Local Interventions for Financial Empowerment Through Utility Payments (LIFT-UP)
For many families, one unexpected setback, such as a sudden illness or job loss, can initiate a downward spiral of household debt. When families are unable to pay basic expenses, such as utility bills, it can be a sign of overall financial instability. As families fall behind, cities feel the pinch too, as using costly debt collectors or imposing repeated service shut-offs draw resources from limited budgets.
I couldn’t see where my money was going so I was often short or in the negative. Before LIFT-UP, I was short 12/12 months. During the first month, I had to adjust and was short then, but I started making good habits and now I have no problems.
- Louisville Resident
NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families’ Local Interventions for Financial Empowerment Through Utility Payments (LIFT-UP) offers city leaders a “win-win” scenario. It allows city utilities to recoup lost revenue due to unpaid bills, while connecting residents who are behind on their utility bills with financial empowerment services to help them improve their overall financial well-being.
LIFT-UP has the potential to be applied to other city agencies that collect payments from residents, such as municipal courts, property taxes, and even motor vehicle fines and fees.
Between 2014 and 2016, NLC pilot tested LIFT-UP in five cities - Houston; Louisville, Kentucky; Newark, New Jersey; Savannah, Georgia; and St. Petersburg.
NLC partnered with the Center for Financial Security (CFS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to conduct a two-year evaluation to assess LIFT-UP’s impact on customer utility payment patterns. The five cities randomly selected residents who were delinquent in water payments and compared their payment and shut-off rates with two comparison groups. In three of the four cities that provided data, participants were making more frequent, on-time payments or at reduced risk of service termination at three, six and 12-months post enrollment, relative to customers who were not offered LIFT-UP.
The LIFT-UP model has potential to be replicated in other cities and with multiple agencies that collect payments from residents, such as other utilities, municipal courts, property taxes, and even motor vehicle fines and fees. NLC created a blueprint checklist to help local leaders determine how the program can be adapted and customized to meet the needs of their cities.
Houston: “It really helped us until we were able to get back on our feet. We didn’t have to deal with fees or anything. Before this program, we were making partial payments to keep our water from being shut off. They sent us reminders. Like a payment agreement confirmation. With the credits they were giving us we were able to get the payments current.”
Savannah: "The financial counselors were very professional. They helped me find out what was happening with my house. My mortgage company was pushing me around and I didn’t have anyone to help me. It’s a good program for everyone who is struggling financially. My life is changed already because my house was saved.”
Newark: “To sum it up, the financial counselor from the United Way was awesome. He listened to me and was willing to work with me. He was very good. When he quoted me the amount that I was responsible for on a monthly basis, he asked if I could handle that amount.”
St. Petersburg: Former Councilmember Karl Nurse of St. Petersburg, Florida: "NLC’s LIFT-UP project has given St. Petersburg an opportunity to implement a program that benefits both our residents and our city government. This innovative initiative has connected residents who are in debt to our water utility withy financial coaching to help them pay their water bill and address other financial challenges, while the city recoups revenue and avoids costly water shut-offs. LIFT-UP has the potential to have a significant impact on residents’ well-being and may change the way St Petersburg approaches debt collection."