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WATCH: How Los Angeles Put $30 Million in the Hands of Low-Income Residents Impacted by Covid Shutdown

The city’s idea – pre-paid debit cards – is being rolled out to 10 other communities across the country.

by Oracle / July 13, 2020
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This recorded interview is part of, Leading in Crisis, an ongoing initiative from Government Technology, the Center for Digital Government and Oracle to highlight some of the incredible leadership and innovations in state and local government in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Find more stories and resources at govtech.com/oracle360/leadingincrisis.

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented public health challenge. But it’s also a major economic challenge. Governments everywhere have struggled to continue providing services to low-income residents who have lost their jobs as a result of shutdowns or the economic downturn.

The situation was especially dire in Los Angeles, where by mid-April only 45 percent of county residents still had jobs. Local government leaders knew they needed to get money into the hands of people whose livelihoods had been affected by the stalled economy, and they knew they needed to act fast.

L.A. city leaders came up with an innovative solution: Using the existing Mayor’s Fund, they would solicit donations from the public and, in turn, provide assistance – in the form of prepaid debit cards – to low-income residents in the city.

Working with Oracle, MasterCard and the nonprofit Accelerator for America, Los Angeles created a new database for distributing the funds in a matter of weeks. The approach has been hailed as a national model, and it’s already being replicated in other cities around the country.

In this video interview, Government Technology Content Studio Chief Editor Zach Patton spoke with L.A. Chief of Operations Mary Hodge and Accelerator for America president and CEO Rick Jacobs about how the new system was developed, and how it demonstrates a new way of approaching challenges in the future.

Edited transcript:

Patton: Hello, and welcome to another conversation on Leading in Crisis, part of an ongoing initiative from Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government. In this series of interviews, we're taking a look at some of the leading innovations in state and local government in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

I'm Zach Patton, the chief editor for the Content Studio here at Government Technology. And I want to take a moment to thank our partners at Oracle for making this Leading in Crisis series possible.

As we know, the outbreak has been a massive public health challenge. But it's also an economic challenge. And that's why today we're focusing on the city of Los Angeles, which created a new way to connect lower-income residents with the financial assistance they need.

I'm joined today by Mary Hodge, the chief of operations for the city of Los Angeles, and Rick Jacobs of Accelerator for America.

Mary, let's start with you. Los Angeles has been one of the hardest hit places in the country by the coronavirus. Talk to us a little bit about the impact of the outbreak and specifically about how the shutdown has impacted lower-income residents financially.

Hodge: Sure. I would say the biggest impact is that we have nonprofits that we work with with the city that they're able to, folks who are lower income are able to be able to go directly to those nonprofits and receive services. And obviously with COVID, they can't go into those locations anymore. And a lot of them have issues, whether it's help with food banks or help with even being able to do services like getting their taxes put together, which was a big deal for them to be able to have their tax statements done so that they could get the help from the federal government. They weren't able to go to these locations live, and we were trying to figure out the best way to really get them money directly to them, to be able to help them with getting food, paying their rent and figuring out all those day-to-day things that impact them.

Patton: And Rick, talked to us a little bit about Accelerator for America and how that fits in with the challenges that Mary's talking about.

Jacobs: Accelerator for America came into existence two-and-a-half years ago in South Bend, Indiana. I co-founded it; Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was not really very well known then, was the host of our co-founding event on the 7th and 8th of November, 2017. Accelerator for America exists in order to address issues of economic insecurity, share those with cities across the country and build national policy from the ground up.

We try to scale and/or replicate great ideas and great solutions to economic insecurity.

Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles is the other cofounder. We work in a variety of areas, including infrastructure, which is also key to economic insecurity or finding security for people and building community wealth.

So when this came along in early March, when COVID-19 reared its ugly head in a big way across the world, but particularly now in cities here in the United States, we just looked around and said, ‘People need money. They just need money.’ We didn't know how long it would take the federal government to get off its duff to do something, but we knew that we had to.

So we partnered with MasterCard, which is a big supporter of the Accelerator, and we partnered with Mary Hodge and the city of Los Angeles. Mary talked about agencies and the family source centers. And we did a very simple thing: We went out to the public and we said, ‘Give us money and we will give it away.’

Amy Elaine Wakeland, who is the first lady of Los Angeles and is one of the best social scientists in this realm, helped us, with Manuel Pastor, design the application process. You had to be a resident of Los Angeles. You had to be at or below the federal poverty line when the crisis started. And you had to be able to demonstrate that you or somebody in your household had lost 50 percent or more of your income or your job as a result of the crisis. As a result, you could get $700, $1,100 or $1,500 depending on family size.

That's Accelerator for America's job. And that's what we were able to do together with Mary and the city of Los Angeles and the Mayor's Fund.

Patton: Mary, from the city's perspective, how did that all come together and what does this application actually look like? Wow does it actually work?

Hodge: Through Rick and the Accelerator and through the Mayor's Fund, they put out a call for folks to give us money, and we needed to be able to give that money out quickly. We didn't want it to be something that was going to take forever, and we wanted folks to be able to see the funds right away.

We had a couple of phases. The first phase, just because we wanted to get the money right out away, involved the nonprofits, which are through our family source centers. We put out an application, and we had about 400,000 people apply in the span of three days. So that was fantastic.

We obviously had way more people than we had the funds for, so we scrubbed the list for a couple of different things: for making sure they lived in L.A. and also just making sure we had all their information. And then because we had so many people, we did a lottery system because we wanted to do it the most fair way [to ensure] that we were not just picking certain people over others. So we did a lottery system.

And then from the lottery system, because we didn't necessarily have the technology yet to be able to get this out, we started with phone calls. We used a paid call center to call — about 150,000 people when we scrubbed the list were eligible, and so we started with the first group of about 30,000 people and we called all of them and invited them to come in to one of the family source centers to do an intake process where they brought in their information and were verified that they were eligible, that they lived in Los Angeles, that they fell below the poverty line and that they were impacted by COVID directly.

And that's how we got our couple million out the door, through phone calls and folks coming in to the family source centers, and us handing them direct debit cards. We called them ‘Angeleno’ cards. And they were able to go off and pay for their rent, pay for their food and do that almost immediately.

Within three weeks after the funds started coming in, we were able to get the money straight out the door.

Patton: That's so impressive, that timeline. And as Rick said, that was really an imperative here, to get this sped up. But that's not necessarily how we think about government operations working. How did that compare with being able to stand up stuff in the past?

Hodge: Well, we knew this was immediate and we knew that stuff was happening right now. And we couldn't just sit by and watch folks call us and call us and tell us they needed help. And we had the funds. We didn't want it these funds to sit there [while we] tinker around and figure out the best way. So we did this in phases because we wanted to just get going. So the first phase was by phone calls and we just got immediately going. We figured out that we had the locations all over the city that people could come into. You know, first we made them all safe. We called our partners to set up Plexiglas, to give us PPE, do everything we could to keep our workers safe. And we just got the money straight out the door.

But as we started doing this, we realized we could do this faster and more efficiently if we added some technology into the mix. So we basically just got out of our own way.

So we started doing it with the phone calls first, while at the same time we were building an app through our partners with Oracle that would make this more efficient and faster. And that's where we are now with Oracle.

Through APEX [Oracle’s Application Express app development tool], we have built a database system that lets us now email everybody. So the 150,000 folks, we go in cycles of people. So once we start with the first 30,000, you know, we try to contact them as many times as we can, but obviously there's drop-off. So with Oracle, we're able to email them now. Because a lot of folks didn't want to answer the phone; we have an immigrant population who doesn't want to answer the phone from a phone number they don't recognize.

So with Oracle, we were able to build a system that we could email people right away. They could schedule themselves and then they could come into the same family source centers and get the cards.

And that's where we are today. We went from giving out a couple million at the beginning to now we've given out $26 million. And we're hopefully on pace by the end of June to get to close to the $30 million mark.

Patton: That's amazing. Rick, from your perspective, how has the process worked? Has it worked as you thought? As Mary said, it's been kind of streamlined over time. But from your perspective, what does that look like to you?

Jacobs: Well, remember: March 15th, which is not that long ago, call it 90 days ago. A little more.

Patton: It seems like ages!

Jacobs: It seems like years, right? I mean, this is COVID time. It’s like dog years.

But the mayor of Los Angeles was one of the first to declare a stay at home order and was wise to do so. I'll tell you how this came into my mind was, I was going to do a dinner party as I'm wont to do at my house. And the week before that I canceled the party because the guests were not coming from out of town. And I called them up and I said, what's going on? They said, everything's canceled. And that was before the stay-at-home order. And I just thought, ‘Oh my God, people are going to need money.’

And then we started really looking at who needed the money. And then you get into what we were mentioning earlier about the criteria.

You know, before the crisis, 20 percent – 800,000 people – in Los Angeles city were living at or below the federal poverty line. 800,000 people. So you can only imagine what's happened since.

And if you're living at or below the federal poverty line, you just don't have spare money. It's not there. And if you miss a week, that's bad. If you miss two weeks, it can be a catastrophe. If you have medical bills on top of that, just start thinking about what stacks up.

And so from my point of view, I'd spent three years in government. I actually sat next door to where Mary's sitting now in City Hall. Only she does it all better than I did. And what I learned and saw is that when everybody wants to do something together, especially in this government, with Mayor Garcetti's government and Mary and people like that, and you have a flexible organization like Accelerator that that can just move, move, move, and you have a partner like MasterCard, and we'd already set up the Mayor's Fund as the conduit for money – You can do anything you want. And I think that's really the key.

And having a partner like Oracle in that was also amazing because they built this system in two weeks with APEX IT. Mary's hair was not curly before; it got curly through that process…

But truly, we built something I think we should all be very proud of. Because to give out this amount of money—think about the number of people. So we're at about 27,000 families that have these Angeleno cards. They have them in their hands. And if you multiply that by—it's roughly three [rounds], but Mary has the exact numbers—we have about 71,000 Angelenos who have been helped. 71,000! And by the time this is done, I'm willing to bet we will be well over 100,000. And it's money that makes the difference between eating and not eating; between paying your rent; between healthcare. I mean, we've looked at that. We've seen the breakdown: The breakdown is that roughly 68 percent of the dollars go to food. That's a lot of money that people are getting to be able to make it through.

When you have a great government that is determined to serve people, and you have not-for-profits [like] Accelerator and others that want to get stuff done, and then you have corporate partners like MasterCard and Oracle? You can do anything.

Patton: Mary, we've been seeing a lot more of that anyway, of public-sector organizations working with nonprofits, with the vendor community on more of an ongoing basis. And I think the coronavirus has just really stepped up a lot of those partnerships. What does that look like to you going forward? What do you think are some of the lessons learned in working with those partners, like the Accelerator, with MasterCard, with Oracle. What does that tell you going forward for the city?

Hodge: I think for us it means that we can do things much faster. We can look internally and see, if we can't do them, who can we ask for help to do this? I think normally we would probably take a little bit longer to look inside, to figure out the best way to do it using either technology or people or whatever we already have. And not necessarily think that we would have the ability to either go outside or even afford some of the things that are outside in the world.

So this has taught us that just by asking, we can get a lot of different things that I don't think we thought were possible, and also looking at our own selves and telling us why do things take so long? They don't necessarily need to take this long.

We can get started on something and then be building something at the same time and get that off the ground. And it can have many different iterations and phases and keep going. And like I said, just constantly deciding to get out of your own way, and seeing if there's another way or another better way to get it done.

The nonprofit world and folks like Accelerate for America and the Mayor's Fund and all of those partnerships, they bring stuff to us [and] relationships that we don't necessarily have. We need to take advantage of that stuff and use it. It works when we all come together, get out of our own way, figure out who else can do it best, and have our input into that as well.

Patton: I think also your point too, about just getting started. And if that means, you know, you do one phase where it's phone calls and then you get more sophisticated with that. A lot of times the perfect can be the enemy of the good in those situations. Just starting is kind of the key, right?

Hodge: Yeah, just starting is key. I mean, if we had waited til we built, so we even figured out we could have had a system, you know, we would probably still be here today, figuring it out and tinkering with it. The phone calls were key, you know: People have a phone. And we called them all and got them to come in. But we realized there was a huge drop-off rate with the phone calls that we were making. There were barriers for people answering the phones.

But we definitely also figured out that phone calls were vital and necessary. We didn't just get rid of the first phase once we built this entire cool new system with Oracle. We kept the first phase because there's definitely a lot of people who don't have email, who we cannot access through that way.

So through this whole process, we've just learned that there's a great mirroring of those kind of low-tech and high-tech [solutions, and] you need to keep both of them. You [can’t] put folks who don't have access to certain things to the side. Just because we're in the middle of the crisis, there isn't a reason that we need to, you know, make people who don't have the internet or don't have access to that, not being able to access the same stuff. And there are folks who happen to be a lot more tech savvy as well.

So we're doing both right now and it's working out extremely well. I mean, we give out a million dollars a day at some points, which is amazing. And sometimes more. And it really is because a combination of the phone calls, the system we built, the on-the-ground people. We have 21 locations, probably over 300 something staff that does all of the intake all day, that is making this entire process work.

It's definitely a multipronged, multi-phase, multifaceted team approach. And it's working out really well.

Jacobs: I want to add one thing to what Mary said, which is really important: Never once in this whole process — as intense as it was, and it was a very intense time — did we step on each other or get in each other's way. I have to say, looking back, I wouldn't call it fun. But it looking back, it was easy.

First of all, I think this is important: If you have can-do people — and Mary and her team are the essence of can-do — you're going to get it done. And then you have partners. We hope we work that way. And I think we did and MasterCard and others. I mean, if you just say you're going to do it, that's the whole point. You get started and you just do it.

The other thing is on Father's Day, the 21st of June, also the first day of summer, John Legend did a special for ABC for Father's Day. And part of that special was announcing that Accelerator for America is taking this program to 10 other cities and states across the country. We got a grant of $750,000 from the Open Society Foundations to do that. So we're working with Connecticut and Rhode Island and Louisville, Ky., and Birmingham, Ala., and Oklahoma City and Dayton, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tenn. I know I’m leaving folks out. [Ed note: the other communities include Atlanta, Austin, and Salt Lake City.]

It's very, very, very exciting. And everybody's doing something different. Everybody's taking the grant. It’s a $50,000 grant. The Oracle process is available to people; the expertise that Mary Hodge and the city of L.A. have is available to people; the expertise that we have is available to people. And everybody's applying this in a different way. And so you already see a great model of public private cooperation going forward all across the country and not waiting.

Patton: That's incredible, being able to not only stand as a model for other jurisdictions, but to actually work with other jurisdictions to adopt a similar program.

Jacobs: No, it’s really neat. It's really, really neat. I'm sure at some point we'll do lessons learned, but I do think the through line here, the biggest point is: Just do it.

It's interesting. We kept chiding ourselves for not going faster. And then we look around the country. When people need something, you can't go fast enough. It's impossible. On the other hand, we've gotten a lot done really, really quickly, to move this kind of money, all private money. That's another point I want to make is that we went out, we ended up raising into the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles, over $55 million for four different big programs. The biggest one of which is this one, which is, as Mary said, will be well over $30 million that will be given out to people through the Angeleno card program.

But we [also] established a brand new domestic violence survivor program. And we nearly doubled the number of beds at the County of Los Angeles has, and we did that in a matter of weeks, largely with two big donations from Rhianna's foundation and Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square.

We [also set up] a system that went from 12,500 home-delivered meals a week before the crisis to 120,000 after, and before any government money was available. Those are seniors who were not supposed to leave their homes. And even if they do have other means of getting food — which in many cases, they don't — they weren't supposed to leave. And that was another public-private collaboration.

And then we were able to provide […] childcare to healthcare workers’ children. Fifteen hospitals had frontline healthcare workers who could not miss a shift.

And then we also were able to provide sort of odds and sods, as I call it. I mean, there were needs for folks who are experiencing homelessness to have masks and other things. And all of that can get done very, very quickly because of this public-private collaboration.

Patton: Mary, how do you see that going forward? I know you've mentioned the $30 million goal, but what about beyond that? What does this look like a little bit longer term?

Hodge: I mean the system that we set up is definitely replicable, and we can use it for any kind of situation, which is really great. The president of the city council and the mayor are partnering on initiative to give out rental assistance. And they've already looked at our Angeleno card for lessons learned. And we're building something very similar to it to help with the rental assistance program, which will kind of follow the same model of folks being able to come into nonprofits and be able to do their intake of eligibility and then receive funds that way. So we're already looking at it. I mean, that should be starting in July.

It just shows us that any time that we have a problem or issue that comes up like this, that we can use the Oracle system we already built. And then also dig back into all of the private public partnerships that we have available to us to basically solve anything.

Patton: That's great. That's great. So, as I said at the top of the interview, this series is called Leading in Crisis. I wonder, Rick, what does leading in crisis mean to you?

Jacobs: Good leadership in crisis looks like identifying specific problems and solving those problems. That's what it is.

And if you remember all the time that you're solving one person's problem, one human being’s problem at a time, and then you multiply, that's what you do in a crisis. Remember that some human being — some one person — needs money. And some one person needs food. If you're a senior sitting at home, it's not a group of people, it's a human being. It could be your relative. It could be somebody that you imagine is your relative. That's what you have to do. You have to think about the person and then multiply that and then get it done.

Patton: Mary, what about you? What does leading in crisis make you think of?

Hodge: Leading in crisis makes me think of solving as you go. Just like Rick is alluding to, you know, nothing's going to be perfect. But we didn't stop and not give out this money until we figured it all out. We have been solving it as we go. New things come up, we figure it out, we break it down and we solve it.

And there are days that we're just like, Oh my God, you know, we can not get this done, or this is moving too fast. And we just break down the certain parts of it and fix those — but while we're still continuing to run the rest of the program.

You have to keep doing it while you're going. Otherwise you're not going to get done at all.

Patton: I did have one more specific question, going back to the technology piece. Mary, you talked about being able to scrub the lists, and I know there's a fraud component that is built into the Oracle database solution. Can you talk just a little bit about how you manage around fraud?

Hodge: When we were in the first phase, we were just making phone calls to people. We were running off of spreadsheets and Google spreadsheets and just paper lists. And it was working.

But with everything in a crisis, there is the ability for folks who want to defraud you to figure their way in. So at any given time, if you could have just showed up to one of these locations, you know, unless we had our keeper lists of all 400,000 people, we couldn't tell if you really were supposed to be there or not. And we did a good job.

People who applied would be in one location and have all 21 locations be able to look you up. So if you called us or you showed up, live in a location, we could tell at what point were you in the process, were you someone who didn't apply, which we did have lots call once they solved this, this was a success and the money was going out the door. You know, people were calling trying to just kind of get in the line who hadn't applied ever. So we were able to find those folks and just stop them before anything bad happened.

We had folks who unfortunately were deemed ineligible for various reasons. And they would try to go around and go through other locations and that would be stopped right away because you were in the system live at any point that you weren't eligible.

So really building the Oracle system where it's one massive database that's live, that multiple different levels of users can help us stop anything bad from happening, but also process the good things happening. That’s why we built the system in the first place.

Jacobs: One of the key things about this Oracle APEX IT system is that if you get an email, which a lot of people did, and you set up your password and so on, you're then prompted through the process to, “OK, I have to bring this document.” You click the box, like, “I'm going to bring this document or these documents in order to prove my residency; these documents in order to prove that I was below the poverty line; these documents to prove financial need.” And then you get an email back that says, “These are the documents you said you were going to bring.” And then you keep going and you can schedule your own appointment through a software system called TimeTrade.

And what's really neat about this is [that] it reduces the amount of time people need to take. Maybe they would show up and not have the right documents or whatever, something they'd want, come back. Secondly, it eliminated some people, some people said, “Oh, I don't qualify.”

So it was a really big help.

The other thing to say is that this online system [is] very interactive and allows you to schedule your own appointment. I think what we're going to find is that our cost to deliver this money is about 2.5 percent. There is virtually no overhead associated with it, which is quite amazing.

Hodge: I would add to that. I would say about 86 percent of people who get a card and schedule themselves? That's because of Oracle.

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