As I look forward to my first-ever Assets Learning Conference (September 10-13 in Washington DC), I’m as hyped up as a kid on the first day of summer vacation. This is my chance to make up for all the professional conferences I’ve attended with only half-hearted interest. I’m doing my homework, determined (as Thoreau said) to suck the marrow out of life’s Assets Learning Conference, or something like that.
Looking over the entire conference schedule, I dread picking which concurrent sessions to attend. There’s something inherently unsatisfying about the math: you participate in one great session, but the knowledge that 10 or 12 other fantastic sessions are going on without you right next door is cruel.
The pressure to pick the “best” session is high. Best, of course, is pretty subjective, and depends on what you’re looking to get out of the conference. So here’s my personal assessment of the slate of sessions being offered Friday morning, September 12, from 10:00 – 11:30, the conference slot referred to as “Concurrent Sessions II. (For “Part Two” of my session previews, click here.)
First of all, my interest in asset-building is pretty wide-ranging, so I can’t necessarily narrow my choice down just to a particular track (Policy, Practice, Research, Innovation). If I had to rate my track bias, I’d put innovation first, then practice, then policy, then research, but I’m not at all certain that my session choices will follow that gut assessment.
Going track by track, I’ll start with the the policy track choices for that first Friday morning session.
“The Role of Cities in Helping Families Build Assets” was not a title that drew me in, but the speakers do sound like they have some important experience to impart. The National League of Cities has developed a strong interest in asset-building via Heidi Goldberg’s work there. Likewise, William Porro clearly has a strong agenda for asset development in Miami, so his comments should also be valuable. Same for Dennis Campa‘s IDA program in San Antonio. I couldn’t find specific background about asset-building work by the City of San Francisco, but the Bay area is such a hotbed for asset development innovation (EARN, Opportunity Fund, etc.) that Treasurer Jose Cisneros will probably have lots to share.
The “Asset Limit Reform” session also has some interesting speakers from key organizations in the asset development space (Dory Rand of the Woodstock Institute, Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Olivia Calderon of New America Foundation), but the session seems more directed to the pure advocates than to a practitioner like me.
What struck me about the description of the “Federal Assets Policy Update” session was that it didn’t mention either the Savings for Working Families Act or efforts to enact universal Children’s Savings Accounts, which are the two federal policy initiatives that most interest me. I want to better understand the prospects to enact legislation in either of those areas more than I want to hear about “regulatory changes to the Assets for Independence Program,” as important as such changes may be. I note that there’s an entire policy session on Children’s Savings Accounts later in the day, so I feel less guilt about passing on this opportunity to explore asset policy. However, I would love to chat sometime with CFED’s Carol Wayman and New America Foundation’s Ray Boshara (who was recently featured in a terrific story about asset-building on PBS’s Newshour Online).
“Creating a Sustainable State Asset Policy Coalition” doesn’t resonate for me because here in Massachusetts we already have such a terrific state-wide coalition in Midas. It just isn’t a priority for me.
The fifth concurrent policy session of the morning is called “Improving Retirement Coverage for Low- and Moderate-Income Workers.” Not the most sexy topic of the conference, but something of huge importance. I would love to hear what Zoe Neuberger of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and J. Mark Iwry of the Retirement Security Project have to say about that topic.
Moving to the practice track, the session on “Credit Building is Asset Building” didn’t interest me much at first glance, but as I researched Credit Builders Alliance I became more intrigued. Their alternative credit reporting model seems to fill an important gap. I’d be interested to hear more about how they have evolved from that break-through idea to the organization they are today, with perspectives from Executive Director Vikki Frank, funder Sandy Fernandez of Citi, and partner Cynthia Logsdon of Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation, participating in CBA’s innovative credit-builder IDA program.
The session titled “Helping Housing Authority Residents Move into Unsubsidized Homes” covers a topic of interest to me, because my experience has been that we could do a better job of integrating the housing authority community into the asset development field. Cathy Hinko of Metropolitan Housing Coalition in Louisville was a pioneer in the use of Section of 8 for home ownership, so her participation bodes well for this session. I wasn’t able to glean too much background about the partnership between Women’s Opportunity Resource Center (WORC) and the Philadelphia Housing Authority, but I’d be interested to hear more about it. For practitioners in communities with much larger housing authorities than we have here in the Berkshires, this session is likely to provide helpful strategies on teaming up with an organization that can wield substantial resources for asset development work.
I’m not sold on the “CDFIs: Policies to Practice” session. It sounds like it could be fairly basic material on the role that CDFIs can play in asset-building, which is important but is not an area in which I personally feel underinformed. For anyone working in and around native communities, the information from First Nations Oweesta Corporation about their experience building Native CDFIs could be valuable. And I don’t have much of a handle on what exactly the Opportunity Finance Network does (“identifying and financing the systems that alter how the CDFI industry works…”), so I’d be interested in Sandra Kerr’s contributions to the session, but not enough to attend this particular session.
The concurrent sessions in the research track haven’t announced speakers, as far as I can tell, so it’s hard to say much about how interesting the presentations might be. One of the nice things about research sessions is that you can often read reports online and learn about the major results without attending the session, which is what I plan to do in the case of the Urban Institute session on their “Poor Finances” project.
As for “Behavioral Economics and Asset Building,” I’m as much of a fan of Nudge as the next average Joe, and I suspect that behavioral economics can indeed suggest ways to improve how we deliver asset building services, but I don’t think I can prioritize this session unless I had a better idea of who’s making the presentation and what sort of research they’d done on the topic.
So I come at last to the innovation track, still focusing on concurrent sessions being offered Friday morning at 10:00.
John Hoffmire of the interestingly named Center on Business and Poverty (which has one of the oddest logos I’ve encountered) offers a session on how to “Fundraise, Do Taxes and Asset Build at Employer Sites.” I agree that more effective asset building could be done through the workplace, so I’m somewhat interested in this session even though it’s not clear to me just how much experience this Center has in asset-building at the workplace.
Another innovation session on offer Friday morning wants to convince me that “America’s Best Kept Saving Secret” is U.S. Savings Bonds. Like many people, I associate Savings Bonds with an older generation, and I imagine what those bonds my dad bought for me to help pay for college might have been worth if they’d gone into a sensibly invested 529 plan instead (not that my dad was given the choice of a 529 plan back then). So I start out with a certain skepticism about this pitch. But I’m willing to listen to most anything that the D2D Fund has to say; I think they’re doing some very interesting work in the asset development space (the idea of prize-linked savings is particularly fascinating to me), so I need to resist the urge to write off this session. I took the time to read a bit about the results of pilot studies conducted with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites like Alan Gentle’s EITC campaign site in Roxbury (another speaker on this panel), and I was fascinated to learn that more people chose to invest portions of their tax refunds in Savings Bonds than in IRAs or 529s or other tools that I generally think of as the better investment vehicles of today. Perhaps it should have been obvious to me that a low-income family might have good reason to favor an option like Savings Bonds, but that surprised me.
The third option for concurrent innovation sessions Friday morning is titled “Asset Building and Entrepreneurship in the Borderlands.” The description didn’t win me over; it feels a bit all over the place. And I couldn’t get a great feel for the speakers. So this one’s not at the top of my list.
That means it’s time to conclude this marathon post with (drumroll please) my choice of which session to attend at 10:00 on Friday (yikes, all this space for 90 minutes of the conference — what was I thinking?). But I’m going to cheat and imagine that I’m a team of three able to divide and conquer, then share the spoils afterwards.
My top three choices are: “America’s Best Kept Saving Secret” (I always like to be won over to a position that struck me as counter-intuitive at first); “Credit Building is Asset Building” (seems like a model that’s relevant all across the asset development field); and “Improving Retirement Coverage for Low- and Moderate-Income Workers” (another universally important topic that I want to incorporate more profoundly into the work that I do).
I’d love to hear what other people are thinking about their plans for the Assets Learning Conference. I expect to do a couple more posts prior to the conference as I consider additional slots during the schedule, so stay tuned. (For “Part Two” of my session previews, click here.)