9 Investigates: The issue crippling local families financially

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's an upsetting problem Charlotte has been working to address -- moving people out of poverty.

The city was ranked last among the 50 largest cities in the United States in upward mobility.

While there's a lot underway to fix the problem, there are several challenges standing in the way.

During the years before her son started school, Elizabeth Palmisano and her family were in a tough situation. She and her then-husband didn't earn enough to cover daycare, so they qualified for child care assistance, until he got a small raise.

"Every so often you'd have to check in to see if you still qualified and I didn't anymore," Palmisano said.

The new raise didn't cover child care -- it just took them beyond the threshold of qualifying for assistance.

"It's exciting to like have that extra money so then to actually, this is not a good thing per se, because now it's forcing me to make another tough decision," Palmisano said. "There is no way to get up, it's not possible unless you have to have a lucky break period. It's not about working hard enough."

They fell off what's called the "Benefits Cliff."

It's one thousands of families across our community are teetering on. They may not make a lot of money, but they make just a little too much to receive benefits like child care credits, SNAP or Medicaid.

So, when there is an opportunity to move up, Pedro Perez with Charlotte Family Housing said families may not take it.

"Imagine, $25,750 per year is what is the poverty line, anyone living below that is considered officially poor but consider this, people that are making $25,751 they're over the threshold, they may not be entitled to benefits," Perez said. "Why would a family accept a raise if the raise is not going to cover the gap that will now be create by losing that benefit."

And this, a cycle begins.

"If you cannot get child care, can you go further your education? If you cannot get child care can you go to work," Perez said. "How do you move out of poverty if you can't get an education -- you can't go to work because you can't afford childcare."

Palmisano said she was fortunate that her son's child care facility offered her a job, which then allowed her a discount for his care.

Today, she is doing better -- she is a working artist and educator, but still worries about health assistance for her family as she gets more opportunities.

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"It sounds like a problem of privilege, but we're talking about the difference about making like $25,000 a year and $48,000 a year," Palmisano said.

"These are hardworking people by the way. They are driving buses, they are nurses aids, they're working two or three jobs to make ends meet," Perez said. "They're far from being lazy. That is an unfortunate mythology and stereotype that has been used to criticize families and not recognize the institutional barriers that exist."

Perez said Mecklenburg County is looking at solutions to poverty holistically like increasing affordable housing and expanding free pre-k, which is significant.

For example, families can qualify for that pre-k if they're at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

He said offering flexible child care hours for people who work various shifts would make a difference and continued focus on workforce development.

It's a complex problem that both Perez and Palmisano said will take everyone to solve.

"If one of us does not succeed, then all of us fail," Perez said. "If there's no justice for one person, there's no justice for all."

Increasing the minimum wage, Perez said, would also be a step in the right direction.

For families who find themselves falling off the benefits, Perez suggests reaching out to Legal Aid of North Carolina as a first step for guidance.

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