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As nearly a dozen people waited for tax preparation help, with yellow sheets and yellow pencils in hand, Pamela Monteiro was in her financial coach's office to the side, working on something bigger.
At 41 years old, Monteiro, of Dorchester, is looking to reinvent herself.
Monteiro wants to start her own catering business. Her father was a chef, as is her brother. "I've been in [the] cooking business for as far as I can remember, so that's my — my dream," she said.
Monteiro, a mother of two, first came to the Roxbury Center for Financial Empowerment, in Dudley Square, looking for employment assistance. Instead, she made a longer-term commitment, to a free program, backed by grants, in which coaches work with clients for two years on personal financial goals.
With a budget near $1 million — mostly paid for by the city — the office's aim, in part, is to help close Boston's wide income gap and to teach poorer clients wealth-building strategies. To do that, the Office of Financial Empowerment takes a longer view.
“In essence, we are moving away from just rapid finding people a job so they can get back on their feet. We’re taking more of a long-term approach,” said Boston official Trinh Nguyen, who oversees the OFE.
The "long-term approach" suits Monteiro just fine. When I visited the Roxbury center in January, she was one of 42 who'd been accepted (there are income guidelines) so far into the two-year coaching program. By mid-March, that number was up to 92 accepted clients.
Monteiro said she's patient in working toward her goal of starting her own business. She indicated she and her financial coach, Jose Rodrigues, have a lot of work to do, beginning with boosting her credit score. Then perhaps business management courses. The career transition excites her.
"I never thought that I would be here," Monteiro said.
'Integrated' Approach, 'Bundled' Services
Scan OFE documentation and the word "integrated" sticks out.
Inherent in the turn toward a long-term approach is a renewed focus on bundled services for clients, according to city officials.
"[We] focus more on a structured way of delivering employment services, bundled with financial education, financial coaching, as well as developing skills, and enabling people to actually take charge," said Alan Gentle, the Roxbury center's program director. His office has five full-time staffers.
To back their strategy, both Gentle and Nguyen cited research that found clients who receive bundled services are more likely to see positive economic results. It's an emphasis that has the buy-in of Boston's mayor.
Asked why he's focused on financial empowerment, Walsh speaks of Boston's haves and have-nots.
“We have a city that is doing very well [and] a lot of people are doing well in our city, but we still have half our residents that aren’t," Walsh said in a recent phone interview. "And we have to really try and assist them and help them prosper during these good economic times.”
In late March, Walsh hosted a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, where financial empowerment issues were discussed. Walsh was joined by fellow Democratic mayors seeking to close income and opportunity gaps in their own cities — like Seattle's Ed Murray, who signed a law to gradually lift his city's minimum wage to $15 an hour, and New York City's Bill de Blasio, who's focused on affordable housing and universal pre-kindergarten.
De Blasio's NYC has had its own Office of Financial Empowerment since 2006 and other cities, like San Francisco, have them as well.
Nascent Plan: Children’s Savings Account
The Walsh administration looked toward San Francisco's OFE for guidance on another program — one that's only just a proposal so far. It would take the city's "long-term approach" steps further — to 18 years.
In San Francisco, every child attending kindergarten is enrolled in a children’s savings account (CSA). According to Nguyen, the CSA begins with $50, with opportunities for financial incentives over the years.
Beginning in 2016, Boston is aiming to launch a three-year CSA pilot program at three to five schools. With funding from the Eos Foundation and the city, it would automatically enroll kindergartners in accounts with $100 seed money, with opportunities for incentives down the line.
Nguyen offered a couple of example incentives: $50 if the student maintains a certain grade point average, or attends a SAT prep class.
After the pilot program, the city wants to create a universal CSA program for all Boston public schoolchildren — like San Franciso's.
These accounts are limited. They won't pay for all of a student's college costs, for instance, but, Nguyen said, "CSAs help create a college-going culture for Boston’s kids and the expectation is every child in Boston will enroll and complete in some form of secondary education. So that culture shift and that mentality and that behavioral change is really important for the children and for Boston schools and for the entire city."
And for Nguyen, CSAs encapsulate her office's longer-term focus.
"[I]f we’re investing in families and children and we’re truly moving the needle on poverty, we can’t do it in two or three years," she said. "If you’re really looking to move the needle on poverty, we’re going to have to do it for 18 years."
Too Slow — And Too Little?
Two-year coaching programs and CSAs take time, of course, and money. While city officials are touting the availability of long-term, integrated services for clients, others may clamor for jobs and raises — now.
One data point: Of the first 42 clients in the two-year coaching program at the Roxbury center (the one with Monteiro), just four were employed at the time they were accepted, Gentle, the office’s program director, said.
And of course, there are larger — national and global — economic forces behind inequality and poverty, and the question has long been asked: What can city government actually do to combat these outcomes?
“The ultimate sources of inequality are global," Benjamin Barber, a political theorist and author of “If Mayors Ruled the World,” told WBUR last year. "But [mayors are] constrained to try to deal with them with local assets ... And that, of course, is extremely difficult.”
Walsh administration official Nguyen concedes there are limits to what the city can do to help its residents. But she says it's not a reason to discount their individualized work in Roxbury, and elsewhere.
"Every economist will tell you a local municipality will not impact poverty or move the needle to a scalable level," she said. "[B]ut that doesn’t mean that we can’t do things on the day to day and build systems that we can impact at city level. We just have to be strategic and smart about it."
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