Ki`i Kimhan Powell joined Benefits Data Trust (BDT) in January as our Senior Director of Policy, leading our team of policy experts who help federal, state and local governments test and adopt practical solutions that bring more equity and efficiency to accessing benefits.
Before joining BDT, Ki`i served in the Colorado Department of Human Services for more than 10 years, most recently as the Office of Economic Security Director, overseeing the state’s anti-poverty programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food commodities programs, the Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), state-funded cash assistance programs, several employment programs, the Colorado Refugee Services Program (CRSP), child support services and the training for eligibility technicians across the state.
Read our Q&A below to learn more about Ki`i, her experience, goals, and perspective on benefits access.
Q. Can you tell us about your career journey?
As a young adult, I was committed to becoming a clinical psychologist to help families whose children were experiencing mental health issues as my own family’s journey in traversing the mental health system was wrought with challenges. I wanted to be a part of a mental health system that could do better.
More than 20 years later, my career has taken many twists and turns. I have traversed the behavioral health space, child welfare, and the gamut of anti-poverty programs. While each one is a world unto itself, these systems are interconnected and serving many of the same families. And, often, poverty is at the heart of why so many families become involved in behavioral health, health care, juvenile justice, and child welfare systems. It is why I have pivoted toward working in the anti-poverty space. I want to work on upstream solutions so all families can thrive and not get deeper into government systems.
Q. You oversaw several anti-poverty programs for the State of Colorado. What did you learn from government service?
I’m proud of our work in Colorado. We increased the SNAP Federal Poverty Level income guidelines from 130% to 200%, so someone whose annual income increases from $20,000 to $24,000 can continue to quality for SNAP. We implemented telephonic signature, allowing people to sign documents verbally, so clients did not have to submit hard-copy applications and administrators could reduce processing time. Yet despite these massive wins, there were so many elements of the programs that just don’t work for families or administrators.
I’ve learned a great deal about how a state’s anti-poverty systems can help those in need, but also how they are hard to navigate, full of contradictions, and limited in their potential to promote economic mobility. I also learned that working at a state level you have the potential to make policy and programmatic changes that nibble around the edges - but not take a full bite.
Q. There is considerable concern about what will happen as the COVID-19 federal health emergency winds down this spring. As someone who served on the front lines, what challenges are your former government colleagues facing?
These are unprecedented times. Across the nation we have seen a mass exodus of agency staff alongside the highest caseloads in SNAP and Medicaid. Temporary changes to application processing are now ending with the end of the public health emergency. This has contributed to significant backlogs of work, and people are not able to access benefits timely or are falling off due to untimely recertifications. States, cities, and counties need bold supports to help manage these dynamics so we reduce worker burden and burnout, as well as ensure people receive necessary help.
While other programs like child welfare or TANF give states significant latitude in the operation of the program, SNAP, Medicaid and WIC are strongly federally prescribed. State operators of these programs can feel hampered in their ability to make the programs accessible, to ease the burden on people to apply, and to mitigate against families becoming trapped in poverty. For example, a parent enrolled in a benefit program may lose that benefit entirely if their income increases, even minimally, over a set limit – that is, by picking up just one extra shift at work. This can trap people in poverty by discouraging any increase in income.
Q. What drew you to BDT?
I want to help our nation realize the full potential of our anti-poverty programs. To do so requires changes both state-by-state, and federally. I am hopeful that the BDT Policy Team can put forth an agenda to ease the burden on people who apply for benefit programs, reduce administrative burden for states, and make moves to support economic mobility.
At BDT, we have the potential through our collective power as a contact center, research engine, state outreach partner, digital and technological innovator, and policy driver to be the difference. I am so excited to be here alongside an amazing team of collaborators in this fight who are just as passionate as I am about how policy can drive large scale change across our nation.