May 9, 2023 30 min read

Economic Justice in Western North Carolina

Image of Vicki Meath with quote from the transcript.

Episode 46, 48 min listen

Vicki Meath, and her team at Just Economics, are working to build an economy in Western North Carolina that works better for everyone. In this episode, we learn about the creative and practical steps they are taking toward economic justice.  If you are working on economic justice, equity, or inclusion in a smaller city or rural community, this episode is for you. If you're part of a community where state and local policies aren't friendly to economic justice, inclusion, or equity, this episode is also for you. Join us as we learn how Just Economics is leading and empowering change in the communities they serve.      


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Learn more about Just Economics.

Learn more about Tompkins County Workers' Center.

Learn about the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University.


Vicki comes to Just Economics with a background in community organizing. She has worked on environmental, social, and economic justice issues ranging from responsible oil and gas drilling to protecting health and human services in the Ohio state budget. In 2006, Vicki worked with Let Justice Roll and Cleveland Jobs with Justice on the successful campaign to raise the state minimum wage and continued to work with Jobs with Justice on the Cuyahoga County Living Wage Campaign and other worker justice issues. Vicki has a strong commitment to and passion for economic justice work. Vicki has a teenage daughter and has lived in the Asheville area since 2007. Vicki has been involved in a variety of community activities and lives in West Asheville.



Economic Justice in Western North Carolina

Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion Podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better. And we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities.

I'm Ame Sanders. Welcome.

If you're part of a smaller city or maybe a rural community, then this episode is for you. If you're part of a community where state and local policies don't always seem friendly to economic justice, inclusion, or equity, then this episode is also for you.

In this episode, I loved learning more about the creative and practical solutions that Just Economics is putting in place across Western North Carolina to help them build an economy that works just a little better for everyone.

Listen in as we learn how they are leading and empowering change in their communities.

So today, I'm happy to welcome Vicki Meath. Vicki is the Executive Director of Just Economics in Western North Carolina.

Welcome, Vicki.

Vicki Meath  01:26

Thank you so much for having me.

-About Western North Carolina and Asheville

Ame Sanders  01:28

A lot of us know about Asheville as a tourist destination and Western North Carolina as a place to go for vacation. But maybe you can tell us a little bit about the communities within which you work and your organization works. And maybe some of the strengths about those communities and assets that they have and some of the challenges or needs that they face.

Vicki Meath  01:48

Yeah. There are so many wonderful people from diverse backgrounds that live in Western North Carolina, in and around Asheville. And we work with people who live both in our cities…you know, the biggest city in Western North Carolina, being Asheville…as well as our more rural mountain communities. So there's a wide range of backgrounds, people who grew up in these mountains, people who have a very proud Appalachian history and culture, and people that have moved to the Asheville region, from artists and farmers to people working in technology and restaurants, and all different types of industries. So we work with a variety of constituencies and with many different backgrounds. And yeah, this is a lovely place to visit. And there are also really amazing people who live here. I think one of the struggles that we are really dealing with, with Just Economics is the struggle for people who have grown up here or who have made this area their home for a long time to be able to remain here. Because the cost of living and the drivers that come from outside in terms of tourism and people moving into this area that has increased housing prices and other factors that make this a challenging place to live economically. For many, I think this is one of the biggest challenges that our organization is dealing with. And then so, we're seeing this on a very regular basis.

Ame Sanders  03:40

I would say even some of our urban centers that I talked to could identify with those comments about the pressures that are growing in an area in terms of costs and people being able to live and afford to live in a particular area maybe where they've been a long time. But can you tell me a little bit about Just Economics? What are some of the things that you guys focus on and your priorities? How do you decide what to tackle to help make Western North Carolina more of a livable and affordable place?

-Just Economics' Mission and Focus

Vicki Meath  04:10

Well, let me back up and just say to folks what our mission is.

The mission of Just Economics is to educate, advocate and organize for a more just and sustainable local economy that works for all in Western North Carolina.

And that's our mission because we know that our current economy does not work for all. And many people are left out of both the public dialogue that is required to make policy change and as well as what the economic drivers and what the economy looks like. And so, our work at Just Economics, we do work around policy advocacy. We also do work in creative ways to achieve our mission. And you know, one of those creative ways is our Living Wage Employer Certification Program. We also do work through grassroots education and engagement because we believe the best community change comes about when the people that are most impacted by the problems are involved and engaged in the solutions. And we focus on three primary issue areas.

So the first is kind of what we're known for the longest. And that's our living wage work. So we work on living wages and better working conditions. And we do that through all of those different mechanisms. We work on living wages through policy, we work on living wages through our voluntary Living Wage Employer Certification Program, which is the largest in the country. And we also work with people that are impacted by the lack of living wages as we lead the Western North Carolina Workers Assembly.

The second area of our work, or issue that we focus on is better transit. And so we have been the organization that has led some efforts to get things like a Sunday service into existence in our area in Ashville. And that work has been led by people that ride the bus out of necessity and people who kind of know those routes because they are riding the bus because they have to. They don't have other transportation choices.

And then our third issue area is affordable housing. We know that affordable housing is a crisis in this region, and it's becoming a crisis. You know, honestly, it's becoming a crisis all across this country. But certainly, in the Asheville area, it has been in a crisis for some time now.

Ame Sanders  06:53

Wow. So. there's a lot to unpack there. Let me just touch on a few things. First, you work in a variety of communities, from the urban center of Asheville to smaller, more rural communities like Brevard in Transylvania County. And I know you also work in a somewhat challenging policy environment. You and I both live and work in states that are unlikely to legislate increases in minimum wage or other economic justice policies.

-Combining Advocacy with Creative Change

Let's talk a little bit about how you mix this idea of policy advocacy, you know, pushing for change, while still finding creative approaches, like your living wage certification. Maybe you can talk about how you balance those different kinds of actions.

Vicki Meath  07:40

Again, we work with lots of people. We have a commitment to working with people that are directly impacted by the problems. And we work with allies, and our membership is really a diverse membership of people coming together to want to address the problems that we're facing in our communities. But we know that we have challenges with our local or state, and our federal government. So, while we're at the same time seeking some of those solutions because we know when policy lags behind in what we need that it affects a huge number of people, it affects a very large number of people. So, for example, when we raise the minimum wage, or we don't raise the minimum wage, it affects a very large number of people. But we know that public policy in states like yours and mine, at the state level where the minimum wage has to be raised at the state level, and that is challenging. We have to look at what are some other creative solutions. And so, because we have this diverse membership, many of whom are directly impacted by the problems that we're working to change, we also can look at creative solutions. So, our Living Wage Certification Program is one of those creative solutions. We've been working on that since 2008. Again, we've grown to have the largest voluntary living wage certification program in the country.

-Living Wage Certification Program

Ame Sanders  09:17

And Vicki, tell the audience a little bit about how it works. What do you mean when you say a living wage certification program, and how do you do it?

Vicki Meath  09:25


So, we define a living wage rate, and we base this on a single individual being able to meet their basic needs. in Buncombe County, where Asheville North Carolina is, the cost of living is significantly higher than in some of our rural communities. That living wage rate is $20.10 an hour. In our more rural communities like Transylvania County, where Brevard is, our living wage rate is now $16.40 an hour. And so, we use some formulas to determine what a living wage is. And we look at this as more just minimum than the minimum wage. Because our state is one in which we still have the same minimum wage as the federal, which is $7.25 an hour. And it's been that way since 2009. This is the longest period in the history of the minimum wage that has gone without a wage increase. And so, we had to find other ways to try to raise the wage floor for many workers. And so, our certification program was a program that we modeled off of one and Ithaca, New York, and the Tompkins Workers’ Center. And it is a program designed to certify employers that pay all of their workers a wage that's at least the living wage or higher. And they go through an application process. There's an online application on our website. They go through that application process. We look at their application and see if we have follow-up questions. We have an approval process that goes from our certification program coordinator to our board of directors or, in Transylvania County's case, the living wage coalition of Transylvania County. And then once approved, the organization gets added to our list. They get a sticker for their door, a certificate, and are part of our network of living wage certified employers, can participate in things like different workshops, and are included on our social media and website. And it's been an effective way to raise wages, and I'm really proud to say that we have over 400 employers in Western North Carolina that have made this commitment to pay a living wage. And once an employer is living-wage certified, they have to recertify every two years. So, there are employers that are currently living wage certified that are still in the process of re-certifying up to our new rates. But we have over 400 employers that have made this commitment to pay a living wage. And what I'm most proud of is the fact that many of those employers have raised their wages to do so or to maintain living wage certification. So, we've seen over a $2 million annual impact in terms of wage raises given to employees that are employees of living-wage-certified businesses that have raised their wages to meet our standards or keep up with our standards. So that's a cumulative impact of wage raises given over the years, but over $2 million in our local economy. And we know that low-wage workers don't tend to have Swiss bank accounts or foreign investments or places where they put their money outside of our local economy. That money stays in our local economy at a higher rate than people with upper incomes. So, they're spending it at the local pizza shop, or the local clothing store, or different places in our community where that money is circulating. And so, we're pumping more than $2 million a year into the local economy in the form of wage raises to lower-wage workers.

Ame Sanders  13:19

Practically speaking, how do you handle tip wages in that picture? Because a lot of the communities around have a lot of tipped-wage workers.

Vicki Meath  13:27

We include in our process a set of tip interviews so that tips plus wages regularly average a living wage over the pay period. So, when we have an employer that has tipped employees, we go out and do tip interviews to check in with the employees to see if that is the case, that they're regularly average over the pay period. So, of course, if you work on a Tuesday afternoon, you're not making as much money as you're making on a Saturday evening. But if it's averaging a living wage over the pay period, it qualifies. And one thing that we've seen in restaurants and many places with tipped employees is that the tipped employees were or are making a living wage. And we're having an impact on the dishwashers and the line cooks in terms of their hourly wage. So, we understand that tips aren't wages, but we do want to make sure that tipped workers are receiving enough money with their tips plus their wages to live on in our communities and also that their co-workers in the back of the house are making enough as well.

Ame Sanders  14:39

I know this is one of your signature programs. And I could talk about this one all day because my partner has a home in Brevard, North Carolina, which, as we said, is in Transylvania County. And I've personally been able to see the way the living wage coalition changed the conversation and positively affected that community. And the way that the little town of Brevard still celebrates employers who are part of that certified network that you have. That might be with special shopping days or dine-around days or just recognizing who participates in that. So, I've personally watched the impact that one of your programs has had.

-Centralized Rental Application

But maybe you also want to tell us about some of the other programs or actions that you guys are taking.

Vicki Meath  15:22

Sure, yeah. And you know, the first thing that comes to mind, because we're talking about creative solutions outside of public policy, right, we are about to launch something called a Centralized Rental Application. It's something we've been working on for a while. We have a program called Voices for Economic Justice. And this is a leadership and community organizing training for low-wage workers, people who live on a low income, or people who have come from backgrounds and have had those experience as low-wage workers or people living on a low income. It's an eight-week program, and at the end of those eight weeks, we do a project together. And throughout those eight weeks, we talk about some of the challenges related to economics. And, the project is related to a piece of solving, finding creative solutions, or policy solutions, or making sure that we're adding the voice of low-wage workers to those solutions.

In 2019, our group was talking about affordable housing. And one of the things that they were talking about is when you go to rent a place, you often have to pay a $50 application fee here, a $75 application fee there, and a $30 application fee at another place. And that is not guaranteeing that you're going to get those rental units. And so particularly people with any type of negative marks on their rental credit or criminal backgrounds will end up paying lots and lots of money in application fees and not getting a place to rent. And then that takes away from their ability to save up for a deposit or their first month's rent. And so, we talked about a way to address that issue. And this group in 2019 came up with this idea that we've been working on for three years. We're literally getting ready to launch it, hopefully, next week, because there's been some complicated tech stuff involved that we had to contract out. But this will work similarly to the common apps for colleges and universities, where you can use one application, pay one fee, and apply to multiple rental units. And through that, one $20 fee will cover the background check. And we are getting landlords to voluntarily accept the centralized rental application. So, this doesn't solve the affordable housing crisis. Right. But this is one piece that came from people directly impacted by a problem related to affordable housing. Saying, let's talk about how this could be solved. What if we had this type of thing? And Just Economics has been a vehicle to bring those things to fruition.

-Local Policy Work

So that was just one example. But we also work on policy work. We work on policy at the local level. We've been working with folks in Brevard and Transylvania County. And it looks like the City of Brevard is now going to be proposing a paid parental leave policy in their budget, which is a big deal. We just passed paid family and medical leave policy in Buncombe County and the city of Asheville a couple of years ago. And now, this smaller rural community of Brevard is about to pass a similar policy. We're one of the only countries in the world that doesn't have a federal or national paid parental leave or family leave policy. So when you have the birth or adoption of a child, we don't guarantee any paid time off. So that's exciting. So we've been doing policy at the local level.

We've also been doing policy at the statewide level. We just took a group of low-wage workers and other folks from Western North Carolina to Raleigh this past Wednesday to lobby our legislature on statewide bills that would raise the minimum wage and advance mandatory paid sick days and a paid family leave insurance program. Those are similar to policies that have been passed in other states. So we're doing that local policy advocacy. We're using creative solutions. And we're in the middle of our voices for economic justice class. We're about to launch some tenants’ rights workshops and get going with our tenants’ network. And so we have a lot going on at Just Economics in kind of all of those areas with a very small staff, but we're able to accomplish that because we have lots of dedicated members that are working to participate in, in these things like policy advocacy, and coming up with creative solutions.

-Voices for Economic Justice

Ame Sanders  20:29

So, I want to dig in on a couple of the things that you just covered because I find them really interesting. So, you talked about your Voices for Economic Justice, this overall approach of making sure that the voices of people with lived experience are part of imagining and driving for the changes that they themselves need in their everyday life. So, the example that you gave about the Centralized Rental Application is a great example. But you guys do this in a lot of places. So maybe you can talk about the Voices for Economic Justice Program and what that looks like. Because many of my listeners are familiar with leadership programs, but they may not be familiar with one quite like yours and how that is then used across the communities to change whose voices are at the table.

Vicki Meath  21:27

Again, Voices for Economic Justice is for people that are low-wage workers who are living on a low income, or who come from backgrounds of people who have been marginalized or traditionally left out of the public dialogue and impacted by a lot of the issues that we work to change. And it's an eight-week program. And we have facilitators that facilitate that program. We use a style of education called popular education, which basically is valuing the wisdom in the room. So we have a curriculum, and we move stuff forward, but not so much as teaching as we're just bringing out in people what they already know. And really trying to come together to talk about some of the things that we've been taught that aren't accurate, that are narratives that have kept people, groups of people, in places of oppression, and how do we collectively come together to bring our power together? So, we start off talking about where we are in our economy. It is one day a week. Right now, we're doing it virtually. And in the fall, we did it in person. Of course, the pandemic kind of changed how we work on everything. And so, so now we're offering both virtual in the spring and in-person in the fall sessions of Voices. And so, we started off talking about what's happened in our economy, how did we get where we are, and what has changed it throughout history. And then, we talk about some of the basics of community organizing and the different forms of organizing and the different forms of creating change. And then we talk about some skills and some different aspects of that. And we talk about our mantra at Just Economics when we're developing campaigns or creative solutions. We say, what do we want? Who can give us what we want? And how are we going to get it? And within each of those, we kind of look at a variety of steps.

-Campaign to Improve Transit

So we did this, for example, with our campaign to improve transit, which also started directly from our Voices for Economic Justice class way back in 2012. That's where our transit work originated. And it originated from people who rode the bus out of necessity and were seeing things that happened on the bus, changes that were being made to the bus system that weren't working for them, and feeling like they were left out of the conversation on how things should change with the bus, as well as people who lived in communities of people who wrote the bus out of necessity. And so, we started with, what do we want? And we took a year, really, to sit in a room with people who rode the bus regularly and kind of self-regulate, talk about what were the problems, what were our common problems with the bus system. And we came out of that with the 19-point agenda for transportation reform. We did surveys with other bus riders to see if the bus riders we had in the room had some of the same issues. And then we actually launched that campaign in January of 2014. So, a little over a year from when we started. We started in the fall of 2012. We launched this campaign, and it was successful. It was very successful because we went through those steps. What do we want laid out that 19-point agenda. Then we said, who can give us what we want? Because in the bus system, you know, some of those decisions were made by the city council. Some of them were being made by the transit committee. Some of them were being made by the management company of the bus system. And so we had to see it, like each one of these who held the power to give us the yes and make the change that we wanted to make. And then when we said, how can we go about getting that? You know, how do we do that, and this is where we developed a campaign and strategy. And this was a really powerful work, some of the work that I'm most proud of in my adult life. Because this was people directly impacted by the bus, people who rode the bus, people who were traditionally not listened to, people who were mostly very poor, who had come together, and we're making change. And one of our staff members at the time was Amy Cantrell, who's also a local pastor and held church outside for homeless and formerly homeless individuals on Sundays. And one of our first victories was the Sunday bus service. And they would be outside holding church, and a bus would drive by, and many of them had been part of our campaign to improve the bus system. And they would stop church and say, “We did that.” And that was a very powerful recognition of the impact that this group of people had had. Yeah, so Voices has been a very powerful program that's had a significant impact, not only within our organization but within the community. Many of our Voices graduates have gone on to serve on our board, have served on other people's boards, have been a member of the transit committee, and then in some power positions at the city. So, we're very, very proud of that work and that program. And you know, we currently have Voices members sitting on our board, two of which are on our executive committee and the leadership of our board.

Ame Sanders  27:26

So, I'm glad you talked about your transportation work. And I was very impressed with the victories that you guys were able to tick off. And the fact that it worked with your Voices for Economic Justice Program to be sure that the people around the table in advocating for change were those who needed to see that change in their everyday life and who had the most knowledge and experience about what would work and what would make a difference every day for them. And so that's a super powerful story about your successes with transit and transportation. So, thanks for sharing that.

-Poverty Simulation

So, you also do something that I found interesting, which is a poverty simulation. Can you talk a little bit about that? That may exist in a number of communities, I know we have that kind of program in Greenville. But I think it's really worth talking about how simulations play a role in changing the community's understanding and willingness to act.

Vicki Meath  28:27

You know, I think that it's important for community members to have an understanding of what other people go through, right? When we can see that, and we can develop empathy, and that can lead to a place of real passion for the issues that we need to change, whether those issues are impacting you or one of your neighbors. And so, our poverty simulation is a two-hour experiential learning exercise designed to help people who have not had an experience living on a low income have never had that type of experience, have a sense of what people are going through and what their budget looks like. And also some people who maybe have lived on a low income, you know, 20 or 30 years ago, it's very different in this community, in our communities today. You know, when we see what's happened to the cost of housing, what we've seen has happened to childcare and the cost of childcare, what we've seen happen to various other costs, we know that it's not the same as it was, you know, 30 years ago, I remember talking to a legislator about raising the minimum wage at some point, and this legislator was like, “Well, I worked on minimum wage.” Yeah, well, the minimum wage was In 1968, if we if when this legislator was, you know, coming of age, you know, when adjusted for inflation and would be $13 An hour or over $13 An hour, and right now it's 7.25. And so sometimes it helps people to see what those comparisons are. So, in this exercise, we start off by dividing people into family groups, we give them a number of tasks that they need to complete, like, such as going to work or school or paying bills, like the grocery store and housing, and we give them some money and have different stations, and they have to go around and do these different things. And what ends up happening is a lot of people end up in the homeless shelter, a lot of people end up, you know, getting their kids taken away, because they weren't, you know, they didn't have food, they weren't feeding them, you know, different types of things. And then we have a discussion with the people attending the poverty simulation to say, what did you experience? And does this relate to anything that you're seeing in real life in your communities, I'm really taking an opportunity to kind of lift up the people in our communities that are struggling to make ends meet and trying to understand their problems. I myself come from, you know, before I had this job with Just Economics, you know, I have a college education and a professional background. But, you know, I had some life circumstances, and I was going through a divorce after having a very sick child for a while and was living on a low income, had moved to the Asheville area, was living on a low income and, and living below the poverty line waiting tables, trying to make ends meet. And, back then, I had to make choices that I didn't want to make. I had to get a tooth pulled when I really needed a root canal. And, you know, I had to, I went to work sick, and I sent my child to school sick. And then I listened to other, you know, mothers talking about how irresponsible people are, that send their children to school sick, when, for me, it was one of those winters, you know, waiting tables in the winter. And in the south, when it snows in Asheville, you don't make very much money, but your costs are higher. And so if I hadn't sent my child to school, I would not have been able to make my rent. So neither of those was a good decision. And so until you've had a chance to like walk a mile in someone else's shoes so of speak, you might not understand these challenges. And once you do see some of that, again, whether these issues impact you or not, you know, the minimum wage, raising the minimum wage, for example, or people making a living wage affects all of us because it affects our community. Right. But but sometimes it's harder to see that if it doesn't directly impact you, if you're already making a decent wage, you're far removed from the minimum wage, it's harder to see that until you're given an experience to see what other people are dealing with. And under, you know, have a little bit of an understanding, it's just a little taste of what other folks are going through that might help drive that passion to make change.

Ame Sanders  33:32

I will say that in my own experience of having done that, even a two-hour simulation can be quite impactful. Because it's long enough for you to hold not just in your mind but also your heart and in your body some of the stress, even though it is momentary for you and you can step away from it at the end of the simulation, and others are not able to. I actually had my heart rate go up, I was sweating, I felt anxious. I was afraid I was going to lose the children that I had been given in the simulation because I needed to go get some medicine, and I didn't have anyone to keep them. And so it was a powerful experience, even though it was very short and artificial. It still did, I think, open the eyes of folks in the room and change their perspectives.

Vicki Meath  34:27

I think it goes a long way also to break down stereotypes, judgments, and discriminations that we all hold. We all hold those. And again, you know, the goal is to break those down and to live better as a community and then also to drive that passion and understanding for these underlying larger issues of a community. How can we tackle these larger issues together? Because your problem is my problem, and my problem is your problem, and it's a problem as a community So that's, you know, rippling out. Poverty ripples out in many, many ways in our community. And so again, whether you're impacted by the minimum wage directly or not. Raising the minimum wage impacts our community because it impacts a change in lifting people out of poverty, and change can have a significant impact on lots of different aspects in our community.

-Benefit Cliff Effect Simulation Tool

Ame Sanders  35:27

This is maybe a good time to bring up a discussion about the Cliff Effect. And so one of the things I was very impressed by on your website was your Cliff Effect Tool that you have there for being able to look at the Cliff Effect and how it impacts individuals and families. Can you talk a little bit about that and also share a little bit about your tool, because I think anybody listening, I'm going to put a link in the show notes to it. Because I think anybody listening should go and look at it. It's brilliant.

Vicki Meath  36:28

Let me also just start this conversation by saying we did not create this alone. We worked with a local coalition that included Operation Gateway, The Housing Authority, United Way, and the Chamber of Commerce in the development of the Benefits Cliff Calculator idea on our website. And then we contracted with folks from Forsyth County, in North Carolina, and folks from the Center for Economic Mobility at Winston Salem University. And so, this was a large effort. So, I just want to not take all credit for this tool that's on our website. It was really a lot of great and very smart people coming together to provide this tool.

But let me just explain a little bit more about the Benefits Cliff in the first place. You know, sometimes you are in some programs like food stamps, or housing assistance, or childcare vouchers, they’re income qualified, and some of those programs have what we call slopes. So, food stamps, which is now the SNAP Benefits, have a slope, right? So if you make a little bit more, you get a little bit less, okay? And then there's a point where you just don't get any food assistance. And that is a federal program. Then we have other programs like Medicaid, and SCHIP, which is the State Health Insurance Program for kids, are federal programs, but the qualifications are state-wide, and some states have expanded Medicaid

And North Carolina is about to.

North Carolina is about to. I was going to say, as I have said for so long, that North Carolina is not one of them, but I'm learning to change my tune. And happily so. But anyway, so there are programs that are federally funded, but they have state qualifications. And so our calculator is specific to North Carolina at this time. But there are different programs like childcare vouchers, for example, that once you make a little too much, you fall off the cliff, like you no longer qualify. So, there's a difference between a slope where there's a gradual decrease in benefits or a cliff. So our Benefits Cliff Calculator tool will show someone how much they make and what benefits they qualify for, and what benefits they would fall off the cliff for. And the idea is to, as a community, help make bridges over the cliff, right? We want people to get to the other side of economic opportunity, but for some people, we might say, “Oh, the answer to getting out of poverty is to get a job.” Well, sometimes, especially if that job doesn't pay a living wage, getting a job may make things worse because now you don't qualify for certain types of assistance like housing assistance and childcare vouchers and food stamps, but you're not making enough to make up for those, to pay those things on your own. So that's where the cliff comes in when you're making too much money to qualify for certain types of assistance but not enough to meet those basic needs in your local economy. Because, again, these standards are set across the state and sometimes across the country. And so, they don't take into account places that have higher costs of living. Like in Ashville, for example, where our cost of living is very high for housing. If you no longer qualify for housing choice vouchers or public housing, it's very difficult to find something in your price range if you're not making more than the area median income. And so, there's a big gap in there, right? So, this tool helps to see where those are. With the idea that we can help bridge gaps, and we can help individuals that are benefits recipients learn how they can find resources in the community to get over that cliff. And help employers to think through other ways and benefits that they can provide that are non-taxable benefits that can help people as they're navigating that cliff effect. And we can, as a community, talk about other policies.

When I lived in Ohio, my daughter was on Medicaid, I was on Medicaid for a while, and I had the opportunity to get a better job. They had something called Transitional Medicaid. So, I could qualify, even though I was making too much to qualify. With my new job, I wasn't able to be on benefits just yet, and I could remain on Medicaid benefits. Otherwise, I would have this gap. And if something happened to me or my child during that time period, it could have really been devastating economically for me. So, that Transitional Medicaid was a policy that Ohio has, or had at the time, I'm not sure if they still do, that North Carolina doesn't. And so, we can also talk about what type of policies can we replicate from other states that really help get people over that cliff and navigate those challenges.

Ame Sanders  41:23

I think the way that you guys have depicted that with your tool is just brilliant. And I think that it helps all of those things that you're talking about both if I'm an individual who needs to understand better what I risk losing if I make a particular move or a decision, and also to be aware of what I'm eligible for, that I may or may not know about. Then as well, for as you're saying, employers to think about, okay, when I'm making an offer of a quarter an hour or 50 cents an hour to this person as a promotion, and they don't take it. Why would that be? It may not be that they're not ambitious, or they're not capable, or they don't want it. It may be none of that. It may be this Cliff Effect. And so you can educate your employers. And then, the policymakers can use it to see what their policy choices are doing to the community. So I think it's just brilliant. And it's really well done. And it's something I'd already seen and before talking to you, I've already shared it, and I will again share it on the show notes so that people can see that and can use it and can think about how to affect that in their own community.

We have talked about so many things, and you guys are doing a lot of different kinds of work around your three core areas of living wage, better transit, and affordable housing. You know, you have so much wisdom to share. Are there other things that you think our audience should be thinking about? As they're considering these things for their own community?

-Concluding Advice from Vicki

Vicki Meath  42:50

I think we have talked about a lot. And I haven't been I don't think as linear as I normally am.

Me either.

In describing some of our work. So I apologize to your listeners if it's been hard to follow.

And, you know, one of the things that we talk about at the end of the poverty simulation is really like challenging people to break down those discriminations, judgments, and stereotypes and really think about how the problems of our neighbors are impacting us and find ways to engage because certainly if you're in Western North Carolina, we'd love for you to be a part of Just Economics’ work. And you can, you know, find us online, and there's always something coming up. We have a general meeting every other month, we have committees, we have working groups, and we only have a staff of five and so we're doing a lot of work with a staff of five. Because it's not all our staff, it comes from our members. And so, again, if you're in Western North Carolina, we'd love for you to get involved. But if you're not in Western North Carolina, there are strengths in numbers. Seek out organizations and groups and places that you can go to kind of discuss the economic challenges in your community. Because again, whether you are impacted by them or not, whether you ride the bus or not, whether you are looking for affordable housing or not, these things impact all of us. Like with the bus, if people are able to ride the bus, it impacts traffic and parking and all kinds of things. And if the bus is better, even if we don't need to, we could and can make our life and our commute sometimes easier. So a variety of things that don't necessarily impact you directly. You can see what those impacts are. And I would say, get engaged. Because there are certain policy issues. Policy issues are not the only things to do. And policy issues stretch well beyond elections, Just Economics is a 501C3 nonprofit that doesn't support or oppose any political party or candidate. But we often do talk to our legislators and do grassroots advocacy, regardless of party to pass policy. So, remember that beyond elections…I know a lot of people get involved in elections, and that's great…there's also policy work that needs to be done, and there are creative solutions. And certainly, the first step to that is kind of learning more, educating yourself, and finding places where you can talk about these issues with other folks. And I know that there are groups like ours in communities all across this country. And so that's the last thing that I would tell people is just to find ways to engage. Because these problems, even if they don't directly affect you, affect your community. And it's really powerful to get involved in solutions.

Ame Sanders  46:05

Vicki Meath, thank you for our discussion today. And thank you for the work you're doing in Western North Carolina and the example that you're setting for other communities across the country.

Vicki Meath  46:49

Thank you so much for having me.


Ame Sanders  46:53

You know, it's great to have the chance to talk with Vicki ,with someone who's working in smaller urban and rural communities. I loved her mantra for advocacy, I should probably tack this one on my wall. She said, “What do we want? Who can give us what we want? And how are we going to get it.” That couldn't be clearer.

I'll also just give one more shout-out about the Benefits Cliff Tool that they have on their website. Please, please take a look at this. The link will be in the show notes. Go check it out.

You know, sometimes the work of justice, equity, and inclusion can feel abstract and distant. Tangible results are not always easy to find. What I especially appreciated here were the practical and tangible wins that Just Economics has racked up in Western North Carolina, like:

·      raising real wages for individuals across Western North Carolina through their living wage coalition, and returning $2 million to the economy,

·      realizing win after win on transportation in Asheville like Sunday service,

·      engaging and empowering community members through their Voices for Economic Justice Program.

·      And, even the soon-to-be-realized Centralized Rental Application that came out of one of their Voices groups.

You know, in all of this, Vicki reminded us that with a focus on advocacy, education, and grassroots engagement, and by working together, we can find creative and practical ways to make our economies work just a little better for everyone.

This has been the State of Inclusion Podcast. Join us again next time. And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others. Leave us a review. We'd love your comments.

Thanks so much for listening.


Guest: Vicki Meath

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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