Panel Paper: Local Adaptation of Programs to Serve the Financial Needs of Low Income Families

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 2:45 PM
Taos (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Marieka Klawitter1, Shannon Harper2, Matthew Fowle1 and Mary Kay Gugerty1, (1)University of Washington, (2)West Coast Poverty Center
The number of organizations and researchers focusing on asset-building for low income families has sky-rocketed in the last 15 years.  Along with that focus have come waves of the latest-greatest programs including individual development account programs, tax time savings programs, low cost bank account programs, and now, financial empowerment centers.  Most of these programs have been widely replicated prior to or in the absence of strong evaluation evidence to support their efficacy.   In addition, there has been very little evidence of where the programs might be most effective and how, if at all, the programs should be adapted to fit local needs based on demographics, other existing programs and policies, and the local economic context.

This paper will assess the theory and literature on adaptation and fidelity of interventions and apply it to programs designed to build assets or decrease debt for low income families.  We begin by reviewing literature and proposing a framework for understanding the processes and potential gains or pitfalls of local adaptation of financial interventions for low income families.   We then apply this framework for assessing the process and results of the implementation of a municipal Financial Empowerment Center. 

Financial Empowerment Centers were first introduced by the Bloomberg administration in New York City in 2006 to provide free financial coaching for low income families in order to help them reduce or manage debt and build assets.  Subsequently, the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, financed by Bloomberg, funded replications in 5 cities and provided technical assistance to an additional 7 cities who were implementing financial empowerment centers. 

High-cost debt, lack of savings, and fluctuating expenses and incomes are all common for low income families and these could be mitigated with access to appropriate financial products and mentoring.  High-cost loans, such as those from payday lenders, pawn shops, and credit cards, provide emergency funds for lower and moderate-income families, but are expensive and can drive families into long-term debt.  Having access to coaching at a financial empowerment center may allow families to lower the cost of managing family financial transactions and credit needs, and decrease stress attributable to financial emergencies.

We will use implementation evaluation data to detail the process of adaptation of the financial empowerment center model in Seattle.  The city of Seattle applied for but was not chosen to be a replication site, but has implemented a financial empowerment center using foundation funding.  To document the adaptation process and resulting program implementation choices, we will review program documents and data, and interview program managers, city policy-makers and program managers, and staff at collaborating nonprofit organizations.  We will use our framework on financial intervention program adaptation to assess the efficacy of these processes and choices in creating a program better designed to serve the local populations.

 Our paper should be of interest to scholars and practitioners interested in local adaptation and fidelity in social policy interventions or in financial interventions for low income families.