What a (not so) Long, Strange Trip it’s Been!

By Mae Watson Grote | Founder & CEO | The Financial Clinic

In Ideas that Work, Clara Miller, the President Emerita of Heron Foundation wrote “The urgency and size of the problems we face require that we work differently.  Everything at our disposal is now a mission-critical resource.” The series, on the whole, is a comprehensive and inspiring body of work, yet I’ve found myself at different points in the year coming back to this particular essay and passage when evaluating the small role The Financial Clinic plays in the pursuit of a more equitable economy.

In October, The Financial Clinic was honored to learn that the randomized control trial study commissioned by the CFPB in 2015 to evaluate its financial coaching model, “An Evaluation of the Impacts and Implementation Approaches of Financial Coaching Programs” had been re-evaluated by the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.  The findings were a welcome, additional validation of our long-held belief that financial coaching has a positive and significant impact on the financial security of low- and moderate-income Americans. The acceptance of the results by a distinguished peer-reviewed journal – with its particularly strong reinforcement of the study’s key findings – was on its face a proud moment for the organization; and yet, as I reflected further, I realized that the moment was more significant than just affirming our approach to service delivery.  This moment was about affirming the impact a growing field was having in a system of economic inequality towards the pursuit of lasting financial security for working poor Americans.

At the time, the idea of having our coaching model – something we believed passionately in yet simultaneously grappled with the reality that it was still unproven – independently evaluated in a year-long study was a daunting idea.  What if it wasn’t as effective as we thought? What if its impact couldn’t be scaled effectively? These were among the most frequent conversations we had while anxiously awaiting the study’s findings to be made public.

Indeed, this moment was about appreciating how far we’ve come as an organization and as a field. We didn’t know it at the time, but the RCT’s release would set in motion a journey that I’m so deeply proud to be a part of.  In 2015, when the study was released, the Clinic was regarded as a local nonprofit, growing in size and impact, but still very much rooted in its local community.  Today, we have national partnerships and have done work in more than 40 states. At the time, our quantifiable outcomes framework – assets, banking, credit, debt, taxes, and goals – had delivered a cash value of roughly 10 million dollars back into the pockets of our customers.  Today, that number is more than 80 million!

And lastly, perhaps on parallel tracks, not long after the RCT release we publicly launched our financial coaching social enterprise, Change Machine, a technology product rooted in our approach to coaching and our steadfast belief in its ability to deliver meaningful change.  Today Change Machine has helped thousands of practitioners build financial security for more than 60,000 customers.

While life events are rarely monocausal – the Clinic’s moment today certainly isn’t – it is fair to say that tapping into our own mission-critical resource in financial coaching was the best decision we could have made as an organization.  I’m so proud to be surrounded by a team that embraces the unknown and seizes the moment for self-improvement; we’ll continue to keep our eyes open for the next seminal moment and stay humble yet curious. Here’s to the next chapter, what a rewarding trip it’s been!

Change Machine and the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge: Building a More Equitable Economy Together

By Mae Watson Grote| Founder & CEO| The Financial Clinic

 

 

Change Machine, The Financial Clinic’s social enterprise for financial coaching and wealth-building strategies, was built on the idea that we can amplify our impact and advance the field by building a high performing community of practice. Financial insecurity is pervasive across social and human service sectors, and often stymies organizations from fully completing its mission. We believed that if a platform existed that allowed practitioners to integrate financial coaching alongside case management, to share best practices across the field and use commonly adopted outcomes,  and to concurrently embed direct services with the training and curriculum necessary to sustain the work at the organizational level, an innovative approach to poverty alleviation was possible. We launched publicly nearly three years ago with the vision of scaling financial security strategies for the nonprofit sector.

We are pleased to announce that Change Machine has been selected as a finalist for the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy’s Inclusive Innovation Challenge, joining a group of esteemed innovators and change-agents committed to leveraging technology as a force for good towards an economy guided by principles of equity and opportunity for all.  The Challenge aims to award over one million dollars in prizes to “Inclusive Innovators,” entrepreneurs around the world using technology to reinvent the future of work and create shared prosperity.  We are deeply honored that the selection committee sees in Change Machine the potential to create such lasting impact.

We cannot fully articulate the excitement and humility we feel to have been chosen as a finalist for this competition, regardless of the final outcome.  We built this comprehensive software platform determined not merely to advance our field, but to accelerate the impact of our field when streamlined into a user-friendly product motivated by a singular purpose: help those on the platform and the people being served by those on the platform reach their financial goals. For thought leaders and independent evaluators from MIT  to recognize Change Machine’s potential to innovate at scale.

We also know, and appreciate what it means to have the “MIT seal of approval.”  As finalists, we join past winners and engineers of social progress like LaunchCode, a 2017 grand prize winner that provides free accelerated software development training that places graduates in paid internships aimed at transitioning them into full-time software development positions. Or SkillSmart, a 2017 winner that leverages technology to assist job seekers in sharpening their skills and identifying action plans for the areas most in need of improvement, and most in demand from employers.  To sit alongside these and countless other steadfast leaders to collectively advance our ability to tap into human potential is a distinction that, regardless of the final outcome, we as an organization will forever be grateful.

We’ll be traveling to Detroit to the next round of the Challenge and are bringing with us the motivation to make the case that building financial security is just the beginning.  Together, we will create a future guided by equity and inclusion, and accelerated by technology and community of practice. This spirit of community will be applied to the Challenge:  regardless of who wins, we look forward to amplifying their impact, drawing from their expertise, and looking to a future of collaboration towards ameliorating barriers to opportunity.

See you in Detroit!

Practicing What We Preach: A Practitioner’s Approach to Sensible Economic Policy

By Mae Watson Grote | Founder and CEO | The Financial Clinic

Economic policy for low-income Americans is often written by economists.  But alternatively, what might a practitioner-based approach look like? How would the success factors change?

At The Financial Clinic, we advocate for a nation where every American is financially secure, and for economic policy that centralizes the needs of America’s working poor.  Currently, around seven percent of Americans remain unbanked, and possibly up to twenty percent of banked Americans report needing to rely on non-traditional financial services. The Federal Reserve’s own SHED data reports that thirty-five percent of Americans would be unable to pay all of their monthly bills in full if they were faced with a $400 emergency. The impact created by this financial insecurity extends far beyond individual households.

It is clear that improving financial inclusion and financial security is not just beneficial to low- and moderate-income families: it strengthens the American economy.

The Financial Clinic understands the risk financial exclusion and insecurity present to the health of our nation, because its practitioners work everyday directly serving working poor families and building their financial security through an outcomes-oriented, strength-based model empirically proven to deliver measurable results.  The Clinic’s leadership within the financial security field gives us a unique perspective on the daily struggles of working Americans and the impact that economic policy has when it fails to fully take into account their perspective.

A central goal of my career has been to build the financial security of working poor Americans by arming them with the financial knowledge and capability they need to achieve their goals.  After well over a decade of work in this field, one of the primary lessons that I have taken away is that knowledge on its own is insufficient to achieve lasting financial security. Hard working people across this country face far greater barriers than a lack of financial literacy. Americans today face a dynamic, challenging economic and financial landscape that, while showing positive signs of strength, continues to leave far too many without the skills or the income they need to reach their potential.

To address these critical challenges, The Financial Clinic has focused on bringing the people that we serve – and critically,  the organizations that serve them – to the forefront of our work. By democratizing solutions to systemic poverty, it is possible to unlock the enormous potential of human service and community development practitioners, and leverage their unique knowledge and skills to inform a blueprint for how anti-poverty efforts can be strengthened nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that there are 1.8 million workers on the front-lines of anti-poverty work.  My vision is that every one of them have a financial security tool, product, or practice in their arsenal that informs their unique mission and meets their customers where they are.  Our vision – together as practitioners, nonprofit leaders, and economists –  is a social service sector where job developers have all the tools they needed to spot their client’s credit problems, domestic violence advocates are trained in practices to screen for financial abuse, and community college counselors help their students readily and effectively pair financial goals with career goals.

With the aim of harnessing the power of technology for social good, we created our financial coaching platform Change Machine. The platform is integral to our vision of scaling up our rigorously evaluated financial coaching model – the first in the field – and empowering social service practitioners across the country to build the financial security of their communities. We pair the tools and resources of the coaching platform with a set of wrap around capacity building supports focused on integrating financial security into the existing set of services any organization offers. Through the direct provision of financial coaching, and the support we provide to over 460 social service organizations across the country, we have been able to put nearly $80 million dollars back in the pockets of over 48,000 customers.

I am so proud of what The Financial Clinic has accomplished, but our work remains unfinished. We are redoubling our efforts to leverage the household financial data we collect through Change Machine, the lived experience of our customers, and the unique capabilities of our organizational partners to develop best practices, innovative financial products, and economic policies that will build a more financially secure America.

Partner Series: Supporting Adults With Autism/IDD as a Financial Coach

A Guest Blog By Taryn Oesch, CPTM | Board Secretary |  The Power of the Dream

A 2014 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions found that twice as many adults with disabilities live in poverty than adults without disabilities, that fewer than 30 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities work, and that American households that include an adult with a disability earn 38.4 percent less than households that don’t.

For individuals with autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD), the numbers are, perhaps, even more alarming. The unemployment rate among people with intellectual disabilities is more than twice as high as the rate for the general population, and only 26 percent of adults with intellectual disabilities who do work have full-time jobs. About 85 percent of college-educated adults with autism are unemployed, and more are underemployed.

Clearly, financial support is critical for individuals with autism/IDD. With the high prevalence of autism/IDD (about 1.5 million people in the U.S. have autism, and about 6.5 million have an intellectual disability) and the high rate of financial struggles among those people, you’re likely to work with at least one person with autism/IDD, or a person with a close family member with autism/IDD. How can you help?

What Are Autism/IDD?

First of all, what are autism/IDD?

Autism spectrum disorder, often called autism or ASD, encompasses a range of symptoms and levels of severity. They include difficulties with social communication and interactions; repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities; and difficulties developing and maintaining social relationships. It includes Asperger’s syndrome, which is no longer an official diagnosis but which many individuals still use to identify themselves as people with autism who typically have less or no impairment in cognitive or language development.

An intellectual disability is what it sounds like – an impairment in intellectual functioning and what’s known as adaptive behaviors (social and practical skills). A developmental disability is a cognitive and/or physical impairment diagnosed before the age of 22 that limits the person in three or more of these areas: self-care, receptive and expressive language, learning, mobility, self-direction, capacity for independent living, or economic self-sufficiency. Common intellectual and developmental disabilities include Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, ASD and cerebral palsy.

Coaching Adults With Autism/IDD

Many of the goals of financial coaching for individuals with autism/IDD and their families are similar to the financial coaching goals for individuals without disabilities. They include:

  • Identifying financial goals and developing a plan to achieve them
  • Asset-building, including creating an easy-to-use spending planner, enrolling in eligible benefits, creating a savings plan, and understanding ABLE accounts (if applicable)
  • Opening and managing a bank account
  • Understanding and managing credit, including checking credit scores, building and repairing credit, and avoiding or remedying identity theft
  • Managing debt, including understanding and paying bills, learning about bankruptcy (if applicable), and managing student loan payments (if applicable)
  • Paying taxes, including knowing where to obtain free tax preparation, understanding available tax credits, and understanding and saving tax refunds
  • Finding additional help, including referrals to legal help and benefits resources

Working with individuals with autism/IDD requires the same basics that any coaching relationship does, like building trust, being client-centered and focusing on strengths. However, there are some guidelines you should follow to provide the best service to these clients:

  • Provide clear, easy-to-understand communication. This means using straightforward language and providing visual aids instead of too much written communication.
  • Understand government benefits for people with disabilities, and be able to make recommendations to your clients based on their goals, employment status and other factors.
  • Help individuals understand and build on their skills and strengths.
  • Know about employment opportunities for individuals with autism/IDD, including job coaching and micro-enterprise.
  • Understand the needs of families, and help them with their financial goals. What does the family need to do to be able to support the individual with autism/IDD? Does your state offer ABLE Accounts, for example?

Know where to find more resources and advice. For example, The Power of the Dream, a partner of The Financial Clinic, is always available to answer questions.

About The Power of the Dream

The Power of the Dream is part of our WorkBOOST National ecosystem. Based out of Raleigh, NC, its mission is to create jobs and advocate for adults with Autism or other Intellectual Development Disorders in the North Carolina Triangle

The Financial Clinic Condemns Passage of House Farm Bill

Late last week, the House of Representatives passed a version of the 2018 Farm Bill that would cut over $20 billion of funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in addition to imposing strict new work requirements on many of its beneficiaries. The bill would also severely restrict the ability of any individual state to change or relax many of these requirements when appropriate to address the specific needs of its residents.

This misguided approach will have devastating consequences for our society’s most vulnerable, causing up to 2 million people, many of them children, to lose access to a quality diet. The current news cycle has been dominated by images of the administration’s attitude towards those seeking asylum in the United States, justified in part by the claim that we need to take care of “America first.” While we reject this as a false choice, that the claim is made while we continue to condemn so many of our own citizens to poverty and hunger should give us all pause. The Financial Clinic strongly condemns the passage of this bill, and call on all in Congress to follow the example set by the Senate Agriculture Committee and take a bipartisan approach that protects the critical support that SNAP offers.

Every day, the Clinic and our partners work with low- and moderate-income people across 41 states that are struggling to make ends meet and provide for themselves and their families. Many of our customers – both with dependents and without – face compounding economic hardship including housing insecurity and income volatility, and rely on SNAP as the first line of defense against food insecurity and hunger.

Contrary to the assumptions motivating the House bill, most SNAP recipients who can work, do work. In fact, SNAP is a vital work support, boosting wages for people working in low paying jobs with unpredictable schedules, helping them afford a basic diet. Many of these SNAP recipients are already subject to a strict regime of work requirements and sanctions and a number of social service organizations support further relaxing these counterproductive requirements rather than expanding them. The sanctions framework offered by the House Farm Bill is extreme and will have a real and measurable negative impact on working families’ financial security and wellbeing.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the House bill also creates a significant, unfunded administrative burden for state governments by increasing individual reporting requirements and eliminating state discretion for tailoring the rules. This kind of expansion of state bureaucracy not only wastes taxpayer money but increases the risk that eligible individuals, many of them employed, will be removed from programs as a result of administrative errors, depriving them of the assistance to which they’re entitled and unnecessarily putting their access to food in jeopardy.

While the House bill includes an increase in funding for state workforce development programs, the majority of experts agree these funds remain woefully inadequate and could amount to as low as $30 per individual, per month. The best research suggests that investment on the order of more than $800 a month per individual is likely required to provide the kind of meaningful support that is most effective in helping someone find a good job at a livable wage.

Lastly, the Clinic urges our representatives to consider the human cost of these legislative changes. The average household benefit through SNAP amounts to just $1.40 per person per meal, and with just this small amount the program has lifted millions of people out of poverty and kept millions of children from going hungry. Removing this support for vulnerable working people sends the message that we do not believe the barriers they face are real, that their efforts are insufficient, and that their needs are not our concern. But we know that the problem is not that too many people are receiving SNAP benefits, or that they do not work hard enough to attain security without them. We know that the problem is too many hard working people cannot earn a living wage to support themselves and their families. Systemic poverty is the problem, and removing critical support like nutrition assistance will only make this challenge worse.

The House Farm Bill will now need to be reconciled with the bill passed last week by the Senate Agriculture Committee before it becomes law. We encourage everyone to call their Senators and urge them to support this bipartisan compromise that protects SNAP benefits for millions of working families. You can find out who your Senator is and their contact information by visiting callyourrep.co and entering your home address. Or you can call 1-888-398-8702.

The Clinic’s Journey to Creating Lasting Change

By Michael Dedmon | Policy Manager

Since our founding in 2005, The Financial Clinic has put nearly $80 million back in the pockets of more than 48,000 customers. Over the years, we have grown from an organization focused on serving the working people of New York City to one that partners with over 460 organizations across 42 states to build the financial capability of low- to moderate-income Americans. Our capacity building work and our national financial security ecosystems give us the privilege of working with diverse communities from coast to coast, further informing our perspectives on the challenges that working people in this country face every day

As the scope of our work has expanded, our ambition to achieve our vision of a financially secure nation has grown as well. We are excited to announce that later this summer The Financial Clinic will – for the first time – release a national policy agenda that will guide our advocacy efforts in the coming years.

The Clinic will focus on a set of national policy priorities we believe best represent the opportunities to make a long-term impact in the lives of the people we serve, wherever we or our partners serve them. These efforts are continually guided by our core principles. The first is the belief that our customers are experts in their own lives and that – better than anyone – they know the challenges they face and the resources they need to address them. The organizations and communities we partner with hold vital knowledge and our goal is to combine this experience with data and powerful stories collected directly from our customers through our financial coaching platform, Change Machine, to ensure they remain at the center of our policy and advocacy efforts. Second, we know that fulfilling our vision of building a financially secure America requires addressing historic racial and gender inequities in economic opportunity created and sustained by our political institutions and public policies. Our advocacy will elevate the knowledge and capabilities of our partners and customers to support policies that remove systemic barriers, empowering minority communities to build lasting financial security.

The powerful combination of data we collect through Change Machine, the knowledge and expertise of our partners across the nation, and the lived experiences of our customers have reinforced our belief that many of the most significant barriers low- to moderate-income people face when attempting to build financial security are the result of systems and institutions that make it impossible to get ahead. Empowering individuals with the information and the skills they need is too often not enough; policies at the local, state, and national level can exacerbate the hardship families experience every day.

For this reason, the Clinic leverages our standing in the financial security field, our partnerships, and our unique customer data to develop and advocate for new policies that will create lasting change. In 2016, we partnered with the Citizens Committee for the Children of New York (CCCNY) and the New York Asset Development Coalition to pass the Refund529 bill. This legislation allows New York State tax filers to split their state refund and deposit a portion directly into a 529 college savings account. This new opportunity for tax time savings makes it easier for low- to moderate- income New Yorkers to invest in themselves and their families, access assets that build wealth, and give their children the necessary resources to attend and graduate college.

Our goal is to now apply the lessons learned from this successful campaign to a range of issue areas that will expand opportunity for working people across the country. We look forward to expanding this dimension of the Clinic’s work and joining with our customers and partners to advocate for policy changes that build a more financially secure America.

Retention, Relationship Building, and Meeting Customers Where They Are – An Interview With Kristen Baker

Interviewed by: Darren Liddell, Director of Program Innovation

Recently, the Clinic’s Senior Financial Coach, Kristen Baker, was recognized for having the most customer sessions, the highest customer retention rate, and most customer outcomes achieved in 2017 among all coaches in the NYC Financial Empowerment Center Network.

Kristen’s outstanding achievements have shown us all that when it comes to helping people build financial security, she is a bit of an expert. In the hopes of spreading some of her expertise, we asked the Clinic’s Director of Program Innovation Darren Liddell to sit down with Kristen and learn all about how she got into financial coaching, what she believes are the best practices for engaging customers, and how other financial coaches can maximize their impact.

[This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

Darren Liddell (DL): Tell us about yourself, when you began to work with The Financial Clinic, and a little bit about your background.

Kristen Baker (KB): I joined The Financial Clinic as a financial coach in 2015 and have been working on the Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) contract for just over two years. Before joining The Financial Clinic, I worked at a domestic violence shelter and in workforce development and college career development at a community organization in Queens. I moved into direct service work after getting my Masters in social work here in NYC.

I also have 13 years experience in culinary retail, selling pots and pans, and that was certainly very customer driven. I think that really honed my ability to work with different populations that have all sorts of different goals. And, if you have any questions about the difference between a braise and a roast, then I’ll be happy to answer those as well!

DL: Good to know!  When my meat-making skills need refining, I’ll come to you for the best pots and pans to make it happen. Kristen, I wanted to ask a follow-up question on something you mentioned in your prior answer, your background in social work and in sales. How do you feel those experiences tie into your daily work as a financial coach? Do you have any recommendations for new coaches?

KB: Sure. There are many social work practice skills that I continue to use daily. Whether it is engaging customers and creating a plan for their very general goal or figuring out a specific asset-oriented, forward-thinking, strengths-based goal, I spend time getting to know people and validating their experiences while offering some insight. That has been extremely valuable and shows in my coaching where 48% of customers come back for at least a second meeting

A lot of the conversations we have here in our direct services department has been engaging the coaches in exploring what their soft skills are. That means really being able to sit down with people from all different walks of life and aid them in identifying what their own passionately held goals are. As a financial coach, and also a supervisor, I get to practice this daily to hone and refine these skills. I also get to engage with my team of coaches and use our professional development time to teach a little about what I have learned as a social worker without the hefty student loans.

DL: Love that and also love that you are tying in a personal finance issue – student loans – that is very near and dear to many of the customers that we serve, as well as practitioners that may be reading this now. You also mentioned customers a little bit, and I wanted to ask you if you have a favorite customer story? What is the story? Who was the customer?  Why are they your favorite, and what was the result of them coming in for coaching?

KB: I am not sure whether I can choose a favorite, but I can spend a little bit of time talking about one of the customers I’ve seen this week.

One of my sites has a customer I’ve been seeing every six months or so, and her presenting goal is to retire comfortably. She is older and she has had an inconsistent work history. Her social security payments are very low and as people know, rents are going up everywhere, not just in New York City.

It’s really great to have her come in regularly so that we can see how her budget is going and see if the goals we set out are still on track. The way her bank balance increases and how she manages the credit cards is sometimes an extension of what we count as her budget.  She actually just filed her taxes and that’s always an exciting opportunity for saving.

For me, being able to maintain a relationship with someone, is the most rewarding part of the job.  I love it when people are coming back and checking in with me.  You can see how all the hard work they have been putting into their finances positively impacts their lives.

DL:  Getting back to your awards sweep, you have received recognition from the NY Office of Financial Empowerment for the most sessions, highest retention, and most customer outcomes achieved. Can you share with other practitioners things they should keep in mind to increase their impact with the customers they meet?

KB: Sure, these are conversations that we are constantly having on our team. I would say that having a really solid intake process where there is customer engagement, where you can achieve mutual accountability, and where you can build trust to encourage follow up is key. We are the coaches, and while it is up to our customer to identify their financial goals, it is up to us to do the coaching and keep people engaged. If they fail to follow up or maybe don’t come in, just check in and say, “How are you? I was just thinking about you and that question that you had, here is an article that reminded me of you,” then from there, re-open the conversation about outcome areas, connect those outcomes back to the goal. I think it’s important to have that holistic view of who this person is. What is their environment like? What are their goals in terms of finances and otherwise? How does financial coaching fit into what they are looking to do with their lives?

DL: It sounds like keeping the customer’s goals at the forefront of the conversation and taking good notes for the next meeting so that you can refer back to what their main objective was, is essential to the process.

KB: Yes! Especially as a supervisor, I love data! If it’s not in our system, if it’s not in Change Machine, then it didn’t happen. Actually, I can attribute a large majority of my outcomes to absolutely baselining everything. If someone comes in and says they have one checking account and it has $10 in it, the next time I’m seeing them I’m asking, “how is your bank account doing these days? What’s your balance now?” Then tracking their savings progress towards their goals and watching it build can be that much more gratifying.

DL: Thanks for highlighting the importance of baselining and data. This is actually tying into a question that I was going to ask you. What would you say is your “secret sauce” in terms of getting customers to come back for second meetings and beyond?

KB: Well, first and foremost, it’s my personality, Darren. (Insert big smiles!) You have to be approachable and you have to build trust. But also, I bring a level of professionalism and make sure to convey to customers that I care about their success. This is all part of a larger system, but it all basically comes down to the relationship and letting people know that I believe in them.

Often times, I’m seeing people who haven’t had many people in their lives that think they can achieve their goals. So, to really normalize it and say that every person who comes in here sets a goal, makes all the difference. People just need someone to believe in and advocate for them, and when they come back and stick with the process, the likelihood that they’ll meet that goal skyrockets!

DL: What about monitoring progress and tracking outcomes when customers aren’t in the room with you for coaching. Do you do follow up calls? Is there a check-in?  Are you updating customers about things between appointments? Tell me a little bit about that.

KB:  As any coach or social service practitioner knows, it’s difficult to get people in the door. Whether it’s child care challenges, the weather, mass transportation, or traffic jams, there are always barriers. So, our priority is to meet customers where they are and accommodate what works for them while also maintaining our schedule and workload.

I do stress using email and phone follow-ups because I think that is an easy way to keep people engaged. For example, if someone calls me in the morning to cancel their 12 o’clock appointment because they have to stay home with a sick child, I’ll ask them if we can have a quick phone check-in when it’s nap time.  Also, using technological supports like delayed or pre-scheduled emails to remind someone to bring in a document or put something in the mail before their next appointment will help keep them on track.

Another helpful tip is to set automatic check-ins at various intervals after the initial meeting.  So, maybe at 3 months we will follow up on a credit score, and at 6 months we will check in on a debt reduction. We also take advantage of built-in reengagement times, like tax time. Tax time is great for re-engaging customers because for many people receiving certain tax credits, it is the best opportunity for saving.

DL: I love that you are leveraging opportunities in the natural calendar and in people’s lives to make the maximum impact.  As we wrap up our interview, can you tell me what you think the most important practice is for coaches to implement?

KB: Financial coaching is something that is beneficial to everyone. People will come in and say “I don’t have any money coming in, so I can’t do a budget yet”, but that’s actually the best time to make a budget because an approach to finances should be forward thinking and asset-oriented, not reactionary.

The best thing we can do for the financial security of our customers is to help them plan. This way, no matter what their financial goal is, it is intentional, and they have an action plan to get there. When people are working daily towards a plan and meeting little milestones along the way, we know they are really being empowered by having a choice of what to do with their finances, and that there will be a sense of pride when they reach their financial goals that will help them succeed long into their financial futures.

Have a burning question to ask about becoming the best financial coach you can be?  Email us, and we may invite you to be a guest on one of our upcoming podcasts. (Launching soon!)  

thefinancialclinic.org/contact-us


Financial Coach Kristen Baker received recognition from New York City’s Office of Financial Empowerment for Most Sessions, Highest Client Retention, and Most Client Outcomes achieved.

  • MOST CLIENT SESSIONS IN 2017: Holding down the OFE team during staff transitions in the beginning of the year, KB held over 700 meetings. That’s about 17 meetings per week sustained through the full coaching year.
  • HIGHEST CLIENT RETENTION ACHIEVED IN 2017: Almost half (48%) of KB’s customers came back to see her. That’s out of the total 354 customers she met with in 2017.
  • MOST CLIENT OUTCOMES ACHIEVED IN 2017: She was awarded for the 254 outcomes achieved from the OFE framework, but according to Clinic Mission, KB achieved 403 total outcomes at an Achieving Mission rate of 22%. In other words, 22% of her customers achieved both asset-oriented (A,B, T, G) and debt-oriented (C, D) outcomes.

Mick Mulvaney Wants to Put Millions of Americans at Risk; Why we must save the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

A message from The Financial Clinic and Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners

In a 2014 interview with the Credit Union Times, a former South Carolina representative was asked how he and fellow lawmakers would like to reform the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). His response: if he had the political ability, he would like to get rid of the agency altogether. This representative was Mick Mulvaney who, as of November 2017, is the acting Director of the CFPB. While GOP lawmakers have floated abolishing the CFPB several times since Trump’s inauguration, this opposition is far from new and is far from over – just last week, Mr. Mulvaney hinted that he would like to end public access to the CFPB’s online complaints database, a tool that has been instrumental in holding companies accountable to the needs of their consumers.

The CFPB was established in 2010 as a legislative response to both the financial crisis of 2007-08 and subsequent Great Recession. Its sole purpose is to “protect consumers from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices and take action against companies that break the law.” At the time, even top executives at some of the world’s largest financial institutions were quick to concede that more oversight was necessary to prevent some of the practices that induced the economic downturn. Unfortunately, less than a decade later, the political pendulum has swung back and resulted in a tenuous outlook for this federally funded bureau.

As national nonprofits dedicated to helping low-and-middle-income families achieve financial health, The Financial Clinic (the Clinic) and Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners (Neighborhood Trust) see firsthand every day how pervasive financial insecurity is for many Americans and the invaluable support they receive from the CFPB.

Brenda, an aspiring homeowner struggling to manage her delinquent student loan debts, worked with her Financial Counselor at Neighborhood Trust to organize a payment plan with each collection agency—except one. The collector reported the outstanding $13,000 balance as delinquent and was unresponsive to Brenda for months. Her Financial Counselor helped her make a formal complaint to the CFPB through a simple process. Within a month, the CFPB notified the collection agency that they were in violation of Brenda’s rights, resulting in the agency ceasing collections and removing the blemish from her credit report and allowing Brenda to become a homeowner later that year.

Ann, a 78-year-old woman, was concerned about the number of scams and solicitations that she was receiving. Neither she nor her family understood how to stop the harassment, especially by a particular fee-for-credit service. With her financial coach at the Clinic, she was able to use considerable resources of the CFPB to understand her rights and make an easy five-step complaint that took less than five minutes.

Brenda and Ann are just a couple examples of how the CFPB has helped hold third-party actors accountable and been a powerful ally and voice to consumers’ sometimes lonely fight. Yet, their stories, like millions of others, are often overshadowed by mainstream coverage of positive macroeconomic indicators—unemployment is down, inflation is stable, and the stock market was, until recently, hitting new all-time highs.

Financial insecurity is real, isolating, and daunting for the over 100 million low- to moderate-income (LMI) Americans who face it. Healthcare, daycare, and education costs have skyrocketed while stagnant wages and steady inflation have eaten away at LMI individuals’ ability to make ends meet. New business models are no longer constrained by geography; they enable freelance or “gig” work, which entail fewer workplace benefits and variable scheduling leading to income volatility and financial insecurity. In the context of our current economy, these Americans face a razor-thin margin of error where an unexpected overdraft charge or late payment fee can cause a setback that takes many months to recover from.

Americans should be able to navigate a financial landscape where terms hidden in small print can be crippling and credit reports are game-changers, but many people struggle to understand or even access their own reports. While resources can come in many forms—certainly paychecks and other types of income help—the most critical is access to information and supports that help Americans become their own advocates. Nevertheless, even the best self-advocates need a government that can help make a difference in both the large financial stresses and the smaller day-to-day ones. Few organizations have been a stronger ally to this end than the CFPB.

That’s why we are asking you to join us in supporting the CFPB and standing in opposition to any efforts being made to weaken or dismantle the agency, including the changing of its mission statement. Together, we aim to embrace and further the original mission of the CFPB that consumers should have the opportunity to achieve lasting financial security, free from predatory financial practices—one that should go far beyond the reach of partisan politics.

You can help by:

  1. Voicing your support for the CFPB and sharing your perspective. Write to us at administration@thefinancialclinic.org tweet us @NTFP_Official or @financialclinic, or share a story, audio, or video recording using our form. We will share these stories on social media and our websites, as well as invite others to join us in highlighting the potentially harmful impact that the disappearance of good actors could have on our clients and customers.
  2. Encouraging others to submit their complaints to the CFPB. The current CFPB Director has made it clear that the CFPB’s agenda will be set by examining consumer complaint content.

Americans like Brenda and Ann are counting on the CFPB. Now, more than ever, is the time to make our voices heard.

 

 

 

Three Myths About Working Poor Households and How They Build FInancial Security

By Mae Watson Grote | Founder and CEO | The Financial Clinic

Based on remarks delivered to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Community Advisory Group on 11/15/2017

We all know what happens when we assume. Yet, American society continues to place the burden of working poor people’s financial insecurity exclusively on their own shoulders.

The age-old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality–built on the belief that because economic and social mobility were achieved by some, they can be achieved by all–assumes that those who failed to achieve financial security made “bad choices” that caused their insecurity, or worse, that they must not be working hard enough.

Like all direct service practitioners, we know how entirely false this belief is. Our customers are hard-working and resourceful.  They navigate a world of enormous complexity, and their financial insecurity is most often caused by systemic policies and beliefs that build a seemingly insurmountable barrier to success.  

So let’s start by breaking down those assumptions, and busting these three popular myths:

Myth #1: Financial education, on its own, alleviates financial insecurity, and addresses systemic barriers and gaps in wealth building.  

There are gaps in Americans’ financial knowledge.  According to economists the vast majority of Americans, regardless of income level, do not have the requisite knowledge to handle their own finances.

However, year-in-year-out experience building relationships with our customers has demonstrated that they are incredibly savvy in their ability to stretch low, and often volatile, incomes to keep food on the table and roofs over their families’ heads.  So why do working poor people continue to suffer under the weight of financial insecurity? Because they face unique systemic barriers that higher income and wealth alleviate. For example, a sudden medical emergency may deplete a person’s savings, leaving them vulnerable to predatory financial institutions which ultimately force them even deeper into debt. Therefore, addressing gaps in financial education, alone, isn’t an effective approach to addressing financial insecurity.

Instead, we believe that building financial security, rather than focusing on knowledge for knowledge, should be the focus through financial coaching, which is built by goal-oriented steps that enforce an individual’s existing strengths for practical results.

A landmark national study commissioned and funded by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, An Evaluation of the Impacts and Implementation Approaches of Financial Coaching Programs, proved that financial coaching has a measurable difference in the financial security of working poor people. In the study, the Clinic’s financial coaching model saw participants–earning an average of $24,000/annually–gain an average $1,721 increase in savings, a $1,009 decrease in debt, a 33-point increase in credit score, along with decreased levels of financial stress, and increased satisfaction in financial states.

The Clinic’s approach starts and ends with the financial goal. Financial education alone does not determine or actualize a financial goal. In financial coaching, we use the goals as critical drivers for customer accomplishments.  They allow us to address the complete picture of an individual’s finances–including consistent savings, lowering cost of banking products and services, establishing a credit history or increasing a credit score, lowering debt, and enough year-round tax planning to have saved a portion of a refund for a financial goal to be met–while shining a spotlight on the systemic barriers to financial mobility.

Myth #2: There are bad financial goals.  

We believe that our mission to build financial security for working poor people is best accomplished by helping customers achieve their “forward-thinking, strengths based, and passionately-held” financial goals.  The most important driver to success is whether the financial goal answers these customer-defined criteria:

  • Is your goal rooted in a problem of your past, or does it reside in an opportunity in your future?
  • Does it leverage your strengths, including the intangibles?  
  • Are you passionate about it?  Would you move heaven and earth to make it happen?

It does not matter if the financial goal is thought of by a financial coach, or any other objective perspective, as “good” or positive for the customer.  Once our customers establish their “North Star,” we’ve discovered that the ability to accomplish all other areas of financial security is there.  

Take, for example, the story of one of our customers Alan Braverman (a pseudonym).  At the time he started meeting with his Clinic financial coach, Alan was unemployed, but receiving SNAP and SSI benefits.  He was also in danger of eviction so he was working with a homeless-prevention program on a relocation plan; additionally, he had child support arrears which caused a portion of his tax return to be seized.

Alan’s financial goal was to buy a plane ticket to his home state for a long-awaited visit with his extended family.  To someone on the outside looking in, it may seem like buying a plane ticket should be a secondary financial goal to paying down existing arrears.  However, when viewed through the lens of an actionable financial goal–one that it is “forward-thinking, strengths-based, and passionately-held”–a myriad of paths to financial security are illuminated.  Indeed, while Mr. Braverman was working to achieve his goal, he was also able to set up a budget to pay off his arrears while simultaneously saving a portion of his tax return towards his financial goal. In the end, after several months following his payment plan,  Mr. Braverman ended up overpaying for his arrears, and receiving a refund which he saved, getting him 75% of the way to his goal. By working towards his passionately held financial goal, Alan was able to build the habit of saving. This new habit and instilled confidence will serve him long after he reaches this first financial goal.  

Myth #3:  Working poor families should not, or cannot pay down debt and build savings concurrently.

While achieving financial goals is at the heart of the Clinic’s anti-poverty mission, the clearest indicator of progress is consistent savings and building assets.  More traditional financial planning and counseling models often take a traditional, rational economic approach, and thus stress the need to pay down existing debt before building savings.  Here at the Clinic, we know that assets can shore households against volatile income, give purpose and meaning to budgeting, and help keep people from taking on bad debt in difficult times.  

Our customers build confidence and have an improved outlook on the future when they begin to save.  Here is an example pulled directly from one of our coaches: Elena Meyers (pseudonym) is a single mom who first came to see us about a year ago. She had $104k of debt in the forms of collections, bills from her daughter’s school, personal loans, and credit cards, and felt she was being crushed under the weight of it all. She admitted that her debt, and lack of savings, was partially due to a habit of mindless spending. Along with causing her to amass debt, this mindset was keeping her from achieving her goals of establishing an emergency savings fund, purchasing a home, and paying for her young daughter’s education. Over the course of five coaching sessions, Elena was able to not only turn her monthly deficit into a $153 surplus, but also immediately start saving $25 a month while still paying down her debt.

If we are to truly build a more equitable American future, we must first start by addressing root causes of poverty, inequality, and insecurity, which must be done concurrently with debunking commonly held ideas about why people in poverty struggle to improve their financial wellness.  It’s critical that we as a society (1) fully understand the reality of working poor people and families struggling to make ends meet and (2) continue breaking our assumptions so we can identify solutions that actually work.

At the Clinic, we see the incredible impact our financial coaches have on our customers’ financial lives — they provide the necessary support to not only overcome a financial crisis, but also to gain a new confidence and develop the right habits for a lifetime of financial security. By removing our assumptions about the individuals, we see that working poor people nationwide are struggling against a system that creates more barriers to financial security than it removes. Our collective priority moving forward must be to meet those systemic problems head-on and influence lasting policy changes that will support the millions of families we cannot serve directly. We’ve already seen the difference here in New York through Refund529. I invite you to join us as we bring policy conversations national through our financial security ecosystems — what systemic barriers are you seeing in your community?  Together, we can create the financially secure nation we all deserve, no matter our income level.

Please share your stories of and suggestions about busting myths about low to moderate income households with us on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Financial Clinic’s Role in Closing the Racial Wealth Gap

Photo Credit: The Equality of Opportunity Project

A response to recent research on the racial income disparity

By Mae Watson Grote, Founder and CEO | Michael Dedmon, Policy Manager | The Financial Clinic

The Financial Clinic’s mission is national in scope: We want to leverage our success with individuals to produce lasting change that will impact millions of working people across this country. We know that to fulfill this mission we need to take the totality of our customers’ lives and experiences into account, and that includes understanding how their race affects their financial security. Alongside our ecosystem partners across the nation, the Clinic is passionately advocating for long-term policy changes focused on reducing the racial wealth gap.

Last Monday, Stanford economist Raj Chetty and several co-authors from the Equality of Opportunity Project released a new working paper on the racial income gap in the United States. Relying on census data for nearly 20 million Americans born between 1978–1983, the persistent, generational inequality they describe, presented in vivid detail by the New York Times’ The Upshot, is sobering. Their findings suggest that black men, even when raised in identical circumstances to their white peers, make substantially less at all income levels and while white men raised wealthy are likely to remain so, black men who grow up wealthy are much more likely than white men to lose ground compared to their parents. While the persistence of intergenerational inequality between African Americans and white Americans is the most striking takeaway from this research, their data also shows that the income gap between whites and other minorities is not closing fast enough.

Beyond the racial income gap, we also know that racial wealth inequality plays a critical part in perpetuating generational disparities. The Clinic’s financial coaches and other practitioners using our coaching platform, Change Machine, see this every day firsthand. On average, a white customer of non-Hispanic descent has over four times the asset value as an African American or Hispanic customer. Only 16% of customers that identify as white are credit invisible — meaning they do not have any credit history — compared to 35% of non-white Hispanic customers and 28% of African American customers. The gap is just as visible in retirement savings: Of those with employee sponsored retirement accounts, non-Hispanic white customers have an average balance of over $3,000 compared to an average of less than $300 for African Americans and Hispanics.

State and federal policies must widen access and reduce discriminatory barriers to assets that build long-term wealth. We are proud of our role in parlaying our on-the-ground experience into legislation in New York State that will now allow tax filers to split their state refund and set aside a portion directly into a 529 college savings account. Data show that lower income households, and especially households of color, are among the least likely to own these types of assets. Research suggests that even small amounts of college savings can help create an identity for students as “college bound,” and that children with accounts in their name are three times more likely to attend and four times more likely to graduate from college. Giving tax filers the option to directly save to 529 accounts at tax time will significantly increase the opportunity for wealth-building among populations that historically benefit the least from other federal asset building subsidies.

Our success with the Refund 529 campaign is only the beginning. Later this year, the Clinic will announce a national policy platform, informed by the day-to-day experiences and successes of our customers and the transformative work of our ecosystem partners, which will guide our future advocacy efforts.

As we refine our policy priorities, we are committed to the same principles that have given our mission its impact in the communities and households we serve.

The first is the belief that assets — not income alone — are a key driver of wealth, and that our definition of what constitutes an asset is often woefully limited. There are a myriad of intangible assets — communities, networks, families — that can, and must, be more integrated into policy interventions. Second, and most important, our vision for a financially-secure nation is explicitly grounded in the belief that our customers are the best experts in their own lives. In this way, communities of color the single best source for the solutions needed to counter the inequity described in Chetty’s research. Communities of color should design and select the policies they need to build a more equitable American future.