Blazing The Path From Financial Deserts To Inclusive Financial Growth

Food deserts, or areas where access to affordable healthy food is limited, are a challenge for communities of all shapes and sizes across the country. For years, many saw the solution as simple - bring grocery stores with healthy food options into these communities. Yet this approach has not solved the problem. Rather, the key to helping low-income communities access healthy foods is to start with education.

The same can be said for financial deserts. In these urban and rural areas where financial resources are scarce and money moves in slow and costly ways, education is a powerful tool for uplifting economically depressed communities.

The World Health Organization defines "health" as not only the absence of disease, but complete physical, mental and social well-being. Unfortunately, like food deserts that are home to quickie marts with an abundance of unhealthy food options, financial deserts contain higher concentrations of unhealthy financial options like check cashers, payday lenders and other barriers to economic vibrancy. The result is a community that is financially fragile and focused on the immediate goals of food, shelter and transportation. For those in financial deserts, aspirations for long-term financial health and goals are more often mirages shimmering through the heat of day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck survival.

This is why the A. Philip Randolph Institute and Master Your Card, a community empowerment program, took on the challenge of greening the financial deserts that plague too many low-income African-American communities. And in just a few short months, we have built a better understanding of the problem and opportunities for solutions.

Through a community-focused research project conducted by Morgan State University, we learned that financial deserts can be viewed more broadly as an indicator of the overall health of a community. Combined with a national study on consumer financial circumstances and goals, it has become clear that financial deserts have both geographical and emotional borders. While the internet, mobile payments and prepaid cards have made financial information and money management tools readily available and more affordable, many don't avail themselves of these resources.

So what's holding people back from securing a better future? First, those who struggle to make ends meet usually feel ashamed to talk about finances with others, even members of their own families. As a result, these individuals are isolated from friends and neighbors who are often facing similar challenges. Second, systemic racism and classism have created walls of mistrust that can only be broken down by truly meeting people where they are, by building relationships and by creating individualized products and services that fit them culturally.

These are daunting challenges, but we can overcome them. Progress is underway through community efforts that combine outreach and education to help these families use electronic payment technology, like prepaid and payroll cards, to better access their money. As part of ongoing financial education, the A. Philip Randolph Institute provides information to working families on how to select the best electronic payment option for them and how to use it to get ahead and protect their money.

Master Your Card also partnered with EverFi, an education technology company, to create financial education modules that are now being used in classrooms across the country to help low-income students understand how to build their financial futures. In turn, these students will share what they learn with their families and friends.

We are also encouraged by rapidly evolving community collaborations in Baltimore, the Bronx and Southeast Los Angeles, where our unique focus on financial deserts has lent new perspectives and resources to urban renewal. For instance, Master Your Card is working with the California Community Foundation to elevate the lives of African Americans and Latinos in Southeast Los Angeles. Further, working with Mastercard, we're donating access to data that helps communities see where commerce is happening in neighborhoods and provides insight into how to expand economic vitality. This is literally like finding hidden water holes in financial deserts and educating community leaders and small businesses on the best ways to irrigate and green the entire community.

Our goal is inclusive financial growth that transforms better education, health and respect from a dream to a reality. This very kind of community-based economic redevelopment holds the power to green financial deserts. It offers the promise of genuine urban renewal - one that doesn't depend on gentrification, but rather rewards those who have struggled to keep their communities alive and their families moving ahead.