What Do We Mean by Systems Change?

Arlyssa told us she worries about getting a raise at work, because it would cost her far more in benefits.

When Christina experienced health issues as a mother trying to raise her four children, the disability system restricted how many hours she could work.

The “cliff effect” traps hardworking people like Arlyssa and Christina, preventing them from getting ahead. Families are punished when they get a raise or save money, because they become ineligible to continue receiving all or some of their public benefits. This is an example of how policies and programs designed to help people experiencing financial hardship do the opposite. 

At UpTogether, we believe poverty is a policy choice, and our current systems perpetuate the status quo. That’s why we took a bold step in focusing on systems change in our new strategic plan. We are intentionally working to remove barriers to economic and social mobility.

How will we do this?

Our systems, including government and philanthropic institutions, need to shift to a “strength-based” view of people experiencing poverty and financial hardship. People are experts in their own lives and deserve to find their own pathways to get ahead.

At UpTogether, our systems change strategy has three elements:

  • Investing in families and individuals by providing them with cash they can use however they wish, no strings attached. 
  • Changing the narrative by telling people’s true lived experiences. 
  • Rallying for state and local policies and practices that support and accelerate socioeconomic mobility.

What does this look like in real life?

In Austin, UpTogether members who participated in a privately-funded cash-transfer pilot worked with other community members and organizations to get the city to launch a guaranteed income pilot. They spoke at meetings, made calls and wrote letters, changing the narrative – and changing a system. 

In Detroit, we built a coalition of community organizations and residents to advocate for a city-led guaranteed income pilot. A city reparations task force is now considering the proposal.

Other examples of systems change include expanding and enacting child tax credits, baby bond programs and reforming TANF.

Ultimately, we want all people in the United States to be seen and invested in for their strengths and able to build power, reinforce their autonomy and drive their own economic and social mobility.

Changing decades-old systems won’t happen overnight, but by demonstrating success in cities across the country, we can achieve broader and lasting change – together.

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