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Can You Address Poverty Without Systemic Change?

Finances are personal. You make what you make and you spend what you spend. As long as you make the right financial choices, you will achieve financial independence.

People experiencing poverty need to make better choices and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Right?

Well, not so fast.

My name is Mario Gutierrez, and I have been a financial counselor for eight years. I am also the Director of NYLAG’s recently renamed Financial Empowerment & Advocacy Unit (previously called the Financial Counseling Division). When clients meet with me, they are often in really tough situations and ready to do whatever it takes to make better financial choices and get out of debt. The sad truth is that many of our clients can make all the right choices and still end up in financially precarious places. Why?

It’s because financial security and stability aren’t solely based on economics. Being able to reach a healthy financial position is challenged by the many systemic and structural barriers our clients face on a daily basis.

For example, how can everyone achieve financial stability if economic growth is inequitably distributed, or we have what some call a “regressive economy”? How can everyone take full advantage of homeownership when people of color pay a disproportionately higher property tax despite lagging appreciation? And what about the racial wealth gap and the long-term effects it has had and will continue to have?

For over a decade, the Financial Empowerment & Advocacy Unit has supported the journey of nearly 20,000 people in their search for financial security. Creating a budget and savings plan, reducing and managing debt, establishing or improving credit, and accessing affordable and adequate banking products have been the pillars of financial security that have led our client-centered services. These activities will continue to be a mainstay of our work as studies have shown the positive impact of direct financial empowerment services.

However, we cannot ignore the systemic forces that are leading most of our clients to an ever-growing ditch of inequitable opportunities, negative health outcomes, and financial devastation. You can’t address poverty and economic inequities without systemic change.

This is why we are now called NYLAG’s Financial Empowerment & Advocacy Unit.

We have done more than just financial counseling for a long time. Over the years, NYLAG has led financial educational initiatives like presentations and workshops; built out our financial coaching program; volunteered for tax prep services; and engaged in technical assistance projects, such as trainings and advisement programs. Our name now reflects the true scale of our work.

We have also been vocal about injustice in the past and have joined campaigns for systemic changes that would benefit our clients. By adding “advocacy” to our name, we are elevating the importance of pushing for larger scale change towards financial justice. Unless there is system change, there are only so many good financial choices someone can make without hitting a brick wall.

Just in the past few months, through our leadership, NYLAG has signed on and advocated for the elimination of savings penalties for people receiving public benefits like cash assistance or Supplemental Security Income. We have rallied against the misguided changes to the Community Reinvestment Act, which will water down its mandate to address the ills of redlining. Recently, we’ve asked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to release a portion of the $1.2 billion they manage in the Civil Penalty Fund to support financial empowerment services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are the types of causes we will continue to doggedly pursue. We are committing to not only helping our clients on an individual level, but to seeking out opportunities to push the institutional lever towards a more just future.

To learn more about our unit, click here.

If you are in need of our services, click here.

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