Spotlight Exclusives

Unite Financial and Social Services to Give Women a Way Out of Poverty

Adeline Azrack,Fondation CHANEL and Elena Chavez Quezada, Walter & Elise Haas Fund Adeline Azrack,Fondation CHANEL and Elena Chavez Quezada, Walter & Elise Haas Fund, posted on

Mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinners in two out of every five U.S. families, and one out of four children currently lives in a household supported by a single mother. While 11 percent of children in two-parent families are impoverished, nearly 60 percent of children dependent on a single mother live in poverty.

That math is clear. Building women’s economic security is the most sensible way to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. And an increasing number of us are working on this, right now.

Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap Initiative (of which we are both members) is a national forum where service providers, advocates, funders, organizers, researchers, financial services providers, and public sector leaders work together to expand wealth-building opportunities for low-income women and women of color. Helping woman overcome barriers to financial stability will have resonant effects on the country, lifting children, families, and entire communities out of debilitating poverty and tackling our nation’s shameful socioeconomic disparities.

One notable barrier targeted by the Initiative is the lack of connection between social and financial services. Job training programs, for example, rarely offer financial coaching services. They connect participants with jobs, but not with the financial products or advice that would enable them to translate that job into long-term financial security. Similarly, even though financial security is a primary factor trapping domestic violence survivors in abusive relationships, few domestic violence programs guide women in stabilizing their finances.

Women, and particularly single mothers, do not live in silos. They often juggle work and/or school with childcare and elder care, while simultaneously navigating the labyrinthine systems of housing, public benefits systems, immigration, healthcare and legal services. The complexity of these systems, coupled with the realities of low-wage jobs that often do not provide adequate savings plans, personal days, flexi-time or parental leave, creates a situation in which women cannot access services available to them, build wealth, and create safety and security for themselves and their families.

Bundling social and financial services is more responsive to women’s daily realities and can make the difference in whether or not they access this support. For example, we know of pediatric care clinics that have added mental health providers and community health workers to their staff to help families navigate and access a range of social and financial services. This small investment has resulted in less trauma and greater stability for thousands of children and families. Similarly, we have seen workforce development programs bring on financial coaches and start emergency funds to help women weather emergencies and start planning for their future. In rural communities in many Sub-Saharan Africa countries, mobile and community-based health and social services are increasingly the norm, bringing a suite of healthcare, environmental safety, and financial services directly to women’s doorsteps. We can and should be doing the same for women here as a bare minimum.

Funders like to talk about “gender-sensitive” or “gender-informed” programs and funding mechanisms. Respecting the complex juggling act women – and particularly low-income women – are navigating on a daily basis and insisting upon greater integration of services and information is the most basic and essential example of gender-sensitive programming we can think of.

One challenge in developing and distributing united services springs from the philanthropic sector itself. Cross-field and pooled funding is rare, making it difficult to raise support for collaborative, integrated programs. Even when providers can obtain general operating support, they must contend with short-term grant cycles and quickly prove short-term impact. This creates a perverse disincentive to engage in the process-heavy work of building the long-term collaborations required to bring about integration and grand-scale change.

Breaking down the silos between social and financial services requires a shared intention between providers, funders, and government agencies to create sustainable coalitions empowered with flexible, long-term funding. Topical expertise and targeted funding serve important purposes, but funders need to understand that the impact of their initiatives usually depends on results in other domains. It is time for this perspective to permeate philanthropic thinking and shift our understanding of what is most effective.

Adeline Azrack is USA Program Director for Fondation CHANEL and Elena Chavez Quezada is Senior Program Officer in Economic Security for the Walter & Elise Haas Fund.

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