Millions of U.S. families find themselves in precarious financial circumstances, living on the wrong side of a growing income and wealth divide. Their jobs do not pay enough to support their families. Safety net programs have been diminished and at the same time, financial products and services are complex and often confusing. Saving and investing for the future is out of reach for many.

Gallup surveys show that families—especially low and middle income families—are stressed. They are stressed about covering their health care, housing, and other necessities. They worry about not having enough savings for their children’s college, and their own retirement. Two out of three people say their financial situation makes them feel so stressed it keeps them up at night, according to the American Psychological Association. Many people blame themselves, and feel such shame that they avoid talking about their financial troubles with helping professionals. And all too often, helping professionals don’t ask.

Way Forward: A Focus on Financial Capability

From its earliest days, financial capability practice has been a shared project. Consumer and family sciences, social work, and counseling bring unique perspectives and understandings to the challenges facing financially vulnerable households. They complement each other.

Notwithstanding the great potential, their work has often been conducted in siloes. This was not always the case. As Paul Stuart’s research demonstrates, early in their history, social workers and home economists worked together in developing and delivering practical approaches and policies for financial capability. Family budgets, efficient consumption, and saving were a focus of these professional practitioners. This collaboration was largely lost by the mid-20th-century, as each profession went its own way. This was probably a mistake. Fortunately, the focus on financial capability has been resurrected in recent years, as the link between economic and social development has been more fully understood and embraced.

Working together, these professions can renew their early alliance and change the outlook for vulnerable families. This will require training professionals ready to collaborate and building an equitable and inclusive financial capability delivery system.

Preparing Financial Counselors and Human Service Professionals for Financial Capability Practice

Educating and training professionals to improve the financial well-being of vulnerable and excluded groups, requires preparation of professionals for financial capability practice. For personal finance professions, this means building on their expertise in helping individuals and families reach financial security to reach the most vulnerable populations and underserved. Bringing the latest financial information, tools, and resources to practice, financial counselors and coaches can contribute to a more just society by providing greater financial opportunities and helping clients reach life goals.

For human service professionals, this means building on their expertise in working with vulnerable populations to also address their financial troubles. As “first responders” when families are in crisis, social workers and other human services professionals are in a unique position to help. With their deep understanding of the realities of their clients’ lives and their background in human development, family dynamics, organizational performance, community functioning, and social policy, they can be key partners in creating solutions to financial vulnerability.

However, despite complementarity across these professions, roles and responsibilities are not fully articulated and developed. Collaborations are not yet worked out. The professions too often operate in separate spheres. But there is reason for optimism. Across the country, collaborations increasingly are reflected in professional training. Courses are being launched. Curriculum is being developed. Books and articles are being published. Research is flourishing.

Building an Equitable Financial Capability Delivery System

Together, human service and financial professionals also can create delivery systems, generate policies that work for everyone, and fashion new social institutions that are fair, universal, and inclusive.

Again, there is reason for optimism. Today, across the country, community-based organizations, nonprofits, public programs, and financial institutions have been pioneering efforts to reach low-income and vulnerable populations with financial support and services. These efforts have generated approaches and services that have proven to be effective. These are noteworthy achievements, but reaching the most vulnerable populations at scale is an ongoing challenge.

Some organizations are making progress in reaching large numbers of people. For example, in the nonprofit sector, The Financial Clinic in New York City is building financial security through coaching and counseling, while also developing a national outreach model that prepares and supports human services practitioners to address clients’ financial troubles. In the public sector, Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund is engaging city and county officials across the nation to provide financial counseling and coaching through human service programs, such as housing agencies, domestic violence programs, and health departments.

Looking Ahead

Building the financial capability of vulnerable families is an ambitious agenda, but one that is fundamental to family and community well-being in the 21st century. This professional agenda will require strategic changes in focus for human service and financial professionals. The scope of the work ahead is large. Our hearts and minds may be ready for the challenge. But it will require all hands. I look forward to joining you in November to discuss the AFCPE conference theme, “Engaging an Integrated and Inclusive Network of Personal Finance Professionals.”

Margaret Sherraden, Ph.D., Margaret Sherraden’s current research focuses on adult and youth savings in the U.S. and abroad, financial current research on adult and youth savings in the US and abroad, financial capability, and place-based community development. She also publishes on international volunteering and service, microenterprise, and immigrant birth outcomes. Professor Sherraden received the UM-St. Louis Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2004. During her tenure as President of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare (2000-2003), it celebrated a centennial, invested in a headquarters, and grew its endowment tenfold.

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