Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment Wants to Spread the Wealth – Next City
The Equity Factor

Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment Wants to Spread the Wealth

Graduates of Bridges to Careers, which is run by Boston's Office of Financial Empowerment, are prepared to train in specific fields like culinary arts and hospitality. (Credit: Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Financial Empowerment)

Since Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment started in 2014, it has expanded its services pretty significantly. It started out as a career resource center, providing discounted tax prep services for low-income families, and now it’s a workforce development hub and running financial empowerment campaigns for the city’s youth.

Constance Martin, deputy director, says there’s no shortage of success stories. Last year alone the office helped 13,000 Boston residents get their taxes ready ahead of April 18, saving each family an estimated $200 and logging a total of $24.5 million worth of refunds.

But one story that sticks out to her from recent memory came from Bridge to Hospitality, a jobs program at their newest financial empowerment center in the Roxbury neighborhood. Started in 2016, the initiative offered Martin a ground-level view on the impact her work was having.

A young man showed up for orientation with an interest in attending one of the culinary training sessions offered by the program. He was reluctant to talk in depth about his history, only telling Martin that he didn’t know if he could make the program work out in his favor or secure a job once it was finished.

There was also the issue of his commute. He’d need to travel for about an hour south to get to the center from his home in Charlestown, a historic district on the north side of the Charles River. That meant long mornings cut up by numerous bus transfers.

“That’s the kind of thing that could really derail somebody with good intentions,” says Martin. Indeed, a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research on a survey of 168 administrators of job programs like Bridge to Hospitality found 41 percent said difficulties with transportation were the main issue preventing trainees from graduating.

“But he was the only one with perfect attendance in the culinary class,” Martin says. It was a touching moment for her — a connection between what gets signed off on at City Hall and improving the fabric of the city at a personal level. He was awarded a certificate, a small prize for his attendance and the applause of his classmates. Now he’s in the next stage of training, an 18-week intensive culinary program at the New England Center for Arts and Technology.

Like the 21 other students who graduated with him, he’s also going to get two years of free financial coaching at the Office of Financial Empowerment, to help him sustain and grow his income with the help of savings accounts and interest.

He and his peers are pushing to find quality jobs in a city that’s at its greatest income equality divide in the past 50 years. The Boston Globe reports that while only 8 percent of Boston families lived in the city’s poorest regions in 1970, today that percentage hovers around 20 percent. And a look at students on subsidized lunch programs — a federal program that gives free school meals to kids from families living below the poverty line — shows that upward of 78 percent of public school kids in the Boston district were using the program in 2014.

Giving youth from these families the chance to gain financial prowess will be a big component of the OFE’s ongoing expansion. In November it rolled out a new savings campaign, called Boston Saves, to teach kids in the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade range and their parents about the importance of stashing away a few bucks anytime they come upon extra funds. The goal there is to lay the foundation for a life-long interest in managing money.

“Research shows that families with [children’s savings accounts] are more likely to see college as a goal for their children,” notes a post on the OFE site. “In fact, low-income children with $500 or less in a savings account dedicated to higher education are shown to be three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate from college.” The Boston Saves program provides families with a $50 deposit in any Children’s Savings Account they open to bring their children into that statistic of success.

But when it comes to Boston residents outside that age group, Martin says one of OFE’s main hurdles has been outreach. They’ve gone to other nonprofit organizations throughout the city to see how they can bring their new cache of services to more people like the young man who, despite his initial reservations, ended up finding his niche in the culinary program.

What they found? No one has a magic solution. Part of the reason is that there’s a slight irony that’s surfaced in their pursuit of providing both financial training and employment services to residents. “Once you get someone a job they’re less available to get financial coaching,” says Martin. “But then when you’re doing it with someone who doesn’t have a job, their lack of resources limits them.”

The extra investment of time, she understands, “can be draining.” After a full day of work, these are “young families who want to come home and collapse just like the rest of us.” They’re currently looking into new ways to tackle this divide — even considering lasagna potlucks in neighborhoods where their services are most in demand to get people to spread the word.

But the office is motivated going forward, and hopes to report some successes on this challenge within the year. “Boston has 650,000 residents, and we reach just a fraction of those in need,” says Martin. “They may not be able to take advantage of them right away due to family situations or logistics [like child care], but maybe we can plant a seed to help them participate in a program in the future.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: income inequalitypovertybostoncity hall