The Social Services, Technology, and Administrative Restructuring Initiative, better known as the “SSTAR Initiative”, presents a novel policy approach that would radically overhaul and improve upon America’s existing social safety net system. As the CARES Act is defunded and many Americans and small businesses continue to struggle to meet their basic economic needs, it is clear that new policies must be explored to see the country through the pandemic and beyond. Sara Abiola, PhD, JD, creator of the SSTAR Initiative and an assistant professor of health policy at Columbia University, believes that the proposed change “would accelerate the process of regaining health and financial stability on a national scale.”
- The SSTAR Initiative incorporates five sectors–employment, food, housing, education and transportation–into a single entitlement program that is accessible to all Americans.
- The SSTAR Initiative would competitively direct funds toward small businesses to enhance growth across all industries and sectors while selectively supporting businesses that promote population health.
- Benefit allotments would be calculated with a formula that reflects a wide range of unique household circumstances. The program is means-tested to be sensitive to an individual’s age, family structure, and overall financial health; debt-to-income ratios are calculated by prespecified categories of debt which include student loans and certain medical bills; the goal is a formula that provides adequate support for households at all income levels that are facing poor financial health.
- Funds would be transferred directly from the federal government and into an individual’s StarCard account and could be loaded with government funds of any type; everyone age 18 and over would have a StarCard.
- Families are taught how to better manage their spending for household needs and goals by having access to spending support tools that track and summarize a family’s spending habits to give a greater understanding of how they are using the funds, allowing the user to set spending priorities to ensure rent and other bills are covered, therefore improving credit scores over time.
- Saving options would be made available through interest-bearing accounts offered by participating banks and simple investment options would be offered by regulated third parties.
- The first businesses that SSTAR would promote would be those that have a positive impact on their community and economy- businesses that hire locally are seen as highly desirable for the social capital they provide, women and minority-owned businesses contribute to greater economic justice while growing the overall economic base for workers, and businesses supporting charitable activities that enhance their communities are eligible for enhanced funding opportunities through the SSTAR Initiative.
HOW IT WORKS
SSTAR funds are accessed through an individual’s StarCard, which would resemble a debit card with minor modifications. The StarCard could be loaded with government funds of any type and would have reduced administrative costs associated with delivering funds, made possible by using participating banks that would manage StarCard accounts. In order to minimize the risk of detracting from the health focus of the program, a StarCard holder would be unable to convert funds directly into cash that could be used to make illegal or illegitimate purchases, which also ensures that households can receive optimal financial planning assistance. The StarCard could not be used at liquor stores or recreational marijuana shops. The goal is to provide secure funding to support the American people through the nation’s unprecedented economic hardships and better prepare them for the future.
The Initiative is unique in its accessibility to all Americans. According to Dr. Abiola, “Every person age 18 and over would be eligible for relief. The new system is designed to be inclusive of people at all income levels; long-term financial health and stability is the goal.” To elaborate, an individual’s age, family structure and history, and overall financial health would be analyzed to create a profile that is matched to adequate support for the family- or individual’s- unique situation.
The SSTAR Initiative also puts a positive scope on small businesses and aims to reestablish the foundations of communities across the country. Small businesses that join the SSTAR Initiative would receive endorsement as SSTAR Community Supportive Organizations (CSOs) and could offer their goods or services at discounted rates where the federal government covers the differential. The magnitude of the SSTAR CSO discount would reflect the extent to which a business contributes to the overall wellbeing of the community. Businesses that apply and qualify to become SSTAR CSOs gain a significant advantage in being able to offer their wares at a lower price relative to their competitors without having to sacrifice profit.
As the CARES Act discontinues funding, after serving only a fraction of its intended purpose in the midst of the pandemic- and leaving millions of Americans without a means of supporting themselves or their families- a new system must be considered in the immediate future. Many countries have experimented with UBI programs that do not have the capability to maintain a balanced equation- increasing the cash within a household yet failing to adequately cultivate healthy business structures that can employ more of the population.
The SSTAR Initiative has significant potential to improve America’s safety-net by creating a single financial support program that is accessible to all Americans. Dr. Abiola emphasizes that “the goal is to provide a secure, efficient, and individualized mechanism for fund distribution and support businesses that play a crucial role in bringing our economy and the people that live in their communities back to a healthy state.”
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR AMERICA’S FUTURE
COVID-19 has put millions of Americans out of work, and with every passing day families are still unemployed and coming closer to the end of their relief programs. The SSTAR Initiative would cover multiple facets, including those that have been pushed aside or left unaddressed prior to the pandemic. By fulfilling the needs of all American people and better preparing them for what’s to come, the program would drive the country towards a brighter economic future for both individuals and businesses.