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Helping Poor

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Helping people work their way out of poverty isn’t just about money. It requires addressing the beliefs and culture around money that may be keeping people stuck both financially and emotionally.

Like many of my financial planning colleagues, I have an interest in finding effective ways to help middle- and low-income people increase their financial health. One method I’ve used from time to time is teaching community classes.

I’ve offered classes on basic financial skills like managing money or the fundamentals of investing. I’ve also tried offering classes focused on money scripts or other aspects of money psychology. Guess which classes fill and which ones don’t?  

No matter what their income level, people tend to shy away from looking at the relationship between money and emotions. There seems to be a widespread money script of, “More financial knowledge is all I need in order to have more money.” Yet I’ve seen time and time again over the years that this simply is not true.

Helping low-income people increase their financial literacy is a start, but it isn’t enough. This was confirmed for me recently, at the annual Financial Therapy Association meeting, when I heard a talk by Louis Barajas, CFP®. A noted author and expert on giving financial advice to the poor, he said,

“All the financial literacy in the world is not going to help the poor.”

Born into a poor family in East Los Angeles, Louis managed to become the first Hispanic CFP® in the US and pull himself out of poverty. After a successful career, he returned to the barrio to live his passion of helping his community transcend poverty. It turned out to be far more challenging than he ever dreamed.

As Louis said in his talk, he discovered that, “Most people in poverty are unaware that their cultural beliefs hold them back.” He described some of those beliefs, which I would call money scripts. A few of them are:

  • A sense of fatalism, that “this is just how things will be.”
  • An assumption that working for someone else is the only option.
  • A group dynamic where anyone who reaches for too much success is pulled back down into the community’s financial comfort zone.
  • A victim mentality of blaming and feeling powerless to change.
  • Relying for financial advice on the wealthiest or most successful person in the neighborhood, without the knowledge to evaluate the validity of that advice.
     

Barajas has found that telling someone about a better way doesn’t work. He had to find a way to experientially expose them to it. As he said, “If you don’t see a brighter future, you won’t plan.” But even before that, people need help to take care of their urgent needs first before they can even consider that a future exists.

Hearing Barajas’s talk only confirmed for me how important it is to consider people’s beliefs and emotions about money. This is essential knowledge for financial advisors, debt counselors, social workers, volunteers, and anyone working to help people get out of poverty. More money or more knowledge about money is simply not enough to help people who seem stuck in poverty or in a repeated pattern of financial missteps.

The easiest way to advise people who are struggling financially is to focus on the mechanics of managing money. Yet anyone who really wants to help people make lasting changes in their money behavior needs to find ways to help them look deeper. Ironically, the need to look beyond the money in order to build financial health is one important thing the poor and the wealthy have in common.

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