We’re Not Finished Yet. We Have Work To Do.

by Megan Kursik, Coordinator, Michigan Communities for Financial Empowerment (MCFE)

A few weeks ago I attended the CFED Assets Learning Conference in Washington D.C. As usual, I came away with a multitude of new contacts and ideas sparked by sessions and the various people I met. I was filled with inspiration to get back to the office and put these new ideas (and new contacts) to use.

But perhaps the greatest inspiration came when I had the opportunity to hear Mayor of Newark Cory Booker as the featured speaker. The message Mayor Booker championed was a call to action, asking the 1,300+ conference participants to recognize that while the asset building field has inspired change and has accomplished significant outcomes in helping families to build financial stability, we have to keep pushing. “We are not finished yet…we have work to do.”

Mayor Booker defined our unfinished business as the full extension of real opportunity to all Americans.  He asserted that while the nation’s “greatest natural resource has always been her people” far too many Americans are still “confined and imprisoned by limited opportunities.” To address this lack of opportunity, we can’t just expect people to work harder as individuals, but we must come together as a nation to create the social, cultural and economic environments that provide real opportunities for all Americans to learn, grow, earn, invest and reach self-sufficiency and financial stability.

Working in community development, I’m lucky to interact with individuals committed to expanding opportunity for their fellow Americans, especially those traditionally left out. However, I think that an important way we must heed words like those spoken by Mayor Booker is to not just nod in agreement, but to take a hard look at our own field and to evaluate our work based on real extension of opportunity and, therefore, real outcomes of individuals and families engaging with ourselves as practitioners to reach true stability. In what ways are we empowering people to reach self-sufficiency and independence and in what ways are we failing, by ensuring subsistence but not freedom from dependency?

Emerging out of the asset building field is the concept of financial empowerment. Financial empowerment leads people to real financial stability, which I think has been well defined by the New York City Office of Financial Empowerment (NYC OFE) in their recent “Supervitamin” reports as “overall economic security that can sustain an individual or family for months and years, not just days and weeks.” In these reports, NYC OFE argues that income, income supports and public benefits are “necessary but not sufficient for overall financial stability.” In addition to these more traditional forms of support, individuals and families must have opportunities to secure financial knowledge and access to quality financial tools in order to be capable of reaching financial stability.

Mayor Booker and the City of Newark, New York City and ten other cities across the U.S. are part of a national coalition promoting financial stability through the new field of municipal financial empowerment. These cities make up the Cities for Financial Empowerment (CFE) coalition and have been leading initiatives and programs that help people become truly financial capable. These cities are helping to extend opportunities for financial independence to all of their residents, most importantly residents often left out of the financial mainstream and the traditional programs that incent saving and asset building.

For example, while over half of the $400 billion per year spent by the federal government to incent wealth building via the tax code goes to the top 5% of American income earners, NYC’s SaveUSA account provides low income tax filers a savings match for saving a portion of their income tax refund for one year. Since 2008, low to moderate income NYC tax filers have saved $1.7 million in SaveUSA accounts and 81% of account holders save for one full year. Next, the startling statistic that fewer than 1 in 10 young adults from low income families earns a college degree by age 26 led the City and County of San Francisco to start Kindergarten to College (K2C), which automatically enrolls all kindergarteners in the public school district in a seeded college savings account. Through automatic, universal enrollment, K2C ensures that all kindergarteners have a dedicated college savings account and can see college as part of the path to achieving their dreams.

SaveUSA and K2C are just two of many municipal strategies currently helping people reach financial stability through efforts led by city governments. To learn more about municipal financial empowerment please check out the CFE Coalition website (www.cfecoalition.org). Also, the CFE coalition recently started the CFE Fund to provide funding opportunities to local governments to help them replicate successful municipal financial empowerment strategies. You can learn more about the CFE Fund and funding opportunities on their website. Another great resource for municipal financial empowerment is the CFED report, “Building Economic Security in America’s Cities: New Municipal Strategies for Asset Building and Financial Empowerment.

So, if you need a little inspiration today, I know you’ll find it by watching Mayor Booker’s 2012 ALC Conference speech. If you’re from Michigan and you’re interested in municipal financial empowerment specifically, please send me a note to kursik@cedamichigan.org or call me at 517-485-3588 (x1942). CEDAM hosts a network for local-level financial empowerment initiatives called Michigan Communities for Financial Empowerment (MCFE) – you can check out our website at www.michigancfe.org.