Financial Empowerment: Spreading throughout the Nation—and within CUSSW!

Financial Empowerment Poster

The Cities for Financial Empowerment (CFE) Fund recently announced Financial Empowerment Center grants to five cities to replicate New York City’s evidence-based Financial Empowerment Center model: Denver, Colorado; Lansing, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and San Antonio, Texas.

The model provides free, one-on-one financial counseling by trained professionals to low-income residents at new local Financial Empowerment Centers, often by integrating counseling into the delivery of municipal services.

CUSSW adjunct professor I-Hsing Sun, in her role as Assistant Commissioner of Financial Empowerment Programs in New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), views the new centers as compound interest on the work she has led in this area throughout the city.

"National replication of New York City's Financial Empowerment Center model is incredibly exciting," she said, "because it is a validation of the great work that we do here. Nearly 50 municipalities applied, demonstrating the desire and need for such services across the nation."

With the national replication initiative being spearheaded by the CFE Fund, "the industry may now move towards building financial empowerment services into social services at large," said Professor Sun, adding that many other cities, besides those chosen by the CFE Fund, have raised their own funds to replicate the model and have integrated (or plan to integrate) into multi-service one-stop centers.

Sun also pointed out that the Columbia University School of Social Work has played a key role as one of the city's partners in moving this initiative ahead. And now she hopes that the spread of these services across the land will coincide with a growth of CUSSW student interest in this topic.

CUSSW students, time to become financially empowered!

Wearing her other hat of adjunct professor, Professor Sun is currently co-teaching, with Monica Copeland ('06), a course she designed around a year ago with input from Dean Marianne Yoshioka, to give students an idea of the burgeoning field of financial empowerment and its importance to the world of social work. The course is called "Personal Financial Management and Financial Counseling Skills."

Professor Sun sees financial empowerment as a vitally important piece of social work training. "Beneath all issues with low-income individuals is the need for financial stability," she said. DCA Commissioner Jonathan Mintz, who spoke at CUSSW on Wednesday (January 30), has a good way of putting it: he likes to call financial empowerment the "supervitamin" that strengthens other social services, be it foster care, low-income housing, food banks, homeless shelters or related interventions. Watch Commissioner Mintz's address on YouTube.

"The biggest challenge in developing a course on this topic for social work students," said Sun, "is getting the word out."

The course has been taught only one time before (last spring), and students may not be aware of it yet, she said, while stressing that the CUSSW Field Department will be offering two Social Enterprise Administration (SEA) placements next year in her office at the Department of Consumer Affairs, for which the course is a pre-requisite. The course can also serve as a general elective for either first- or second-year students.

"Once students hear about our work, the class and the SEA field placements, they are pretty excited," she said.

In particular, they are receptive to the idea that the training can open doors to many employment opportunities. "Someone who receives this training can do anything!" said Professor Sun. She went on:

Social workers who are versed in asset building and financial counseling can better serve any low-income client with whatever issue is at hand, whether it is to stabilize youth aging out of foster care, help people stay in their homes by preventing eviction, or transition formerly incarcerated individuals back home.

But social workers can also choose to specialize in financial empowerment. They can work in banks or credit unions designing products and services for low-income individuals. They can work for municipalities such as with NYC OFE to design financial counseling programs. They can work for nonprofit organizations that specialize in providing financial education. They can work for the federal government such as with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to monitor and regulate debt collection agencies and credit reporting bureaus.

The opportunities are endless!

Financial empowerment: Coming into its own

The field of asset building and financial education is over 20 years old, but only now is financial counseling for low-income individuals spreading throughout the nation, Professor Sun noted.

In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs founded its Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) in 2006. The first project was to evaluate the state of financial education services in New York City. The main finding was a mismatch of supply (mostly classes and workshops) with demand—people wanted one-on-one personalized financial counseling; as a result, the idea of the Financial Empowerment Center was born.

According to Professor Sun, New York City now has over 25 sites that serve approximately 10,000 clients a year with one-on-one, confidential financial counseling.

Thanks to the efforts of Frances Freedman, DCA Deputy Commissioner for External Affairs (she is also a CUSSW alumna and a recipient of Columbia University's prestigious Alumni Federation Medal), Columbia and OFE started conversations in 2011 to offer the aforementioned course and related field placements. According to Professor Sun, Freedman was the visionary who first drew Dean Jeanette Takamura's attention to "the power of bringing financial counseling and asset building to social workers."

The first adopters of financial empowerment at CUSSW

Fran Freedman now serves as the field supervisor for three second-year CUSSW students who are pioneers for the School in learning about the field of financial education and asset building:

  1. Ruting Chen, International Program student with a concentration in Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming (AGPP)
  2. Catherine "Kate" Farrington, Policy concentration
  3. Emily Foote, Social Enterprise Administration (SEA) Management Fellow

These three students have the School's very first placements within Professor Sun's office, with Freedman giving advice on the social work component of their training.

Notably, none of the three were able to take Professor Sun's semester-long course last spring so had to rely on her for a crash course in the main concepts. As Kate Farrington put it:

Not taking the course left me at an initial disadvantage in terms of doing the work, but everything was fine in the end. However, I would STRONGLY recommend that anyone considering the placement take the course. I also think the course is imperative for any students who like to have the skills to tackle [financial stability] issues with their clients.

All three of the students have been thriving on the tasks assigned to them in their placement. Ruting Chen has been assisting with the preparations for a meeting of the Financial Education Network (FEN) forum, which brings together the financial education providers in the city for the purpose of sharing information. And she occasionally goes on site visits to OFE's Financial Empowerment Centers to inspect how well their activities are aligned with contract duties.

Kate Farrington has performed data analysis on Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites and has written a "comment letter" that was submitted to a federal regulatory agency. She has also represented OFE’s work for conference submissions.

Likewise, Emily Foote has done a mix of research, site visits, program evaluation, software procurement and event promotion. She has also demystified some of the complex funding streams that support some of the office’s work.

All three students agree that, even if they do not go into this field, they have benefited greatly by doing this kind of work as part of their social work training—as would their peers.

"Although social workers can always refer their clients to professional financial counselors," Chen said," if they are equipped with some basic knowledge of financial topics, the referrals can make much more sense."

Farrington agreed, adding that social workers are better placed than accountants to "provide insights to law makers and agencies about the best ways to use financial management to improve the financial positions of our clients."

And Foote delivered a ringing endorsement: "This is an excellent placement for future SEA students!"

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Interested in finding out more information? Watch Commissioner Mintz's address, "Financial Empowerment: A Supervitamin for Social Work," on YouTube.

—ML Awanohara