Category: Insights

This post first appeared on the Aspen Institute’s blog. It was written by MAF’s CEO José A. Quiñonez in preparation for a panel on the Racial Wealth Gap at the Aspen Institute’s 2017 Summit on Inequality and Opportunity

Here’s what we know about wealth inequality in America today: It’s real, it’s huge, and it’s growing. Barring substantial policy change, it would take 228 years for black households to catch up to white households’ wealth, and 84 years for Latinxs to do the same. This matters because wealth is a safety net. Without that cushion, too many families live just one job loss, illness, or divorce away from financial ruin.

Here’s another thing we know: Contrary to popular opinion, wealth inequality between racial groups did not come about because one group of people didn’t work hard enough, or save enough, or make savvy enough investment decisions than the other.

How did it come about, then? The short answer: history. Centuries of slavery and the bitter decades of legal segregation laid the groundwork. Discriminatory laws and policies against people of color made things worse. The G.I. Bill of 1944, for example, helped white families buy homes, attend college, and accumulate wealth. People of color were largely excluded from these asset-building opportunities.

Today’s racial wealth divide is the financial legacy of our country’s long history of institutionalized racism.

The factor of time is, in some ways, foundational to these findings. Sociologistseconomists, and journalists alike all underscore how the racial wealth gap was created and exacerbated over time. But when it comes to the question of new Americans—the millions of us who have joined this nation in recent decades—time often gets glossed over in racial wealth gap conversations.

Immigrants’ creative survival strategies and rich cultural and social resources could help inform better policy interventions.

Reports generally illustrate the racial wealth gap by, understandably, placing the average wealth of different racial groups side by side and observing the gaping chasm that divides them. For example, in 2012, the average white household owned $13 in wealth for every dollar owned by black households, and $10 in wealth for every dollar owned by Latinx households. This story matters. There is no denying that. But what might we learn from investigating wealth inequality with more attention to immigration?

A report by the Pew Research Center divided the population of adults in 2012 into three cohorts: first-generation (foreign-born), second-generation (US-born with at least one immigrant parent), and third-and-higher generation (two US-born parents).

Here’s how the numbers look when broken down by race:

Clearly these racial groups have very different American stories.

The vast majority of Latinxs and Asians are new Americans. Seventy percent of Latinx adults and 93 percent of Asian adults are either first- or second-generation Americans. In contrast, a mere 11 percent of white and 14 percent of black adults are in the same generational cohorts.

By comparison, the latter groups have been in the United States for much longer. And given their relatively comparable tenure in the US, it makes sense to place their data side by side.

But comparing the wealth of Latinxs—half of whom are first-generation Americans—to that of white families, 89 percent of whom have been in the US for many generations, seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Instead, we could add nuance and context to our analysis by measuring the differences in wealth between racial groups within generational cohorts; or by comparing members of different groups who share key demographic characteristics; or even better still, by measuring the financial impact of policy interventions within specific groups.

For example, we could investigate the financial trajectories of young immigrants after they received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Did they improve their income, build their savings, or even acquire appreciating assets, as compared with their peers?

We could go further back in time and explore what happened to the generation of immigrants who were granted amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). What did emergence from the shadows mean for their assets and wealth? How does their wealth compare with those who remained undocumented?

These contextual comparisons can give us space not just to quantify what’s missing from people’s lives, but also to discover what works.

Their creative survival strategies and rich cultural and social resources could help inform better policy interventions and program developments.

Bringing the story of new Americans into our conversations about wealth inequality will deepen our understanding of these disparities and the distinct forms they take for different groups. That’s what we need to develop the bold policies and innovative programs needed to narrow the stark racial wealth divide we face today.

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MacArthur Award Blog Header

Today, the MacArthur Foundation announced this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows. Among the short list of esteemed awardees is José Quiñonez, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Mission Asset Fund (MAF). The announcement has been covered by news outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The LA Times.

The MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “genius grant,” recognizes those with exceptional creativity, a track record of achievement, and the potential for significant contributions in the future. Each fellow receives a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 to support awardees’ pursuit of their creative visions. Since 1981, fewer than 1,000 people have been named MacArthur Fellows. Fellows are selected through a rigorous process that has involved thousands of expert and anonymous nominators, evaluators, and selectors over the years. Past fellows have included notable individuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alison Bechdel, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“This award is a high honor that recognizes the ingenuity of people who live in the shadows, who come together to help one another to survive and thrive in life. The award lifts up what is right and good in people’s lives – the trust and commitment they have for one another,” says Quiñonez.

According to the Foundation:

José A. Quiñonez is a financial services innovator creating a pathway to mainstream financial services and non-predatory credit for individuals with limited or no financial access. A disproportionate number of minority, immigrant, and low-income households are invisible to banks and credit institutions, meaning they have no checking or savings accounts (unbanked), make frequent use of nonbank financial services (underbanked), or lack a credit report with a nationwide credit-reporting agency. Without bank accounts or a credit history, it is nearly impossible to obtain safe loans for automobiles, homes, and businesses or to rent an apartment.

Quiñonez is helping individuals overcome these challenges by linking rotating credit associations or lending circles, a traditional cultural practice from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, to the formal financial sector. Lending circles are typically informal arrangements of individuals pooling their resources and distributing loans to one another. Through the Mission Asset Fund (MAF), Quiñonez has created a mechanism for reporting individuals’ repayment of small, zero-interest loans to credit bureaus and other financial institutions. MAF participants are able to establish a credit history and gain access to credit cards, bank loans, and other services, and lending circles focused on youth provide individuals with fees for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival applications and apartment security deposits (which are particularly needed by youth aging out of foster care). All participants are required to complete a financial training class and are provided with financial coaching and peer support. Since the lending circles were established in 2008, participants’ credit scores, collectively, have increased an average of 168 points.

Quiñonez has established a network of partnerships with the financial services industry to enable other organizations to replicate his approach. With Quiñonez and MAF providing the technology necessary to disperse and track loans (a significant hurdle for many nonprofits) and assisting in securing local partners and investors, 53 nonprofit providers in 17 states and the District of Columbia are now using this powerful model in their communities. Quiñonez’s visionary leadership is providing low-income and minority families with the means to secure safe credit, participate more fully in the American economy, and obtain financial security.

Felicidades, José!

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MAF 2015 Annual Report Building Better

 

MAF’s 2015 Annual Report Building Better tells the story of what’s possible when we continually challenge ourselves to build better partnerships, better technology, and better progrMAF 2015 Annual Report Membersams.

In 2015, we’re proud to have built a diverse network of 53 nonprofits in 17 states and D.C.

With new partners, we’ve expanded our hubs in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and the Northwest. And we’re thrilled to celebrate over $5 million in zero-interest social loans that are helping thousands of hardworking students, parents, and entrepreneurs build brighter financial futures.

That means an entrepreneur like Sandra can get a zero-interest business loan to grow her inventory and reach new clients — all while building her credit. And a college student like Kimberly can secure Deferred Action to gain access to financial aid and attend the school of her dreams.

We did not do this alone.
MAF 2015 Annual Report Members

Thanks to our funders, donors, board, and clients across the U.S., together we’re building better solutions to unlock the full economic potential of communities living in the financial shadows.

Thank you for building with us to make that possible.

We couldn’t have created this report without extensive support from Dan Massey of Google and Billy Roh of Opendoor, who generously volunteered their time and talents to build an ever better annual report for us.

Find out what’s up next for MAF in 2016 by checking out our Annual Report here!

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MAF Behind the Scenes Innovations

 

The following excerpt was originally published in “Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization,” a journal published by MIT Press. Read the full essay here.

I was 20 years old when I realized that my mother had died because we were poor.

She passed away when I was nine, too young to understand the complex and dangerous nature of life in poverty. At that time, I had to muster everything inside of me just to survive the avalanche of sorrow and change in our family life.

It was only as an adult that I came to terms with my painful childhood. I see it now as the source of the deep empathy I have for people who suffer and struggle in the world.

Innovations Technology Governance Globalization MAFThat is why I’ve dedicated my life to working against poverty.

And it is how I became the founding CEO of Mission Asset Fund (MAF), a nonprofit organization that strives to create a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families. When I joined MAF in 2007, the organization was a nonprofit start-up with plans to help low-income immigrants in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Eight years later, MAF is nationally recognized for developing Lending Circles, a social loan program based on people coming together to lend and borrow money. With cutting-edge technology, we transformed this invisible practice into a force for good.

Program participants are freeing themselves from the grasp of predatory lenders by opening bank accounts, building credit histories, paying down high-cost debt, and increasing their savings. They are investing in businesses, buying homes, and saving for a better future.

Lending Circles brings to light what’s already good in people’s lives.

And within that light, participants are forging a sure path into the financial mainstream, unlocking their true economic potential every step of the way. The program’s success is serving as a model in the fight against poverty, demonstrating new and effective ways of helping low-income people without belittling them in the process.

This is the behind-the-scenes story of how we made this happen.

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National CAPACD AAPI Lending Circles MAF

At their core, Lending Circles are about community.

When you bring together families, friends, and neighbors to help each other achieve their shared financial dreams, you’re leveraging the power of community. This practice of lending and borrowing money in family or social groups — a practice that inspired the the Lending Circles program — is common in communities around the world. Today, we’re highlighting one in particular: a unique group of partners providing Lending Circles to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants across the US.

In many parts of Asia, Lending Circles are an age-old tradition.

In the Philippines, the practice is referred to as paluwagan; in some parts of China, it’s called hui. With traditions like these to draw from, many AAPI immigrants are familiar with Lending Circles as a source of savings and credit. What’s often unfamiliar is the complicated financial marketplace discovered upon arriving to the US.

This comes at a real price: 10% of AAPIs do not have bank accounts and many more are “underbanked,” meaning they must turn to fringe financial services like payday lenders and check cashers. According to the FDIC’s 2013 Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, 19% of Asian Americans and 27% of Pacific Islanders turn to fringe services to meet their financial needs.

To bridge the gap between the modern financial marketplace and cultural traditions like paluwagan and hui, we can tailor Lending Circles to meet the unique needs of AAPI communities.

AEDA Lending Circles AAPI MAFWe can start by meeting AAPI immigrants where they are, on their terms.

In this spirit, we offer loan agreements into seven Asian languages: Chinese, Burmese, Nepali, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, and Hmong. But this is only a beginning. We can also open-source solutions — so that other nonprofits can build on the lessons we’ve learned in San Francisco and bring them to cities all over the country.

No two communities are alike. And local organizations know best how to handcraft their services to meet their clients’ needs.

That’s why nonprofits across the nation are custom-fitting Lending Circles to their local communities.

Take Asian Services In Action (ASIA), for example. This Lending Circles provider in Cleveland, OH, provides culturally relevant social services to Nepali and Burmese immigrants and refugees, many of whom don’t encounter the concept of a credit score until they’re ready to buy a car, rent a home, or start a business.

Through Lending Circles, these clients are able to build credit with people who speak their native language — oftentimes their friends and neighbors. This system of mutual support provides a sense of security that sets Lending Circles apart from other loan models. It can even help refugees build a new community in the U.S. after leaving their home countries.

“I love seeing our clients’ eyes light up as I explain the Lending Circle model,” says Lucy Pyeatt of the Chinese Community Center (CCC).

“‘Yes, we know that!’ they often reply.” Many of Lucy’s clients are intimately familiar with the concept of Lending Circles: “They’ve participated in them informally with family and friends for years, and they feel so relieved to have a product that they already trust. They feel that their heritage, and their models of financial security, are being respected. It’s a great bridge for them.”

By drawing on their traditions and adapting to their needs, Lending Circles put the power in the hands of the communities themselves. Our partnerships with organizations like ASIA and CCC are the real engine that powers the success of Lending Circles, so that local leaders can create local solutions.

It all started with a collaboration between MAF and National CAPACD.

National CAPACD is an advocacy group on a mission to improve the quality of life for low-income AAPIs. Two years ago, MAF joined forces with National CAPACD to launch a financial capability project with eight AAPI-serving organizations:

Together, we set out to answer a question: Can we boost the financial capability of new immigrants by incorporating Lending Circles and financial education into the existing immigration resources that community organizations are providing? Our new partners started to marry traditional services like language classes, citizenship education, and workforce training with our innovative Lending Circles program and financial coaching.

In just two years, the National CAPACD cohort has formed 56 Lending Circles, with 344 participants.CAPACD Lending Circles AAPI Community

It’s amazing to think that these participants have generated well over $150,000 in loan volume, all from lending and borrowing with their peers. And the repayment rate is astonishingly high — over 99%. This means that participants are opening checking accounts, establishing credit scores, and entering the financial mainstream for the first time.

Some have been able to rent apartments. Others have used Lending Circles has a source of peer support in a new country. And for many women who moved to the U.S. to join their husbands, Lending Circles offer a chance to exercise their financial independence.

After two years of successes, we’re excited to continue working with this impressive group of AAPI-serving organizations.

Our partners have ambitious plans to deepen their Lending Circles programs and bring them to even more hardworking immigrants across the country. And we have plans of our own to strengthen our network by forging new relationships and improving our tools for partner collaboration, like our online “Lending Circles Communities” knowledge-sharing platform.

We know that the key to success lies in the power of community. That’s why we’re working together with our partners to build even stronger resources for our Lending Circles clients — who, in turn, work together to support each other’s growth.

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Jose Quinonez Bullard Award MAF

Katherine Elgin Photography

Thank you so very much. It means a great deal to me to receive this award.

I remember organizing the 2nd symposium back in 1996.

The number of attendees at that event may not have been as great as today’s. But I remember feeling the same energy and excitement over the wonderful opportunity to step back from our busy student lives and meet with alumni – to hear their stories, to learn from their experiences, and to gain some perspective about our own experiences here at the Wilson School.

And now we’re here, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Students and Alumni of Color coming together. And for that we owe Ed Bullard and Jeffrey Prieto and John Templeton and all the MPA students who organized these weekends a great deal of gratitude for their vision and hard work that got us here today.

Soon after I got the call from Renato Rocha and Gilbert Collins about the Bullard Award, I reflected back on my experiences here and how they shaped my career and ultimately my life.

Jose Quinonez Gilbert Collins SAOC Wilson School
Katherine Elgin Photography

Thankfully, I was able to forget all the painful and sleepless nights from working on econ problem sets or writing five-page policy memos or cramming for this or that exam. I’m really super thankful that my brain was able to erase all those memories so that I could focus on all the good stuff.

I’m sure all alumni in this room can say the same, right? Well, fine — I’ll speak for myself.

But earlier today I walked into a Bowl downstairs – and for the first time I did not get nervous. My heart rate didn’t go wacky, my leg didn’t get restless. Really. After 20 years I was able to just sit back and enjoy being here at Princeton. (Yeah. It took me that long to get over it.)

Thinking back on my life, I was able to trace much of my current work at the Mission Asset Fund to what I learned here at the Wilson School.

Professor Uwe Reinhardt, for example, he opened my eyes to the horrific injustices of people falling prey to predatory lenders in the financial marketplace. His class was about financial management, which was a little boring and dry. But in his subtle way, he would insert stories in his lectures about how lenders manipulate loan terms to load borrowers with extra fees and costs. I remember feeling disgusted over how easy it was to rip people off – and angry that lenders could get away with taking people’s hard-earned money with impunity.

Reinhardt’s stories allowed me to see finances not as dull but rather as a social justice issue that could materially improve people’s lives.

And there’s Professor Alejandro Portes. He taught me a very important lesson, one that is actually the cornerstone of Lending Circles, a program that we offer at the Mission Asset Fund to help hardworking families build and improve their credit.
Lucero Hotdog Cart MAF

Portes taught me to see and appreciate the incredible economic activity that happens informally.

We see it all over the world. The street vendor selling tamales on busy street corners. Or the day laborer working odd jobs.

He showed us that what the street vendors do, the economic activity they generate in the informal economy – while invisible, it is still very similar to the economic activity that happens in the formal economy. It’s not less than, not criminal, not inferior, but the same – with the only difference being that economic activities in the formal economy have laws and regulations to protect and secure and make them visible to the broader economic systems.

I used this idea to create Lending Circles.

Our clients – largely unbanked, low-income Latino immigrants – have a time-honored tradition of coming together in groups to lend and borrow money from each other. In Mexico, these are known as tandas or cundinas, and they go by many, many different names throughout the world. These loans are informal, based largely on trust.

But nobody really knows about them except the people involved. Nobody knows that participants actually pay these obligations first, before anything else. Really, the financial industry has never appreciated the fact that tandas are a phenomenal financial vehicle – helping participants manage the intense income fluctuations in their lives.

Why is that? Because tandas are informal, taking place outside of the financial systems.

They’re invisible. But at MAF, we changed that.

We created a process to make this activity visible by getting people to sign promissory notes, allowing us to service loans and report payment activity to the main credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. And thereby we’re helping our clients start a credit history and improve their credit scores.

The program works. In 2014, Gov. Brown in California signed a law recognizing lending circles as a force for good. So, as you can imagine — and I can say this in this room of full of fellow policy folks – getting a bill enacted into law is pretty cool. I was excited.

I was proud of myself for getting this done!

I was flying high as a kite when this happened. But In time I realized that this achievement was no accident. You see, I’m the product of the Public Policy & International Affairs (PPIA) program, a program dedicated to increasing the number of students of color in public service.

I did my Junior Summer Institute here, at the Wilson School in 1994. And because of that experience and support and people I met, I was able to see myself here at the School as a full time student, getting an MPA, and building a career in public service.

It was no accident. I’m doing exactly what this program was designed to accomplish.

Wilson School Students and Alumni of Color
Katherine Elgin Photography

Through the years, the PPIA program has built an incredible cadre of professionals of color, working in public service. It’s wonderful. We can see it in this room right now. Look around.

It’s incredible to see a room full of beautiful and talented and passionate people dedicating their careers – their lives – to public service. Half of MPA students of color come through the PPIA pipeline.

But when you consider the enormous problems we face as a nation: from the lack of public trust in our institutions and leaders; to the appalling inequalities from wealth to income to educational opportunities; to the disenfranchisement of millions of people from electoral process; to the devastating effects of climate change… well, you know we can go on for hours listing all the issues we face as a nation.

The point is that there are not enough professionals of color in public service confronting these issues.

I look around this room and I’m amazed with everyone here. But frankly, I don’t think that there’s enough of us. There is simply not enough people in the trenches that come with different perspectives, different ideas, different life experiences that can add significant insights to solutions to our nation’s problems. The number of people in this room, quite frankly, should be double or triple.

While I love that the Wilson School has made these weekends a tradition. I think the time has come for the School to do more. The status quo is simply not acceptable anymore. We need to double down and widen the pipeline. We need more students of color getting exposed to careers in public service. We need more students graduating with MPAs. We need more professionals of color working to create the America we deserve.

As you know, the urgency on this issue is not new.

Many times, we’d talked about diversity and inclusion and getting more students of color in this School. But to me it hit home last June. I was getting ready for work the morning of June 18, listening to the news about the horrific massacre of nine people in Charleston South Carolina. The shooting happened the day before, during an evening prayer service at the AME Church.

The senior pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was among those killed. I was stunned.

Rev. Pinckney was a PPIA fellow – we did the Junior Summer Institute program together. He went on to become a State Representative in South Carolina, and later State Senator. He was only 41 years old when he was killed. He did so much at such a young age. Apparently, he was shot dead to ignite a race war. But his death was the impetus that finally took down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, that shameful symbol of racists.

While in the Bowl earlier today, I looked over to where Clem use to sit, remembering his easy smile and deep voice. We spent 10 grueling weeks in those bowls over the summer of 1994. And just thinking of him there, in that room, for at least a moment, it brought me hope. Hope that our lives’ work in this world can be truly consequential.

We need to remember Clem and honor his life.

In my view, he is a true example of what it means to live life in the Nation’s Service. America needs more people like Clem. And I believe the Wilson School has the responsibility and obligation to do more to find and train the Clementas of the world so that we can have a real shot at solving our nation’s problems.

Thank you.

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Helen Daughter Strengths MAF

 

Last week Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and senior scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families, published an article in the Washington Post arguing that “American policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor.”

The headline grabbed my attention.

It succinctly captured what decades of work with low-income communities have taught me: We don’t need saviors to teach poor people the right morals. We need advocates to recognize and cultivate their strengths so that they move out of poverty themselves.

Current anti-poverty policies that aim to fix them, actually work against them.

Cohen’s piece scrutinizes this current approach, and dispenses with it. He challenges the motives, logic, and outcomes of anti-poverty policies that pressure poor parents to get married or find jobs as a precondition for government assistance:

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. … Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Tax benefits like the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit are reserved for those able to find and hold a job, which can be all but impossible for people struggling to care for young children or older parents and people with disabilities that make it difficult to work. Welfare payments are restricted by work requirements and time limits that leave millions of families out.

Other past, present, and proposed anti-poverty policies are designed to incentivize marriage, effectively penalizing parents who choose not to marry – a choice that everyone, rich or poor, should be able to make freely.

Policies like these fail to treat poor people with the respect they deserve.

And they fail to provide solutions that work for all families. Cohen proposes simpler alternatives, programs that serve all parents equally and offer poor families a leg up without imposing moral judgments on their individual decisions and needs.

This brings us to a broader lesson that all of us – policymakers, nonprofit leaders, community members – can learn from: We must meet people where they are, respect what they bring to the table, and build on the strengths they have.

This approach is not a pipe dream. I see it work every day with Lending Circles.

MAF’s social loan programs begin from a position of respect, acknowledging and valuing the rich resources and financial savvy that our clients already possess. We then build on those strengths by integrating their positive behaviors and informal practices into the mainstream financial marketplace.

Poor people are not broken. They have strengths that we too often fail to recognize.

Rather than judging their behavior and imposing our own values on them, we must treat them with dignity and seek out solutions that work for everyone, whatever their background, abilities – or marital status.

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Respect Meet Build Financial Inclusion

 

Last week as part of CFED’s Assets & Opportunity National Week of Action, Mohan Kanungo—an A&O Network Steering Committee Member and Director of Programs & Engagement here at MAF—wrote about how your credit report can impact important personal relationships. Building on those themes, Mohan is back this week to highlight MAF’s strategy for empowering financially underserved communities to build credit. This blog was originally published on CFED’s “Inclusive Economy” blog.

There are more payday loan shops in the United States than McDonald’s or Starbucks.

That might surprise if you live in a neighborhood where all your banking needs are satisfied by mainstream financial institutions instead of payday lenders, check cashers and remittance services. Sources including the New York Federal Reserve, the CFPB and the Assets & Opportunity Scorecard reveal that there are millions of people who experience financial exclusion, particularly around credit and basic financial products. These disparities are well-documented among communities of color, immigrants, veterans and many other groups who are isolated economically. How can we address these challenges and lift folks out of the financial shadows?

First, as leaders in our field we need to have a frank conversation about how we engage communities around financial services and assets.

It’s easy to cast judgement on those who use alternative products due to the high interest rates and fees, but what do you do if mainstream products are not responsive to your needs? Increasingly, banks and credit unions have been closing brick and mortar locations to move online, while rural and urban areas may not have had access to “basic” financial products many of us take for granted—like a checking account—for generations. Traditional “assets” like homeownership may seem completely out of reach even if you are well-off, educated and savvy with credit, but live in a costly and limited housing market like the San Francisco Bay Area.

Similarly, non-traditional “assets” like deferred action may seem more urgent and important for an undocumented young person because of the physical and financial security that comes with a work permit and permission to stay in the US, albeit temporarily. We need to listen and appreciate the unique challenges and perspectives of financially excluded communities before coming to a conclusion about the solution.

Second, we need to understand that the values and approach driving any solution can tell us a lot about whether the outcome of our work will be successful.Financial Inclusion MAF

MAF started with the belief that our community is financially savvy; many in the immigrant community know what the exchange rate is with a foreign currency. We also wanted to lift up cultural practices like lending circles—where people come together to borrow and loan money to another—and formalize it with a promissory note so that folks know their money was safe and gained access to the benefit of seeing this activity reported to the credit bureaus.

It is about building on what people have and meeting them where they are rather than where we think they should be.

We need to be innovative in our fields to come up with long-lasting solutions within the financial system that are responsible to the communities they serve. Small-dollar loans by non-profit lenders like Mission Asset Fund’s Lending Circles program does just that.

Third, we need to think about how to bring our products and services to more communities who can benefit from such programs, while maintaining the respectful approach to our community.

Early on in our work at MAF, there was a clear sense that the challenges people experienced in the Mission District of San Francisco were not unique and that communities across the Bay Area and the country experienced financial exclusion. We perfected our model and then scaled slowly. While MAF sees itself as the expert in Lending Circles, we see each nonprofit as being the expert in their community. MAF also knew it was impractical for us to build a new office everywhere in the country. So we relied heavily on cloud-based technology to build a robust social loan platform and the existing banking infrastructure to facilitate transactions using ACH, which encouraged participants to get a checking account and put them on a path towards realizing larger financial goals, like paying for citizenship, eliminating high cost debt, and starting a business.

MAF was founded in 2008 with the vision to create a fair financial marketplace for hard-working families.

Since launching our social loan program, we have expanded to provide Lending Circles through 50 non-profit providers in over 18 states plus Washington D.C. We have serviced over $5 million in zero-interest loans and offer a range of financial products, including bilingual online education, to turn financial pain points into credit and savings opportunities. And we have done all this with a default rate of less than 1%.

Currently, we are expanding Lending Circles in Los Angeles, and we have plans to expand further across the country while deepening our reach in places where we already have non-profit providers. Check out LendingCircles.org to see if there’s a provider near you or express your interest in partnership. Financial institutions, foundations, government agencies, private entities and donors can champion the work of MAF and non-profit organizations working to lift people out of the financial shadows.

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Relationship Credit MAF

 

This blog was originally published on CFED’s “Inclusive Economy” blog as part of the Assets & Opportunity National Week of Action.

We all love the excitement of getting a notification that someone is interested in you after looking at your dating profile. You quickly check theirs, see where they live, what interests they have, what their pictures say about them.

But what if you could see their credit score, too?

So many relationships are fraught with money troubles, so it’s understandable to want to know whether your potential partner is sound financially. Dating sites are good at determining compatibility based on self-reported measures, but using a seemingly objective indicator like credit score seems like it would help make better matches–and potentially help love birds avoid some serious financial problems down the road.

What about folks who don’t have any credit history at all?

There are an estimated 26 million people in the United States who are “credit invisible”, meaning there is not enough information in the borrower’s profile to generate a credit report or a credit score. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites or Asian Americans to be credit invisible or to have unscored credit records. Millions more have “subprime” credit, meaning that they have less-than-ideal credit profiles or scores.Family Credit MAF

There was a woman who dropped by one Friday afternoon at Mission Asset Fund (MAF), the nonprofit where I work. She asked if she would be able to get money so that she could take her son out to dinner that night for his birthday. Unfortunately, MAF’s social loan program does not provide the immediacy of funds that she needed.

So where does someone like her go?

If she does not have credit and is unable to borrow from friends and family, her only option may be to go to a payday lender that can offer her money that same day as an advance on her regular earnings with an employer. Even though payday lenders are known to charge exorbitant interest rates and fees, the trade-off may seem worth it to her in order to have a celebratory meal with her family.

I saw so many people make this same decision at the payday loan shop that my mom managed in Indiana. The challenge was that, once someone took out a payday loan, it became very difficult for them to get rid of it.

What seemed like a short-term loan ballooned into a long-term commitment.

While in high school, I came back from California to visit my mom every six months, and I would see the same customers every year, again and again. They would even get my mom gifts for Christmas. The payday lender soon became the lender of choice and at times the only lender, a place where customers felt listened to and understood, but which did little to break them out of a credit-and-debt cycle so that they could truly build assets.

Many state laws protect consumers against predatory lenders, but borrowers can still access these loans online if they are not available in their neighborhood. New York has warned online lenders about its interest rates caps and rules against title lending, while other states like California have seen operations move out of state to tribal reservations in order to thwart regulations and continue business. Laws are not enough to protect consumers from accessing bad loans, as people will always need access to capital.

One of the barriers to strong consumer protection is the way our country goes about credit.

Edgar and Gustavo Relationship CreditIt is not intuitive that a person may be dinged on their credit report for failing to pay an electricity or cable bill, while at the same time being unable to benefit from making regular on-time payments for such services–even though these often require a credit check or a sizable deposit. Increasingly, credit has become so important that it can impact where you work and even where you live.

From finding your next great relationship to paying for a special night out, having good credit is important. My immigrant father who came to the United States from India repeatedly told me to avoid credit cards as a young adult so I would avoid the same mistakes he made. He added me as an authorized user to his AMEX charge card so I could build a credit history early on without taking on debt.

I encourage you to start similar conversations with your family members and friends about credit too.

You may even want to connect with one of the organizations in the A&O Network to help you realize larger financial goals. You, your relationship and your credit profile deserve to be powerful.

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Eight years into our mission to build a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families, we at MAF know that Lending Circles are empowering participants to build credit, reduce debt, and increase savings. But how do those gains translate into greater financial security? Do they produce meaningful improvement in our clients’ larger financial lives?

As Lending Circles have flourished and expanded over the years, we’ve amassed data allowing us to better understand the program’s impact on clients’ overall economic stability and mobility. But as we began to dive more deeply into these questions, we realized that we lacked a clear definition of financial security and, by extension, a reliable way to measure it.

An Incomplete Picture of Financial Health

Typically, income or credit scores are seen as proxies for a person’s financial well-being. But these common metrics aren’t adequate for assessing a person’s full financial life. Knowing someone’s income alone does not say much about her expenses, debts or net worth — especially in cases where income is volatile, uncertain from day to day or week to week. And while credit scores predict the probability that a borrower will repay a debt, they tell us little about a borrower’s true ability to repay.

What will it take for a borrower to pay back that loan? Will she need a second loan to pay off the first? If so, can we honestly say she is able to repay that initial loan? And what about the myriad informal financial transactions our clients rely on to meet their financial obligations? Where do those fit in when assessing an individual’s financial security?

MAF’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs

For answers we turned to Abraham Maslow, the revered American psychologist who developed the “Hierarchy of Needs,” a model that outlines the physical, social, and psychological requirements that must be satisfied for an individual to realize her true potential. In his seminal work from 1943, Maslow organized human needs into five levels, ordered from the most basic (health and well-being) to the most complex (self-actualization), with each level facilitating the satisfaction of the subsequent, higher-order need. Using the same logic, MAF developed the “Hierarchy of Financial Needs” (HFN) to explain what individuals require to realize their true economic potential (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Hierarchy of Financial Needs – © 2015 MAF

The HFN identifies financial parallels to physiological needs (income), safety (insurance), love and belonging (credit), esteem (savings), and self-actualization (investments):

  • INCOME: The most basic financial need is income to cover basic living expenses, such as food, housing, and utilities. Income can take many forms, from wages and dividends to government benefits or even transfers from family or friends. Income is the foundation of financial security.
  • INSURANCE: To protect earnings, people must insure against unforeseen events that create setbacks. This requires taking stock of assets, including cash, belongings, and health, and securing against loss, theft, damage, and illness.
  • CREDIT: To acquire assets such as a car, home, or education otherwise unattainable through income alone, people need credit. This requires individuals to have credit histories and credit scores to access, and leverage, low-cost capital.
  • SAVINGS: When individuals save, they put away resources for specific goals. The ability to save demonstrates discipline and engenders confidence, a sense of achievement, and respect for oneself and others.
  • INVESTMENTS: The pinnacle of the HFN is when people realize the dynamism of their economic potential. This is the stage where people can invest in ventures that carry risk as well as the potential for return. It represents a turning point because people have investments to generate income, rather than relying solely on earned wages. Through investing, people have the opportunity to attain important life goals such as achieving financial security for their families, retirement, and dignity in old age.

The Hierarchy of Financial Needs is a revolutionary yet simple model that provides clarity regarding what people need to do to realize their true economic potential. For most Americans, financial security starts with a job. People need income to pay for expenses and balance their budgets. They also need to insure against shocks; they need to leverage credit to acquire assets; they need to save for a rainy day; and they need to invest for future returns. Although every individual faces a unique set of circumstances and challenges in managing these needs, the model is applicable across all income and demographic groups. In the same way that Maslow’s model applies to all people, we believe HFN applies to everyone as well, providing a clear 360-degree view of people’s financial lives.

A New Framework for Moving Forward

Despite the fact that 1 in 4 Americans is financially underserved, there has yet to be a comprehensive framework for understanding an individual’s economic needs. MAF’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs fills a gap in the economic development field, giving us a means of evaluating every person’s financial well-being. Consumers — especially low-income consumers — have complicated financial lives, often mixing and matching different financial products, informal practices, and government programs to achieve their unique version of economic security. Our holistic view of their financial well-being enables us to identify their strengths and challenges at every level. This comprehensive approach will equip the nonprofit sector, financial services industry, and policymakers to provide far more meaningful and effective solutions to improve people’s financial well-being.

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