundance, and opportunity?

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