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News & Updates from the Assets & Opportunity Network


Bank Deserts Prevalent Across Mississippi

Posted by esivak on 07/03/2014

People with a bank or credit union account are better positioned to participate in the economy and contribute to the nation’s recovery. Banks and credit unions allow people to save assets for future investments, as well as build the positive credit history needed to access affordable credit. However, a large number of Mississippi households do not have access to basic financial tools like checking and savings accounts. According to the 2014 Assets & Opportunity Scorecard, which examines Americans’ financial security, 38.7 percent of Mississippi households are either unbanked or underbanked. The high number of unbanked households, coupled with Mississippi’s high poverty rate (22.3 percent), provides insight into some of the barriers that financially underserved Mississippians face.

Unbanked Mississippi

Accordingly, a recent report from the Office of Inspector General found that approximately 34 million households in the United States live at least partially outside the financial mainstream. These households use non-bank services, like payday loan providers—services that deplete rather than preserve income and wealth. As a result, households that live outside the financial mainstream spend nearly 10 percent of their annual income on interest and fees from non-bank services; the same amount that most Americans spend on food each year. They are also more likely to live in underserved communities known as “bank deserts.” Bank deserts are defined as ZIP Codes with zero or one bank branch. In Mississippi, 69 percent of ZIP Codes have zero or one bank branch – out of 533 ZIP Codes in the State, 369 have one bank or fewer (See Map). Further, experts from the banking industry predict that banks will continue to close branches across the country (approximately 2,300 branches closed in 2012), particularly impacting low-income and small, rural communities – where many of the underserved live.

The data underscore the importance of implementing policies that eliminate bank deserts and create opportunities for families, businesses and communities. Examples of such policies include expanding support for Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Community Development Credit Unions (CDCUs) that continually work to meet the needs of historically underserved populations.


Corporation for Enterprise Development. (2014). Assets and Opportunity Scorecard, 2014. Retrieved from

Office of Inspector General: United States Postal Service. (2014, January 27). Providing non-bank financial services for the underserved. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau: State and County Quick Facts. Retrieved from

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Is Mississippi Providing the Financial Resources for Traditional and Non-Traditional Students Alike?

Posted by esivak on 07/03/2014

Across the state, many Mississippians recognize the need for a post-secondary credential. They recognize the benefits of having a degree because it brings with it the skills and increase in pay that helps in raising a family. Mississippi benefits from a more educated workforce as well, with higher rates of employment and revenue for the state. The more Mississippians who pursue a college education and finish, the more we benefit as a state.

Financial aid is a pivotal factor as to whether a person decides to pursue a post-secondary credential and a major contributing factor towards whether or not a person is able to finish their college degree. With a high number of college enrollees coming from low-income families, in most cases students are unable to afford the expensive costs and subsequently have to drop out or take out significant amount of loan debt. Many of these students are making the grade, but can’t afford the expense of pursuing higher education. Mississippi simply cannot afford to keep losing these students.

Mississippi’s financial aid system does not do all it can to provide equitable access for both traditional and non-traditional students. Its problems revolve around the availability of need-based financial aid. A very low portion of our state-based financial aid is allocated on the basis of need when compared to other states. Mississippi only allocates 15 cents of every financial aid dollar on the basis of need, while other states designate 71 cents per financial aid dollar.

One in three children in Mississippi grows up in poverty, yet there is only one need-based state grant. The Higher Education Legislative Plan (HELP) supports academically high-performing, low-income students in paying for the cost of higher education. There are several administrative barriers in place that keeps students from applying, chief of which is an earlier deadline in March, while other state-based grants have a deadline in September. Most schools do not know about the HELP Grant and cannot communicate it to their students. By the time students find out about the grant, it is often too late. In addition to an earlier deadline, the HELP grant also only has one year of eligibility after high school, while the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant has three. HELP recipients are high performing students who have completed a college preparatory curriculum and have higher ACT scores. They also graduate college at a higher rate than the general college population. A later deadline date consistent with the state’s other financial aid programs would help ensure that all eligible students have a chance to apply for the grant.

Mississippi’s financial aid program is also failing to help most non-traditional older adult students. More than 36,000 community college students and 25,000 university students are of working age; yet these students are not eligible for most of Mississippi’s state-based grants. This is because most of Mississippi’s grants are for traditional students only. The only grant non-traditional students are eligible for, MTAG, does not allow for part-time enrollment. Older adults are also not eligible for the HELP grant. With often times a family to raise, these adult students often have more expenses than a traditional student and have to juggle a full-time school schedule with full-time work.

Making these changes, including extending the deadline for the HELP grant and including non-traditional and part-time students in state based financial aid programs will ensure that these programs (and our limited financial aid dollars) are not excluding the students with the most need.

-Deeneaus Polk, Policy Analyst

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TANF Reforms Could Have Big Impacts in Arkansas and Mississippi

Posted by tedwards on 06/30/2014

Last month, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) presented a federal policy proposal offering ten opportunities to reform the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to better fulfill its purpose of moving families toward self-sufficiency. TANF helps families cover basic expenses like food and rent; however, they also need emergency savings and investments for long-term financial goals in order to break the cycle of poverty and become financially stable. To achieve those goals, the program needs to be adjusted.

Under TANF, the federal government provides a block grant to states, which means that Arkansas and Mississippi could use the funds to operate their own programs how they choose – as long as they align with the four goals established in the original 1996 federal law. [i] Based on analysis of both states’ legislative environment and laws, several TANF reform recommendations could greatly improve the financial security of Arkansas and Mississippi families.

At Southern, we believe that helping people meet their basic needs should only be a short term tool to build their economic independence and security rather than a permanent support. One of the reforms proposed below is based on our experience in Arkansas which has enabled over 1,000 people to improve their economic security and independence by acquiring assets like education, small businesses, or home equity.

Check out the proposed changes and let your lawmaker know that you support TANF reforms and a strong financial future for your state’s families! If you need help identifying your state lawmaker, click here.


Reasons to reform current TANF structure in Arkansas


Reasons to reform current TANF structure in Mississippi

To learn more about our efforts to improve the economic security of rural communities, we invite you to contact Meredith Covington, Policy & Communications Manager, at

[i] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2012). Available at


[i] Southern Bancorp Community Partners. (2013). Available at

[ii] CFED. (2013). Available at

[iii] University of Kansas, School of Social Welfare, Assets and Education Initiative. (2013). Available at

[iv] Southern Bancorp Community Partners. (2014). Available at

[v] The Shriver Brief. (2013). Available at

[vi] FDIC. (2011). Available at

[1] CFED. (2014). Available at

[2] Center for Financial Security. (2013). Available at []


[i] CFED. (2013). Available at

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] University of Kansas, School of Social Welfare, Assets and Education Initiative. (2013). Available at

[iv] The Shriver Brief. (2013). Available at

[v] FDIC. (2011). Available at

[vi] CFED. (2014). Available at

[vii] Center for Financial Security. (2013). Available at

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Fast Food Workers Rise

Posted by dlevine on 06/26/2014

On May 15, protesters in Miami gathered around a local McDonald’s and Wendy’s to partake in a nationwide strike in support of higher pay and fairer working conditions for fast food workers. The one-day strike was part of a rapidly growing campaign that is gaining both national and international traction, with 150 U.S. cities and 30 countries having partaken in walkout according to Salon’s Josh Eidelson. Since the fast food industry saw its first significant worker strike in New York City in November of 2012, the demands of the campaign have been consistent and uncompromising, calling for an increase in the minimum pay to $15 per hour and the right to unionize without retaliation.

With a struggling economy and a highly competitive job market, more and more workers are turning towards the fast food industry for employment in order to support themselves and their families. As the demographic amongst fast food workers shifts, the industry must be able to accommodate and meet the changing needs of its workers. A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research reveals that that the majority of fast food workers are in fact 25 years or older—not teenaged high school students as common misperception might hold. Furthermore, of the percentage of non-teenaged workers, about 85 percent of them hold at least a high school degree. The pay range for the large majority of these workers falls between the federal minimum wage of $7.15 per hour and $10.10 per hour. For a fast food worker working full-time, the lower end of this pay range puts them just above the poverty line of $11,670 as determined by the Office of the Assistant for Planning and Evaluation. However, one must keep in mind that this guideline is the standard for single person households while more than a third of workers over the age of 20 are raising at least one child. If the minimum pay increases to $15 per hour, a full-time employee would make about $30,000 per year. There is a great disparity between the current average wage being earned, the wage workers are advocating for, and the wage they should be earning—$22 an hour— had the minimum wage adjusted to meet inflation. This discrepancy underscores just how necessary a minimum wage increase is, and how it is still far from where it should be for it to fully meet the financial realities of today’s workers.

To the satisfaction of many supporters of raising the minimum wage, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson appears to have heard his workers’ call for change. According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, Thompson recently announced during a talk at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management last month that he would support a bill backed by President Obama that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. This bold and promising statement by Thompson marks a huge victory for fast food workers, signifying that their voices are being heard. Though $10.10 is not quite the $15 being demanded by our fast food workers, it is certainly a step in the right direction towards promoting economic equality and financial sustainability for our workers.

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Let's Buddy Up: Joining the Lending Circle Network

Posted by tararobinson on 06/24/2014

MAF Collaborates with CABO to expand Lending Circles in Los Angeles

When the Assets & Opportunity Network convened in December, Andrew Chang and I had just met, but we ignited a friendship that compelled us to find a way for our two organizations, MAF and CABO, to expand Lending Circles in Los Angeles.

Fortunately, the JPMC technical assistance fund for A&O Members, along with support from Citi and key funders, enabled us to organize a “roadshow” presentation on the Lending Circle model with CABO network members, as well as lead an in-person training for MAOF and CCNP, MAF’s two newest Lending Circle providers.

The roadshow on June 4th and training on June 6th sandwiched well with the CFSI 2014 EMERGE Forum, where MAF CEO Jose Quinonez served as a panelist. Coming full, dare I say “lending circle”, just a couple years before, MAF received an award from CFSI to expand Lending Circles through the Bay Area. Since then, MAF had not only proven through an academic evaluation the success of individual participants including credit score increases and debt reduction, but the ability to replicate the model through non-profit organizations in other areas.

Now MAF is providing Lending Circles through partner non-profit organizations in 11 states, but MAF is looking to expand further, including New York, Texas, Florida, Chicago, the Mid-atlantic. MAF had been able to scale, and will continue to even more by employing innovative technology including online financial education and web-based trainings through a new “Lending Circle Communities” platform.

MAF’s roadshow took place at the United Way in Los Angeles. Over ten financial coaches within the CABO Network participated to learn about Lending Circles, a culturally relevant model of social lending and affordable, responsible product to build credit and realize larger financial goals.

Though the challenge of accessing affordable credit is not unique, there are certain ways of course this plays out for local communities, like the unbanked community in Los Angeles. Andrew shared for example, how Los Angelinos with thin credit files often borrow at a 25% interest rate for a used vehicle at “Buy Here, Pay Here” car dealership. GPS tracking devices and “kill switch” allow the vehicle to be easily repossessed in instances of default.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that makes installing these devices illegal without the consent of the borrower, but sub-prime borrowers often have few alternatives. They also end up paying more for less without a responsible alternative to establish credit before taking out a loan.

Since moving to Oakland four years ago from New York, I have gotten used to relying on public transportation, but I quickly learned during what felt like a family road trip to Universal Studies, that having access to a safe and reliable vehicle is not just a part of the car culture, but a necessity in Los Angeles. Better credit, not only means more saving, but more financial security and peace of mind, so that hard-working families can get to work and take care of their families.

I look forward to the next A&O convening to share our story of collaboration with other organizations in the asset-building field.

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Workforce Program Aims To Close Houston Area Skills Gap

Posted by slopez on 06/24/2014

The following article was written by Florian Martin and published in the Houston Public Media on June 23, 2014

The Houston economy is doing pretty well – better than in most other U.S. cities. Job growth is high, and at 5 percent, unemployment is relatively low here. But that doesn’t mean all is perfect.

“On one hand we have a large number of unfilled middle-skilled jobs and on the other hand too many underemployed or unemployed Houstonians,” said Gina Luna, vice chair of the GHP and head of JPMorgan Chase in Houston.

She co-chaired the Partnership’s Regional Workforce Development Task Force that created the UpSkill Houston program.

The initiative aims to close the skills gap by connecting industry leaders, educators and social service organizations in seven different “councils” dedicated to specific industry sectors.

“Each of the seven industry sector-councils will work with and collaborate with education,” Luna said. “For example, one of the jobs of the sector-councils is to define the critical occupations within that industry and define then the critical skills required to do those jobs, and then to communicate that to community colleges, to high schools.”

Those seven sectors are the industries that are most important to the Houston economy: advanced manufacturing, construction, healthcare, oil and gas, petrochemical, ports and maritime, and utilities.

Brenda Hellyer is the chancellor of San Jacinto College. Like other community colleges, San Jac offers workforce training to its students. She said the new initiative helps in that mission.

“The success of our programs is based on providing the right kind of skill sets that these employers need,” Hellyer said. “And it is to make sure that we are providing the skills they need from a hard skill set or also a soft skill set. And so being able to hear what are those real needs they have and then how do we change our curriculum to meet those needs. And also being able to know what are specific jobs that they are going to need.”

Also part of the plan is an awareness campaign that spreads the word about the availability of the many well-paying middle-skills jobs that are out there.

The GHP will also work with the United Way Thrive initiative, which can address basic skills and employability through the many social service agencies that are part of it. Luna said while other states and metros have similar initiatives, the Houston area program is unique in its cross-sector approach.

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Metropolitan Housing Corporation Advocating for Improved Processes for Redeveloping Foreclosed Properties

Posted by tlentz on 06/18/2014

Metropolitan Housing Corporation (MHC) in Louisville is working to pass updated Land Bank legislation in order for there to be an expedited process for Land Bank to obtain abandoned properties. MHC is also trying to pass a local ordinance that would require registration of properties going into foreclosure. It would also make the lender who brought action on the foreclosure responsible for upkeep if the house becomes vacant.

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Groups Release Information to Help Immigrant Students Take Advantage of New College Tuition Law

Posted by dlevine on 06/12/2014

June 10, 2014
Contact: Apreill Hartsfield, Southern Poverty Law Center, (334) 782-6624;
Natalia Jaramillo, Florida Immigrant Coalition, (786) 317-3524;

Groups Release Information to Help Immigrant StudentsTake Advantage of New College Tuition Law

MIAMI – The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Florida Immigrant Coalition released information today that will help immigrant students take full advantage of a new state law that makes them eligible for in-state college tuition rates even if they were brought to the United States without papers.

Earlier this week, Gov. Rick Scott signed H.B. 851 into law, making the dream of a college education closer to reality for these rising entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders. Students who believe they may benefit from the law are urged to find more information about the requirements by visiting the websites of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) or the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC).

“Rather than punish them for something beyond their control, Florida has chosen to help these students become integrated members of our communities and better contribute to our state’s thriving economy,” said Manoj Govindaiah, an SPLC staff attorney. “We want to be sure these students have the tools they need to take full advantage of the law’s benefits.”

The information includes guidance about how and when the law applies, along with answers to other frequently asked questions.

“Expanding access to college is a win-win for Florida’s families and our economy. Young people can now, not only dream about what they can become, but actually have a chance at achieving it. After spending years fighting anti-immigrant bills, we welcome this change. It is good to see leadership recognize the value of our current and potential contributions as immigrants in Florida” said Maria Rodriguez, of Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC).

The SPLC has long championed the rights of immigrant students across the Deep South by challenging policies that needlessly punish them for being brought to the United States as children.

In Florida, an SPLC lawsuit blocked a policy that forced the children of undocumented immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition rates even when they were U.S. citizens born and raised in the state. A federal judge found in 2012 that the policy violated the U.S. Constitution, clearing the way for these students to attend college at affordable rates. H.B. 851 further expands meaningful access to Florida’s colleges and universities to immigrant students, allowing them to reach their full potential, and allowing Florida to benefit from these students’ ingenuity and creativity. The SPLC also helped students in other states and blocked policies targeting children of undocumented immigrants in Alabama and South Carolina.

The Florida Immigrant Coalition has been instrumental in investing and emboldening young immigrants known as Dreamers. FLIC began its fight for tuition equity over a decade ago. As recently as 2011, FLIC successfully pushed back against anti-immigrant legislation. After supporting the implementation of the bill to insure its full utilization, the organization will set its sights on ensuring that all Floridians have equal access to driver’s licenses, regardless of status.

The groups plan to reach out to students across the state who may be eligible for in-state tuition rates. A copy of the materials can be viewed at

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Thought Leader Series - Interview with Mission Asset Fund

Posted by vramirez on 06/09/2014

As my favorite robot startup dinosaur FAKEGRIMLOCK says, BE SHOES .

It is important to deliver a product or service that people want. Mission Asset Fund took an existing community practice and improved it by allowing payment activity to be reported to credit bureaus. Since its founding six years ago, MAF has been helping individuals obtain access to capital and improve their financial situation through their lending circles program.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mohan Kanungo, an Accounts Manager at MAF to learn more about their innovative program. Mohan helps identify and onboard new providers of lending circles and also leads the local lending circles for DREAMers.

What are lending circles?
How do they work?
How can they benefit my community?

Get these questions and more answered below!

What are lending circles?

Lending circles are a time honored tradition of folks coming together to borrow and lend money to each other. At a basic level it is a social loan where members from the community help each other access capital for things like starting a business, immigrating to a new country, or offsetting the cost of a funeral. People all over the world have been using this method for quite some time. Before there were banks or financial institutions, there were lending circles.

Lending circles are not an alternative to banking. MAF uses the banking infrastructure to get people more familiar and comfortable with navigating financial products and building their credit. Then when it comes to realizing other financial goals, like saving for a child’s education or buying a home, those goals are less costly and individuals feel more empowered to realize them.

How do lending circles work?

MAF utilizes a unique process where everyone who participates is both a borrower and a lender. Each person puts in the same amount a communal fund, receives the loan in intervals, and pays back a fixed amount. For example, the average loan amount is $1,000 with 10 participants and a monthly payment of $100. Each participant would receive the $1,000 loan and pay back $100 until each person has had access to the capital.

The best part about lending circles is that individuals are able to build their credit on a 0% interest basis. The loans are formalized with a promissory note and program agreement. Payments are reported to the credit bureaus, giving each participant to ability to build their credit.

Who does Mission Asset Fund serve?

The target market is really low-income families, hardworking individuals that have an income. People actually have to have some income to join this program. MAF is trying to address the needs of folks that are unbanked, do not have a credit score, or have a credit history but it is damaged. People who, for very valid reasons, have a distrust of financial institutions either because of past experience or culture.

Regardless of whether people have heard about lending circles before or have had direct experience with them, this method intuitively makes sense to people. It makes sense at a very communal, basic level where people are supporting each other. It is really about building on the sense of community and social capital.

What are the barriers to lending circles?

A general distrust of formal institutions and products or a lack of understanding are large barriers. That is where local government initiatives have been really important for bringing financial institutions in line with the community needs in order to serve them better.

What has contributed to your success?

A key part of success is partnering with community based organizations to roll out the lending circles program. These organizations understand the community need and serve as advocates to help people through the process. MAF works with each organization to complement and enhance what folks are already doing. Oftentimes, MAF helps partner with the first year’s expenses to ensure costs are as low as possible.

Additionally, MAF leverages a lot of technology to automate processes, scale, lower costs, and make it easier for partners. Sometimes this means using technology when it’s uncomfortable for a community due to low digital literacy. Nevertheless, once the community conquers this learning curve, the impact is much greater.

Another element of success is the online financial education that helps participants understand financial products and institutions, what goes into a credit report, and what goes into a credit score. Financial education has really increased success in the program. MAF has found that coupling education with a financial product paves the road to financial capability.

What has been the impact of lending circles?

An independent evaluation of the lending circles program was published by the Cesar Chavez Institute at SFSU. These results are from across the organization and include data collected about local participants, as well as five partner providers of Lending Circles in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are some highlights from the report:

Lending Circles is proven to establish credit scores – with a 69% success rate. Social loans are a successful vehicle to get the unbanked and underbanked into the financial mainstream. Nearly one third of the treatment group (29%) started with no credit score. After just 10 months in the program, this went down to 9% – a 69% success rate. The control group (who did not participate in Lending Circles) showed only subtle improvement, from 31% to 27% – with just a 13% success rate.

Lending Circles has a dramatic impact on credit scores – by an increase of 168 points. The average credit score improvement for the treatment group was 168 points. The average credit score of participants in the treatment group rose to 603 by the end of the Lending Circle. In comparison, the control group showed only a small increase to overall credit scores – a 41 point increase.

Social loans decrease debt levels – by over $1,000. From 2011 to 2012, following a severe recession that devastated the housing market and raised the unemployment rate, the average person in the control group increased their outstanding debt from $9,000 to $12,000 – adding $3,000 in their level of debt. With access to social loans, participants in Lending Circles had a very different result: the average person in the treatment group decreased their outstanding debt by over $1,000 for a total difference of over $4,000.

Participating in financial education increases credit scores – by an additional 27 points. Financial education matters for those without credit scores; participants who started without a credit score and received financial education increased their scores by an additional 27 points.

Where to next?

Various communities across the nation would greatly benefit from the lending circles program. Communities in need are defined by the presence of a large unbanked community, folks without credit, large immigrant communities, low-income families, and a strong network of nonprofit organizations. As mentioned before, partnering with local organizations is vital because of their knowledge and reach. The goal is to double the number of partners next year, especially in the context of immigration reform. MAF is hoping to expand into the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, Florida and Texas.

How can you become a partner?

The first step is to attend a monthly webinar that explains the requirements and process of becoming a partner provider. Following the webinar, each potential partner is assigned an account manager to serve as a contact for any questions or concerns. If both parties wish to pursue a partnership, the nonprofit organization would need to apply and be accepted to become a partner.

Special thanks to Mohan for sharing his time! We’re excited to continue following MAF’s great work.

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Houston Community College Adult Education Partnership Awarded $250K

Posted by slopez on 06/09/2014

The Houston Community College Adult Education Program in partnership with United Way THRIVE has been awarded a $250,000 Texas Innovation Adult Career Education (TIACE) Grant.

The grant will provide the opportunity to expand the program's Integrated Contextualized Education and Training (ICE-T) model whereby adult learners complete their GED or improve their basic skills proficiencies while they simultaneously receive technical career training. United Way THRIVE provides financial literacy and other services designed to make struggling families more economically viable and secure.

Training will take place at the locations of a number nonprofit organizations as well as selected HCC campuses. In addition to the TIACE award, the United Way THRIVE will contribute another $120,000 of training funds to the project.

The TIACE Grant was established by HB 437 of the 83rd Texas Legislature, regular session. More than 200 adult learners will be served by the project.

Published on MAY 14, 2014 by HCC

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