Economy :: Securing a Financial Future

Despite economic hardships, low-income women can build wealth. Extensive interviews with participants in an asset-building program offer new insight into how and why women go about securing their financial future.

University of Arkansas researcher Kameri Christy-McMullin and colleague Marcia Shobe led a team that conducted in-depth interviews with nine African American women involved in an Individual Development Account program.

Their stories may shape future anti-poverty programs ?by shedding light on the relationships between asset building and measures of well-being among low-income women of color.?

IDAs are special savings accounts that make it possible for low-income individuals to save money, build their assets and enter the financial mainstream. The funds are matched at the rate of one to one or two to one or sometimes more by government or private-sector organizations. The savings accounts are dedicated to purchasing an asset such as a home, a small business or a college education.

In this study, the IDA program was housed in a state-funded social service agency in a mid-sized city in North Carolina. Beginning in 2000, individuals who joined the IDA program agreed to save a maximum of $1,000 toward a home purchase over two years. They received $2 in matching funds for every dollar saved.

While many of the women in the IDA program had learned habits of saving from their parents, the researchers noted that for economically vulnerable women, ?daily obstacles often impede the implementation of future plans despite the best intentions.? The program was designed ?to bridge the gap between thinking about the future and carrying out concrete plans? by supplementing the women?s own savings with matching funds.

In an article published in a recent issue of Social Development Issues, Christy-McMullin and Shobe found that asset-building activities and an individual?s sense of the importance of saving for the future were closely related to the notion of homeownership. Beyond saving for a home, participants also were interested in consumption-based goals, particularly in saving for the education of their children.

?The insights shared by these women expand upon the traditional theoretical concepts that are often too narrow to accurately reflect the complexity of life?s economic circumstances,? the researchers wrote.

Future research is needed to examine both the positive and negative consequences of participating in an IDA program and how certain decisions affect families. For some participants, their strategy for saving involved paying low rent in a dangerous neighborhood. Several participants related that for them owning a home took precedence over the safety of the neighborhood in which it was located.

Christy-McMullin is an associate professor in the School of Social Work in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Shobe, who has been at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, will join the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Social Work in July 2007. Christy-McMullin, Shobe and Yvette Murphy, an assistant professor of social work, recently received a $195,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to conduct a longitudinal study of asset-building programs in Arkansas and New Mexico.

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