April is Financial Capability Month, and that is prompting some interesting conversations about what it takes to build economic stability. LISC’s Seung Kim knows how challenging that can be. She's spent more than a decade helping low-income people improve their financial outlook and writes persuasively about how Financial Opportunity Centers are giving people the tools they need to succeed.
The national conversation about economic inequality paints a pretty dire picture. And, given that I have spent many years focused on the challenges of the working poor, you might think my outlook is equally bleak.
But it’s not. I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand how families can turn the corner. They boost their cash flow, despite years of struggle. They improve their credit scores, even on limited incomes. And they build their assets, even if it takes years to develop the skills they need for better jobs and stronger money management. All of that helps them stabilize their long-term financial outlook and, in the process, helps improve the prospects of the communities where they live.
Nothing about it is simple, and the process looks a little different for everyone. But, I firmly believe that financial capability is possible for all individuals, no matter how difficult their personal history might be.
Before I joined LISC, I had the great fortune of working as a financial coach at one of LISC’s first Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs), on the West Side of Chicago. FOC programs are operated by community-based nonprofits and offer a bundled set of services focused on employment, financial coaching and income supports (access to public benefits) that together help clients change their financial outlook.
It was a remarkable personal journey for me to work with these families. Many are better off today because of the persistence they showed in building employment skills and financial capabilities. Years later, they are making better financial decisions, working at better jobs, sending their kids to college and saving for the future.
That experience is being replicated with tens of thousands of people in 76 FOCs all over the country. That’s why LISC is so committed to this model. It gives people the chance to pull themselves up, even from deep-seated poverty.
In fact, a new study released this month points to notable financial gains in employment and net income for FOC clients who took advantage of this integrated services approach. The data show what I saw every day: people earn more, save more and live better—and they can sustain those gains.
Certainly, not everyone who walks through the doors of an FOC is transformed. Over the years, I have noticed three consistent markers of who is most likely to succeed:
We shouldn’t underestimate how difficult all three of those are for people who have spent years struggling to manage expenses that outstrip earnings, or work their way up from a minimum wage job, or bounce back from homelessness, disability or incarceration. That’s why coaching is so important—while policymakers and advocates work diligently to build a more inclusive economy, FOC coaches are working just as hard to help their communities navigate the economy we have today.
Importantly, coaches step beyond a traditional case management or social services approach: Our clients are not broken, and it is not our job to fix them. Instead, coaches listen, teach and offer moral support. They are, most of all, pragmatic, recognizing that life crises can upend even steady progress and offering referrals to specialized providers that can help when such things as illness or addiction overwhelm a client. Anyone—absolutely anyone—can be coached as long as they really want it. It’s as much about an individual’s self-awareness, determination, and resilience as it is anything else.
One client’s persistence struck me so much that I connected her with my former employer—an institutional investment firm—where she was hired as an administrative assistant at a raise from her $10 an hour job as a secretary.
We worked with her to expand her skills and her confidence. At first, as her income increased, she was distressed at losing public benefits, which she had relied on heavily in the past to help feed her family. This is a difficult reality that many of our clients face. But, in this case, raises and bonuses more than compensated for the loss.
That was eight years ago. Since then, this single mom has sent her children to college, cheered as they graduated, and watched with pride as they went out into the workforce. She broke out of what could have been an ongoing cycle of poverty for her family.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Seung Kim, Director for Financial Stability
Seung helps LISC offices throughout the country design and establish Financial Opportunity Centers. She also leads her team to implement and test innovative initiatives such as Bridges to Career Opportunities, with a strong focus on outcomes measurement. Prior to joining our national staff in 2012, Seung was a consultant for LISC Chicago’s Centers for Working Families and worked with the national office on FOCs.