Michelle Xiarhos Curran, ECCF Communications Writer
PHOTO COURTESY OF COMMUNITY ACTION, INC.
In Haverhill, low-income women – mothers who are working to support their children and families – are being empowered to take charge of their finances through an innovative program that’s teaching them how to budget, save and plan for their futures.
Community Action, Inc. (CAI), the area’s anti-poverty agency, has partnered with the nonprofit Budget Buddies to offer women with children in the CAI Head Start program a way to increase their economic self-sufficiency by learning core money-management skills and working with personal financial coaches over a six-month period.
Since the program’s inception at CAI, 32 women have been given the tools to stretch their paychecks, pay for education, plan for retirement and so much more.
“There’s a true sense of accomplishment,” said CAI Development Director Kerri Perry. “It’s a game-changer in that it keeps people moving forward for a whole 24 weeks.”
The CAI financial literacy program – and similar programming at each of Essex County’s five Community Action agencies – is being supported by Essex County Community Foundation’s Empowering Economic Opportunity (EEO) project, the Foundation’s three-year, $1.3 million investment to address income inequality in Essex County, where nearly 300,000 people are living below the living wage.
What’s more is that the EEO project has united the agencies – CAI in Haverhill, Action Inc. in Gloucester, Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, Lynn Economic Opportunity and North Shore Community Action Programs in Peabody – in a new coalition to create a countywide solution for financial empowerment that serves hundreds of families every year and integrates the financial coaching competency into the culture and teams at each agency.
Launched in April, the Coalition has already served approximately 50 residents and is poised to reach its goal of helping 150-200 people annually. This effort will build greater financial resiliency for Essex County residents by developing a community of practice and making a commitment to capacity building, sharing best practices and establishing joint service delivery partnerships.
“Community Action agencies tend to do things quietly with the shades down, but with this coalition, I feel we have lifted the shades up,” said Perry. “We’re sharing ideas, tools and resources. We’re asking common questions. On a very basic level, we’re talking more.”
“There’s a lot of unanticipated results because of it,” added Perry, who said that the agencies – which meet together monthly – are collaborating on other areas of their work too, such as programming and strategic planning. “It’s nice to have this conversation starter and I credit the funder for that.”
Convening people around a common goal and bringing them together to work towards population-level impact are staples of ECCF’s innovative approach to community leadership in the region. ECCF’s Systems Philanthropy is a true partnership that is driven by community input, identifies root causes, inspires collaboration, invests larger resources over a longer period of time and engages funders as strategic partners.
“To see this come to fruition on such a critical issue is like music to our collective ears,” said Stratton Lloyd, ECCF’s COO and vice president for community leadership. “Really the only way to solve something like income inequality – which is foundational to so many other obstacles we face here in Essex County – is by working together.”
In Haverhill, the financial literacy program – originally funded two years ago by a grant from ECCF’s The Women’s Fund of Essex County – has continued to gain a lot of traction in recent months. A fourth cohort of women started just a few weeks ago, and like the others before them, will participate in a graduation ceremony at the end of the six-month period.
“A lot of the graduates come back as coaches,” said Perry. “They come back to help others and to continue that sense of support.”
The data shows that accessible financial literacy education continues to be a crucial resource that people – especially those living below the living wage – need. According to the 2019 TIAA Institute-Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center Personal Finance Index, or P-Fin, only about half of Americans grasp the concepts behind managing debt, saving for retirement and insuring against major risks.
In Essex County, we’re working collaboratively to make sure as many residents as possible have access to the financial education and guidance they need to make economic gains for themselves and their families.
While CAI in Haverhill continues to graduate a steady stream of women with increased financial smarts, Action Inc. in Gloucester and North Shore Community Action Programs in Peabody have just started their financial literacy programming. Lynn Economic Opportunity and Greater Lawrence Community Action Council are set to begin in January.
“We’re really thrilled that all of these programs will soon be up and running in Essex County and that so many more people will be given the resources that can help them to plan for their futures,” said Lloyd. “It’s critical that people feel engaged and confident about managing their money, and this is what access to financial literacy education can do.”