When I came to MAF last year as New Sector fellow, I knew very little about domestic economic development policies, since I was more interested and familiar with international development in college. So when the opportunity came up to attend the CFED Asset Learning Conference, I was eager to hear about all the different approaches to big problems like alleviating poverty in the U.S. and addressing economic inequality and the nation’s wealth gap along with getting practical skills on how to build a movement to achieve these goals. There was so much covered over this three day conference but I took away 3 main lessons:
We need an inclusive platform of products
Michael Sherraden, professor and founder of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke in the opening plenary about research he conducted that shows increasing labor income is not enough to impact household wealth. Families also need additional support, and therefore the field needs to look at building their assets as a whole. One inspiring idea he offered is a universal savings account that starts automatically at birth for every child, leading to more savings and investment for children’s education. Sherraden said the product is already being tested in Oklahoma, and has a promising future.
I found the session on public benefits program really important because it touched on the numerous policy-related barriers for families trying to reach financial stability. Mariana Chilton’s research revealed how low to moderate-income people are less encouraged to save and report their full income because of fear that they will lose welfare even though they are barely scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck and working multiple jobs. Lucy Mullany from Illinois Asset Building Group shared their successful campaign in Illinois to remove TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) asset limits. It took a diverse group of co-sponsors to build enough support and push out the right messages that convinced the legislature it was a smart move.
Ezra Levin of CFED mentioned a few federal proposals to get rid of asset limits such as ABLE (Achieving Better Life Experience) Act and the CSA (Childrens’ Savings Account) Opportunity Act. There are a number of challenges in getting these proposals through, but they have the potential to help ensure hardworking families aren’t taken advantage of in the war on poverty.
Entrepreneurship is an asset for minority communities
Bill Bynum of HOPE Enterprise Corporation works in the Deep South, in predominately African-American communities, which he described as “ground zero of poverty” in our country and spoke about the need for more accessible, affordable financial products to serve the financially insecure families, aspiring homeowners and small business entrepreneurs there. Lisa Hasegawa of National CAPACD (one of MAF’s partners) shared her experience working to empower Asian American and Pacific Islander communities with financial services. I appreciated the fact that she reminded the attendees that race still matters when it comes to economic equality as does citizenship status. Communities of color are facing rapid gentrification (something I see first-hand in the Bay Area) and are less likely to have investment in business, education, access to quality food, and financial resources in their areas. The AAPI community, for example, is one of the fastest growing poverty populations in the US after the recession. She pushed us all to build relationships between the racial justice and asset-building movements in order to close the racial wealth gap.
Panelists from Chicago, D.C. and L.A. shared positive stories and initiatives taking place in their cities to spur entrepreneurship and business development for communities of color. Some of their innovative projects include a small business center with special trainings, business accelerators, and youth IT ambassadors, open co-working spaces, consulting for small business ideas, and accelerated education programs with local universities.
Coalition building is key
I got the amazing opportunity to go to Capitol Hill with a group of colleagues from Northern California to visit the offices of Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Barbara Lee to advocate for issues like payday regulation, child savings accounts,access to financial products and tax reform. I shared our recent success passing SB 896 and how it could be used as a model for other states to expand credit-building opportunity as well as the impact of Lending Circles on members’ credit scores and debt. Even though we all had different agendas, we were able to tie them together and present a cohesive narrative that showed we were on-the-ground experts on asset-building that could be a resource for the representatives. In total, there were 400 participants from 45 states that met with policymakers, which is sure to send a strong message about the urgent need for federal policies to expand economic opportunity.
Members of the Assets and Opportunity network got together for some leadership intensives on advocacy and op-ed writing. I gained a lot of useful strategies to implement into my daily work, such as writing an effective story pitch and who to send it to, crafting op-eds that are one part description of the problem and two parts prescription to the problem, including engaging anecdotes and tying stories to timely current events.
We also talked about how everyone could leverage the network more effectively to share best practices, learn more one another’s struggles and support any policy or advocacy campaigns taking place. Some ideas we came up with were creating virtual coffee hours, webinars and regional working groups within the network. It was great to hear how everyone was so motivated to help empower their communities economically whether it was regarding home ownership, financial education, citizenship, small business and credit-building.
My goal attending the Assets Learning Conference was to come out with more confidence and skills to be a more informed advocate for our clients and to elevate the need for investment in asset-building. I’m thankful for the opportunity to network with colleagues in the field, learn more about the various innovative research and programming available as well as have my first Capitol Hill experience!