Many leaders at the Assets Learning Conference talked about how phrases like “asset development” and “individual development account” don’t mean anything to the average person and shouldn’t be used outside a very narrow community of practitioners. I heard numerous speakers discuss moving beyond those words entirely. It felt a bit like the poor word “assets” was sitting in the front row for its own funeral.
For me, it was the session called “A Path to Stability: Matched Savings Accounts for Foster Youth” that put the nail in the coffin for “assets.” It really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about this work.
For the partnerships participating in the exciting “Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative,” relatively formulaic notions of what constitutes asset-building (first time home ownership, small business investments, etc.) have been tossed aside. The matched savings are typically “invested” in non-permanent expenses like rental housing, vehicles, etc., which is about all that would make sense for youth transitioning out of foster care. They often spend their savings in small increments, and can remain in the program for as many as 10 years — saving and spending, saving and spending.
So in this case, it’s not just that the words “asset development” don’t mean much to the average person. It’s that these foster youth IDA programs have really shifted the emphasis from achieving some big asset goal (which is how I’ve often viewed the individual development account) to engendering a continuous process of individual capacity-building by teaching financial and other basic life skills, encouraging small steps toward independence, and allowing the youth to take responsibility, make mistakes and learn from them the way middle class youth might do.
I started to see the act of saving and the decisions about how to invest those hard-won savings — whether it be for a first home or for a first set of steak knives — as having perhaps a greater influence on personal development than the “asset purchase” itself.
In a previous post I noted how disappointed I was not to be able to attend a session on the Family Independence Initiative and its non-paternalistic approach to unleashing a family’s capacity for financial security. That concept of a relatively hands-off approach to delivering matched savings really intrigued me for being so different from the standard fare. These foster youth programs, although not so hands-off, are also pushing us to think more expansively about building assets through the tool of matched savings, positioning the savings as much more than a means to a specific end.
I’m not sure how this evolution will influence my work going forward, but I suspect it will show up in some significant ways. Thanks to Christine Johnson of CMJ Consulting, Kippi Clausen of Mile High United Way, and Dominique Jones of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services for sharing their innovations.