“Government is not ‘a system’,” says Elisabeth Mason, co-founder of Single Stop, USA. “It’s lots of systems. And what we care about are the people.”
The East Harlem headquarters of Single Stop, the nonprofit that Mason helped establish seven years ago, invites at-risk Americans from all walks of life to pay a visit. There, representatives demystify the labyrinthine process of accessing aid — quickly determining which public benefits and safety-net programs (from local to federal) their low-income clients may qualify for. And depending upon eligibility and needs, they may be connected to private charitable organizations, too. Through coordination of disparate programs, the organization aims to stabilize individuals and families, eventually lifting them out of poverty and into the middle class.
Mason has spent practically her entire life in East Harlem. Her father, a teacher and playwright and her mother, a social worker, were theater lovers of limited means and wanted to find an affordable way to live in Manhattan. Shortly after the 1968 riots, when Mason was a baby, the family moved into a dilapidated row house that they purchased for $6,000.
Mason’s parents were educated, giving her opportunities unavailable to most of her neighbors. Winning a scholarship to a top-notch Manhattan prep school, Mason’s childhood was divided between playing with her Harlem friends and attending school with, as she puts it, “millionaires’ and billionaires’ children.”
“This is a great blessing,” says Mason, speaking of her divergent childhood experiences, “when you want to do something around economic inequality because it means that you can understand all sides of the puzzle and you know how to talk to different people about that puzzle. But as a child, certainly, you feel at one time like you fit in everywhere and you fit in nowhere.”
While finding her way in the world after high school, Mason continued to rub shoulders with the elite and underprivileged alike, studying at Columbia and Harvard and working for six years in Central America, assisting street children. Her deep connection to East Harlem remained, however, and she returned, settling with a family of her own in a house two doors down from her childhood home.
Co-founding Single Stop is her way of addressing poverty in America — something she has witnessed her entire life. Annually, the U.S. allocates about $750 billion on a variety of safety-net programs, but many low–income Americans are unaware of what they are eligible for or don’t have the time or resources to jump through the hoops to apply for different programs.
Single Stop has expanded rapidly, existing at more than 113 locations (many at community colleges, since they already serve large low-income populations) in eight states. According to its website, Single Stop’s efforts have helped 1 million households access about $3 billion worth of existing benefits.
But Mason wants to do more, faster. Single Stop is currently developing software that will allow clients to screen themselves for benefits they might qualify for. This won’t eliminate the need for the human interaction that will still be available at every Single Stop location, but it should vastly expand the service’s reach.
“We never solve anything in society by talking about how hard it is to do or that it’s impossible,” says Mason. “Do I think alone we can end poverty in America?” she continues. “Probably not. Do I think with what we are doing we could actually significantly reduce it? Yeah.”
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