Participants gathered together after breaking out into small groups to discuss how to successfully provide marriage and relationship enhancement, financial education and asset development services to couples and families. The target population for these services is mostly low-income individuals, couples, and families, which require special considerations for how to best reach them.
Entry points for reaching out to families to provide education services are important to the success of service delivery. The group agreed that using the approach of matching services with life events would be wise as life events are often the impetus for seeking out services. The relevance of any education to the participant’s situation was highlighted as a key lesson from all fields. The combination of situational and experiential learning was particularly powerful, for newly-engaged couples to practice communication skills about future decisions together, or for those involved in financial literacy programs to be opening and using bank accounts, or for IDA participants to be working toward purchasing an asset.
Experts shared their individual experiences working with low-income families and couples during the discussion and during follow-up calls. At the roundtable, one financial expert noted a fear of change among clients, who can find it overwhelming to think about behavioral and habitual changes in developing financial priorities and successful strategies. After the roundtable, one participant shared observations on working with couples noting that issues around money and employment are often very private, requiring a high level of trust. Partners may not want to share their financial decisions and fear being exposed. Often low-income couples have financial and relationship goals but it is difficult for them to express, plan, and execute them. On another follow-up call, an attendee explained that their organizational approach is to encourage financial educators to be financial "coaches." As coaches, they gently nudge, but allow the client to be the one in control. In the short-term this participant felt that it may take longer to see progress at the individual level; however long-term results in terms of financial stability may be better using a coaching approach.
Participants stressed the importance of supportive institutions in the community across the three fields. For example, having access to financial institutions that provide low overhead accounts, short-term loans, and other resources for low-income families improves the likelihood of translating education into sustained practice. In marriage, having supportive networks including friends, family, and faith-based institutions is also likely to help in the translation from education to sustained practice.
In terms of providing marriage education services to a low-income population, one commenter pointed out the importance of social networks. Other participants, who work on the ground implementing programs, agreed and shared their observations of the deep effect that networks can have. Programs allow individuals and couples to form new social networks with others that are also participating. This creates an atmosphere of understanding and collegiality and provides the opportunity for other services to be introduced and reduces the stigma attached to receiving services. In some cases, having support and being able to discuss marital or financial issues and decision-making can itself be a benefit. Participants wondered how to take advantage of these networks to expand and collaborate between the fields. Families are more likely to seek additional resources and to talk to providers. Social networks can also be an obstacle to the establishment of new behaviors, and in the context of relationships and finances, the priority placed on helping friends and family financially may detract from longer term savings strategies. One participant phrased this as “relationships are the wealth of the low-income.” When approaching program and service delivery methods, it is vital that these community patterns are understood.
Participants discussed the importance of working with financial institutions and of making the case to these institutions that low-income individuals and families are a profitable client base. Although many low-income clients start out with small accounts that are not initially profitable, banks that have targeted outreach efforts at such clients by offering special deals eliminating some of the normal requirements to open new accounts have found that those customers brought in through this effort became profitable clients over time. The challenge of helping financial and other institutions understand the long-term benefits of offering products that are tailored to low-income families was shared across fields.
Across fields, financial disincentives are a key issue. From an asset building perspective, removing savings disincentives for the low income is a key policy issue. Asset limits in food stamps, TANF, and other income-tested programs do not promote saving and might weaken asset development. States have the flexibility to remove asset limits for TANF and policy advocates are working to influence more states to do so. Similarly, in the marriage field the disincentive for low-income couples to marry because of the potential loss of public assistance is an issue for educators and advocates.
Another key issue across fields, discussed during a follow-up call, is whether better mechanisms for encouraging stability can be developed and implemented, building on lessons from behavioral economics. Default mechanisms, like automatic enrollment of employees in retirement accounts or automatic recertification of program eligibility, or reducing the marriage license fees for those who have taken marriage education programs, may improve outcomes and lay the groundwork toward greater stability.
In sum, a range of approaches to address relationships and finances were identified by participants that help lay the ground work for collaboration. Some participants emphasized providing education and coaching participants at the individual or couple level while others emphasized changes in policies and incentives that could foster behavioral changes. Key next steps identified by participants are building consensus on joint program goals and identifying an effective mix of services.