As concerns about the economy continue into 2023, there’s a growing resource that’s helping people reduce debt, build savings, and gain financial resilience – and you can find it at City Hall through the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund (CFE). The CFE Fund’s mission is to leverage municipal engagement to improve the financial stability of low and moderate income households by embedding financial empowerment strategies into local government infrastructure. Created under the Bloomberg administration in New York City, Jonathan Mintz, Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the CFE Fund, credits former NYC Mayor Bloomberg with the sense of responsibility and commitment that gave birth to the municipal financial empowerment movement. According to Mintz, the need for government support around finances was really exposed from the lessons we learned during 2008 and then again during the Covid pandemic. “These were painful reminders that financial instability was a public problem, and not a private problem. It showed that the idea of financial support and programs is important to government – not just morally, but economically.”
Launched at the New York Stock Exchange in April, 2012, the CFE Fund provides funding and technical assistance to mayors and their teams to develop, launch, replicate and test financial empowerment strategies. Now working with over 100 cities and counties across the country, Mintz says one reason for the success they’ve had is the learning community the CFE Fund provides. “The ability for local governments to talk to outsiders about what they are doing and experiencing is limited. So creating confidential places where people can share experiences and get help from colleagues across the country has become a critical piece of the way mayors have found success with their teams.” He also believes one of the best ways to measure the success of these programs is by it’s staying power. “It’s great for a mayor to make a commitment to this program, but the strength and durability of these programs is really evident when you have a new mayor come along, make changes, and these programs keep going. They’re never shut down.”
One of the primary programs within the CFE Fund is the Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) model. This program is based on the belief that one-on-one professional financial counseling should be a free public service.
Mintz explains that there are two parts to the FEC model. The first is around the service and counselors. This is a free public service, available to anyone who needs help. The counselors are all trained and licensed, collect information and can identify milestones and changes in their lives that measure success.
The second is the integration into other public services. “The real magic of the FEC program is the idea that the counseling gets integrated into other public service streams. An administration has the ability to facilitate and sometimes require those integrations. We’re seeing integrations with home owner eviction prevention services, domestic violence services, prisoner re-entry services, adult and youth workforce programs.”
Mintz gives an example of this with one of the first FEC replication cities in Lansing, Michigan, who integrated FEC counseling into prisoner re-entry services. The program not only measured standard information around the financial counseling, but also measured how much more quickly the people in the program left supportive housing. It turned out that the people who had financial counseling through the FEC model left on average a month earlier.
With the support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and others, this FEC model is now operating across 30 cities, with more than a dozen others in training right now.
James Anderson, who leads the Government Innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, speaks to the program’s success. “In 2008, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg made it a priority to open Financial Empowerment Centers across New York City – breaking down traditional barriers to access to get New Yorkers free, one-on-one financial counseling. In taking this model – and expanding it across the U.S. – we’ve seen a multiplier effect: Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work in partnership with Jonathan’s team at the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund has, just to date, spread this program to more than 30 cities and counties, helping 142,000 individuals reduce over $211 million in debt and increase household savings by $43 million. We are big believers in the power of great ideas to spread quickly between cities. It’s a sure-fire way to scale what works – and deliver local impact on the issues, like financial insecurity, that we most need to address in our communities.”