Using Children’s Savings Accounts for Economic Inclusion: A Q&A with Bonnie Gettys, Rep. Julie Calley and Jessica AcMoody

At CEDAM, one of our current policy priorities is to secure statewide funding for Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs), which are community-led programs that automatically enroll students in interest-bearing accounts that will grow until they graduate from high school. These programs are designed to improve family financial literacy, boost educational attainment for low-income children, promote post-secondary achievement and support wealth building in low-income families. 

To learn more about how CSAs are working in practice and how we can advocate for them at the legislative level, our second Summer of CEDAM webinar was a conversation highlighting the ins, outs, and benefits of CSAs. We were excited to welcome a few guests to provide these perspectives: 

Bonnie Gettys is president and CEO of Barry Community Foundation, a partnership of local community leaders that invests pooled endowed funds donated by citizens, organizations and businesses to address charitable needs in the community. The Foundation aims to bridge community needs with donor interests, granting dollars to programs, projects and organizations that align with their vision to be a trusted resource for positive change.

Rep. Julie Calley serves Michigan’s 87th House District, in Barry County and part of Ionia County. Since taking office in 2017, she has been active in a number of House committees. Rep. Calley currently serves as chair of the Local Government & Municipal Finance Committee, and as a member of the Elections & Ethics, Rules & Competitiveness, and Tax Policy committees.

Jessica AcMoody is policy director at CEDAM. She has more than 13 years of experience in state and federal legislative policy and advocacy, and has directed state and federal policy initiatives at CEDAM for the past decade. Jessica’s work focuses on coalition building and advocating for policies that create more vibrant, equitable neighborhoods around the state. This includes affordable housing, tax policy, asset building, and consumer financial protections. 

Moderating our Q&A was Sarah Hubbard, principal at Acuitas, who is a leading legislative strategist working in Michigan government relations.

Here are some highlights from our conversation: 

Q: Jessica, can you tell us a bit about CSAs for those who are unfamiliar? 

Jessica AcMoody: Children’s Savings Accounts are deposit-only custodial savings accounts that incentivize saving for future postsecondary education or career planning. For all of our programs in Michigan, the savings are not just limited to four-year education. Students can also use it for certificates, trade school, apprenticeships, and even small business development. The community based partnership opens savings accounts for children as young as kindergarten, often with small deposits already added, and they encourage families and often the students themselves to start saving and adding to those accounts. 

Q: Bonnie, can you tell us a bit about Barry Community Foundation and what you do? 

Bonnie Gettys: We believe that every child should have the ability to believe that they can, and that they will. We also believe that we need to create aspiration, inspiration, and awareness about how they can have any path that they want to find a job that’s able to support them. 

Q: Tell us a little about the impact of CSAs in Barry County and why these are so important for rural communities in particular?

Bonnie Gettys: My hero in CSA work is José Cisneros from San Francisco, a place that is obviously very different from Barry County, Michigan. To scale it, in Barry County we have about 700 children per year that enter into kindergarten, and we really thought kindergarten was the right place to intersect and start our Children’s Savings Accounts. After we did the math, we met with a private family foundation that was actually willing to endow them for us forever. So, they knew what it would take to do the initial seed of $50 per student for 700 students. Today, we have a total of 3,000 Children’s Savings Accounts in our county, with more that $150,000 in savings through seed money. Additionally, 40% of our students have made one or more private deposits into their bank accounts, and that’s a pretty high number. Thirty-one percent of our students have received at least one of the incentives offered by the foundation. I attribute that to our program director, who is a very hands-on person. 

Q: Rep. Calley, as chair of the Local Government and Municipal Finance Committee, you have first-hand knowledge of what’s happening in Michigan communities through CSAs. How do you think they intersect with your work in the legislature? 

Rep. Calley: They intersect with the legislature in a number of ways, actually. Right now we’re hearing from a number of businesses that there’s a talent shortage, and that there has been for some time now, particularly in skilled trades. In addition, affordable housing is significantly short right now, and one of the many barriers to buying a first home is student debt. So, as we find a way to encourage people to consider what that next step is, we have to transition from “What do you want to be?” to “How are you going to get there?” with programs like CSAs. 

Q: Back to Bonnie, we know that many community foundations are beginning to work in the CSA space. Why do you think this is an issue foundations are attracted to?

Bonnie Gettys: First of all, community foundations are more interested in looking at the broader concept of community and really thinking about how we can connect all of the players in a way that makes sense, and also how we can connect philanthropy into an arena that creates change in one way or another. At Barry Community Foundation, we always consider how what we’re about to do is going to change our community in one way or another before we take it on. It’s about the long results, not the short results. As we were building this new CSA program, one of the things that was most important to us was that we weren’t fundraising for that, but would find long-term fund development. Another thing is that many community foundations have adopted this specific focus on improving household economic security because, with a DEI focus, it’s really important that we think about how economic inclusion plays a role in children’s opportunities. In kindergarten when they first start out, underserved children often have no idea that their life is going to be different than anyone else’s. A superintendent told me that, in kindergarten, parents still believe that their children can be anything they want to be. But in middle school that starts to change, and in high school it’s really something different. Creating this long-term support system for kids is really appropriate for community foundations. 

Q: Similar to how community foundations support CSAs, Rep. Calley, what role do you think the state should be playing in supporting CSAs?

Rep. Calley: That’s a great question. I think there’s a number of avenues that we need to explore for this, and it’s an issue that transcends policy lines because it really has a huge impact on young people for generations to come. Federal funding comes with certain constraints, but it’s absolutely worth exploring how these can be used for programs like CSAs. When it comes to federal funds, we are planning how we can create something sustainable out of this. We could take that funding and make something happen for a year, but the next year fall back on it. That’s not what we want to do. We want to create something that will last. Programs like CSAs go on to benefit communities for generations to come, and increase families’ likelihood to go on to achieve certificates or post-primary education. That has such a lasting legacy.”And CSAs play such a big role in that. 

Q: What do you think Bonnie, could CSAs use federal funding? 

Bonnie Gettys: I have been waiting for this question since we started. One of the things that has been really good about funding local, invested savings accounts is that it supports community banks and also allows students not to hold these funds under their name, because that could impact their benefits. So I worry about those who are most vulnerable becoming unable to access benefits that they truly need, but it will be transformational for the next generation to move out of that status. In that way, applying federal funding to these would be a long-term transition that will change a whole generation. I also think that, if we can remove some of the barriers, that would help significantly. For example: Michigan’s application is pretty daunting. So imagine you’re a family that has to choose between paying for rent or food; how are they going to apply for this? And those are the families that I feel need our help the most. It’s about making sure that we keep a platform that is open and accesible to all. That’s what is really important. 

Our next Summer of CEDAM webinar, “Advocating for Affordable Housing in a Post-Pandemic World,” will focus on our policy priority of affordable housing, and the housing resources needed to ensure safety and accessibility for all communities. We’re excited to welcome Mercedes Brown, Michigan director at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), and Rep. Joe Tate. Register to save your spot here.