Financial capability is central to the success of individuals, families and communities, yet social workers and other human service professionals are often ill-equipped when addressing such issues with financially vulnerable clients.
Financial capability is a person’s financial knowledge and skills combined with financial inclusion – for instance, the opportunity to open a bank account or save in a retirement fund. Many attribute the economic downturn in recent years to a lack of financial capability, says Sherry Salway Black of the National Congress of American Indians and former member of the President Barack Obama’s Council on Financial Capability.
The Center for Social Development (CSD) at Washington University in St. Louis is working to fill the gap in social workers’ financial knowledge, so they can better assist clients. CSD developed the Financial Capability and Asset Building (FCAB) initiative, which will provide a curriculum regarding that topic to social work and human service majors. The initiative is supported by Wells Fargo Advisors and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
The curriculum is based on a conceptual model developed by Margaret Sherraden, PhD, CSD faculty associate and professor of social work at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. It is explored in detail in a recent volume on financial capability co-edited by Julie Birkenmaier, PhD, associate professor of social work at Saint Louis University; Sherraden; and Jami Curley, PhD, also a Saint Louis University associate professor of social work.
CSD has partnered with several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) to roll out the curriculum this fall. Educators from seven of those schools attended the Financial Capability and Asset Building Curriculum Workshop and Symposium May 13-15 at Washington University. CSD collaborated with the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies, also at Washington University, in hosting the symposium.
The gathering provided a sense of reality with regard to the challenges in the field, says Mike Rochelle, CSD project director. “Social work practitioners often find themselves unprepared to discuss clients’ economic challenges. I think that’s why everyone is excited about this curriculum. They understand the implications of incorporating this type of material into traditional social work education. This symposium also increased their confidence that they can teach this material.”
Rochelle noted the mix of symposium sessions, combining theory with practice. Representatives from the New York-based Financial Clinic, including the founder, Mae Watson Grote, led discussion and hands-on activities designed to build financial security in working poor households. “The Financial Clinic helps keep us grounded regarding the approach to this work,” Rochelle said.
Other sessions included keynotes addresses from Black and Ted Daniels, founder and president of the Society for Financial Education and Professional Development Inc.; group discussions; case study development; and ground-level training on the household finance portion of the curriculum.
“Our students need to believe in this before they can teach it to anyone else,” says Yamu Kurewa, assistant professor of social work at Bennett College in North Carolina. “This training has truly exceeded my expectations, because I’m getting practical information that I can go back and apply. It’s very good information that will make a real difference.”
When social worker Tiffany Jackson of Haven of Grace in St. Louis works with her clients on financial issues, she applies knowledge and techniques that she had to seek out herself. “Had I had some of this training and information in school, I feel like I would be even better at what I do,” says Jackson, one of the trainers during the symposium.
FCAB combines financial education with cultural and policy issues, providing students with information and training that is culturally and historically relevant. “It’s intentional that we invited institutions of color to be the groundbreakers on this curriculum,” says CSD Project Director Gena McClendon.
Several educators applaud the FCAB initiative for starting with HBCUs and TCUs. “It’s empowering our university systems in starting this whole process,” says Leah Prussia, a faculty member at White Earth Tribal and Community College in Minnesota.
One of the ways CSD will ensure that the curriculum is culturally relevant is the case studies it will include. Symposium participants started to develop case studies during a “Story Harvest” activity led by Miriam Jorgensen, Research Director for the University of Arizona Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Instructors divided into three groups, heard a true client story, and identified teaching and discussion moments within the stories. The FCAB team will refine those and develop other case studies that will fit within various social contexts.
Discussion at the symposium revolved around the need for a financial capability component to social work education, with participants saying this topic is fundamental to many clients’ well-being. They focused on financial needs and shortcomings of people with low and moderate incomes, particularly minorities living in rural communities.
According to a 2012 FDIC survey, one in four American households is unbanked or under banked, and the same percentage applies to those who have used high-interest alternative financial service providers such as check cashing services and payday loans. Those percentages are much higher, however, within the communities served by the HBCUs and TCUs represented at the conference. Many students don’t know how to prepare a budget, open a bank account or take advantage of other financial services offered to them. Some educators pointed out that many of their students experience significant financial challenges themselves. Virgil Brave Rock, a faculty member at Salish Kootenai College in Montana, says he will encourage his students to take the appropriate steps to get their own finances in order before they relay that knowledge to clients.
In her keynote lecture, Black outlined the many ways financial capability has become a priority in the United States, starting with the federal government. The President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability has determined that financial services need to be better regulated, financial education needs to be included in both schools and the workplace, and local, state and tribal financial capability councils would be beneficial. Both Black and Daniels encourage social workers to know their audience and teach to them, putting emphasis on the area that needs improvement.
FCAB team members at CSD are refining the curriculum based on discussion and feedback at the symposium and will send it to educators this summer. They also plan to reach out to more HBCUs and TCUs, as well as Hispanic serving institutions, offering the curriculum to their social work and human service programs.
Prussia says the symposium was an eye-opening experience. She had never envisioned social work in a financial capability setting, but realizes now that it makes perfect sense.
Craig Stevenson, a program coordinator in the Social Work Department at Salish Kootenai College, agrees. “Mental health and finances are co-dependent on each other. When one is healthy, there’s a good chance the other will follow.”
To see photos from the symposium, please click here.