In a series of videos produced by Sesame Street, the character Elmo tries to decide whether to spend his dollar on a bouquet of flowers, a CD, or an ice cream cone. He picks the ice cream, but the machine turns out to be broken, and he has a conversation with Luis, the man fixing it, about where people get money and how they save it. Ultimately, Elmo decides not to spend the dollar now, and to save up for a stupendous ball instead.
And there—hidden beneath the high-pitched cuteness of Elmo—is a lesson in financial literacy, aimed at children as young as three.
Unfortunately, traditional financial education approaches aimed at adults have proven to be far less effective. That’s why Philadelphia’s Women’s Way this month is launching a multi-generational financial literacy program focused on coaching, rather than traditional education, which has proven successful across the state line in Delaware. The program will be the first of its kind to directly focus its efforts on young women—along with the Sesame Street program for their children—who are the largest demographic of people living in poverty in Philadelphia.
“Women’s Way’s mission is about achieving gender equity and justice, and we believe that the most promising entryway for gender equity is economic equity and economic power,” says Diane Cornman-Levy, the organization’s Executive Director. “Poverty is the basis of so many problems and issues for women and their families. Financial health is a basic human need. Without it, you’re always going to be in this crisis mode.”
“When money flows into the hands of women who have the authority to use it, everything changes,” says Cornman-Levy. “They invest in their children, and they invest in their communities.”
The new program is modeled on $tand By Me, a Delaware financial literacy program led by the United Way of Delaware and the state’s government. The public-private partnership aims to give every Delaware resident access to a financial coach, and has already served 19,000 people since its launch in 2011, some 7,000 just last year. The organization builds partnerships with everyone from the Delaware Hispanic Commission to employer Christiana Care Health System in order to expand access to all Delawareans.
While $tand By Me offers basic financial literacy workshops, the emphasis is on coaching. In a workshop or class, one teacher stands in the front of a room of people and explains a concept: credit scores, emergency savings funds, reducing debt, buying a home. Coaching, meanwhile, is more like having a one-on-one tutor; you bring your specific project or concerns—bringing your credit score from 600 to 700, or saving $1,500 for emergencies—to a single coach, and they help you set goals and reach them.
“Money is very, very, very personal,” says Mary DuPont, the program’s Director of Financial Empowerment. “It’s not the kind of thing where you’re going to raise your hand in a financial education workshop and say, ‘My credit score is 500 and I’ve got creditors calling all day, what should I do about it?’”
The crux of $tand By Me’s model is that coaches guide clients to their own solutions rather than telling them what to do, and coaches will be less financial advisor and more counselor. “They’ll help people figure out where they are and connect them to resources if they need something deeper,” explains Cornman-Levy, whose Women’s Way program will utilize the same strategies. “They’ll be getting to the root causes of what’s hindering a person from reaching their goals. It all comes from the client.”
The model has proven successful: Participants have collectively paid off nearly $18 million in debt and have saved $2.5 million; 370 participants have purchased homes, and 391 have purchased cars. And while $tand By Me, unlike Women’s Way’s new program, does not specifically target women or low-income residents, 70 percent of participants are women and 60 percent have a household income below $30,000.
In Delaware, participants have collectively paid off nearly $18 million in debt and have saved $2.5 million; 370 participants have purchased homes, and 391 have purchased cars.
Cornman-Levy says it was these impressive outcomes, along with $tand by Me’s ability to spread the program across the state by integrating it through partnerships, that led her to choose it as a model when researching various financial coaching methods last fall.
Much like $tand By Me’s coaches, Women’s Way’s two coaches will meet women where they are, traveling among at least seven childhood education centers in Philadelphia, Chester, and Delaware Counties. Coaches will initially offer group sessions in order to engage moms, but will then schedule one-on-one appointments with interested women, and meet with them at the center, at libraries, or in their homes. Coaches will aim to serve approximately 150 women each.
The program is being implemented in partnership with Urban Affairs Coalition and Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children and includes funders ranging from Comcast to Wilmington Trust to individual donors.
Cornman-Levy says the program’s two-tiered approach to serving both women and their children aims to alter the family as a system, pushing parents to develop good financial practices and model them for their children, thus reinforcing what kids are learning from Elmo and in school.
Right now, women in the poorest big city in America make up more than 55 percent of those living in poverty, and 37 percent of children citywide are in poverty. Those figures have barely moved in a generation; in fact they have increased over the last several decades, despite a concerted effort to combat poverty. Financial literacy alone is not going to make a significant dent in the problem, for this generation or the next. But it is a means of helping those struggling to survive to keep their heads above water, to weather emergencies, job disruptions, and housing and education costs the way people of means can.
“Poverty is the basis of so many problems and issues for women and their families,” says Corman-Levy. “Financial health is a basic human need. Without it, you’re always going to be in this crisis mode.”
According to a 2013 survey, 26 percent of adults don’t pay their bills on time—and therefore incur late fees—and 31 percent have nothing saved for retirement. Of the 37 million Americans without bank accounts, Philadelphia has among the lowest rate of residents with simple savings and checking accounts. And the U.S. Department of Education reports that 3.8 million American adult women possess literacy skills below a “basic” level.
Helping women be financially secure is one step towards helping them thrive. And research from around the world has shown that when women have greater access to funds—primarily through jobs—and to managing their money, they are able to lift their families and their communities out of poverty.
The financial coaching program is part of Women’s Way’s Economic Security Initiative, born out of a 2017 multi-sector steering committee that included several women living in poverty. The initiative also also aims to change the way society thinks and talks about low-income women and their families.
“How do we change the narrative of how we talk about women in poverty from ‘They’re victims’ to ‘They’re incredibly resilient and resourceful people who don’t have access to economic resources?’” asks Cornman-Levy. “We need to change the playing field.” Women’s Way is also bringing 15 women together each month to rework how they think of themselves in an effort to change this narrative.
Ultimately, this is all meant to bolster the economic security of everyone in Philadelphia. “If we want to have an economically vital city, then we have to work on economic stability of women,” says Cornman-Levy. “When money flows into the hands of women who have the authority to use it, everything changes. They invest in their children, and they invest in their communities.”Photo via Flickr