Programs take a comprehensive approach to boosting assets, building economic security


Ashley came to La Casa de Esperanza in 2008 for free help in preparing her taxes. Little did she know that merely five years later, she would have gained so much more.

What exactly? Beginning steps toward financial stability. The single mom of a 5 year old just graduated from college. Newly employed as a social worker, she had no savings, had racked up $22,245 in debt, and was not taking advantage of her employer’s 401k program.

Through La Casa’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance/Asset Building program, Ashley met with a financial coach who helped her identify barriers she faced, set goals, and create an action plan. Since then, Ashley learned how to apply financial management strategies, eliminated her debt, improved her credit score to 802, invested in her employer’s 401K plan, and in 2013 purchased her first home.

“We are not trying to help people with just the issue at hand,” said Karen Oates, La Casa’s director of workforce development and financial stability. “We want to move people out of poverty and away from financial instability. We don’t want them stuck where they are.”

For the past 12 years, these programs, run by La Casa in Waukesha County and Social Development Commission in Milwaukee County, have worked to build a bridge from a one-time benefit in the form of a tax credit or refund into long-term financial security. The Foundation has long invested in the programs, to the tune of more than $2 million, viewing them as sound steppingstones to self-sufficiency.

“We had been working for years on family economic security but were interested in finding out more about how we could help individuals and families move out of poverty,” said Janel Hines, director of grant programs who heads up the Foundation’s grantmaking efforts toward increasing economic opportunities. “Programs like VITA and individual development accounts are important lynch pins in our efforts.”

SDC opened its VITA sites in 2002. La Casa introduced its program in 2005. The beauty of both is the wide range of resources offered. SDC, for example, provides screenings for FoodShare, information on energy assistance, and help creating a checking or savings account. Among its assortment of tools, La Casa offers housing assistance, free credit reports and most recently, IDA savings match programs.

In the most recent tax season, La Casa prepared 1,677 returns and helped clients obtain $4.8 million in refunds and credits. SDC prepared 15,279 returns and helped return $14.2 million to the local economy in the form of credits and refunds. The Foundation invested $100,000 in 2013 in both agencies to support their efforts to incorporate more financial literacy and education into their programming.

From the very first interaction La Casa’s asset building coaches have with clients, the focus is on asset building, Oates said. For example, when an individual calls to schedule an appointment for tax preparation, they are asked if they have a checking or savings account. When they talk about an anticipated tax refund, they are immediately asked how much of it they would like to save and for what purpose.

“Our goal is if they are in the waiting area, they are thinking about these things,” Oates said.

In 2013, La Casa, with Foundation support and programming help from Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, launched a pilot IDA program as an additional element. It’s the first of its kind in Waukesha and helps participants save toward furthering their education, starting a business or buying a home. In addition to ongoing financial coaching, participants’ savings are matched on a two- to-one basis. Ashley, now a VITA volunteer, was one of 10 people to create a habit of saving through the program. She saved $2,000 and received $4,000 in a match to help purchase a home.

WWBIC received $100,000 from the Foundation in 2013 to support its 13-year program, which provides individual development accounts and education. In 2012, the program had 210 active IDA holders with savings deposits of $77,134.

“We are not taking a short-term perspective; we are making a long-term commitment to financial stability and self sufficiency,” Oates said.

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