By Mae Watson Grote
I’m often asked about my motivation for founding the Financial Clinic and why I’m devoted to finding solutions to help the working poor become financially secure. There is no singular answer but it was certainly informed by my passion for how nonprofit organizations advance social justice and create systemic change. Then, there’s my personal story.
My family was like many others during the 1970s, an era when divorce was on the rise and more and more women were entering the workforce. After my parents divorced, both juggled multiple jobs to support two new households. The indelible memory though was that of my mother getting up at the crack of dawn to deliver newspapers. Then, she would get my sister and me ready for school and head to her 9 to 5 secretarial job. But it didn’t end there. After putting us to bed, she would leave for her evening job working as a cocktail waitress. We were only about 6 and 8 years old. Looking back, I recognize the hard choice she made to leave us so that she could bring in the extra income our family needed to survive. Those are the kinds of choices so many people are forced to make when they feel like they’re out of options.
Before law school, I worked at the Legal Aid Society as a paralegal and welfare advocate where I saw again how a lack of options could affect people struggling financially. While there, I learned to use a variety of strategies to find financial solutions for people in need. I also learned how all-absorbing finances can be for people who don’t have much money—and that those same people, who need it most, have the least access to the information and the institutions that could help them.
Later, working in the public interest policy arena during the 1990s, I saw that the communities I had come to care deeply about would be devastated by the radical changes to welfare policy. While welfare poverty plummeted, working poverty skyrocketed. An $8 an hour job was well short of what people needed to survive, much less feel financially secure. And where there had been advocates and lawyers for welfare recipients, I saw that the working poor didn’t have the same support system. I knew there was a need to help them access services and benefits, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and empower them to manage and improve their personal finances in a lasting way.
A lifetime working in the nonprofit, poverty-alleviating sector has forged within me a personal passion for systems change because to truly “move the needle,” we must eradicate the systemic roadblocks that keep people in poverty, like access to banking and legal services, predatory lenders and tax preparers, and the hopelessness that grows in the absence of financial goals.
I founded the Financial Clinic in 2005 to serve community residents of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Today, the Clinic’s goal is national in scope: to leverage the one-on-one successes we’ve had with thousands of customers to produce the kind of large-scale change that will impact millions of working poor people across the nation; people who, along with everyone else, deserve the opportunity to be financially secure.