Working at a check-cashing outlet, Stacy Downer noticed that customers were being ripped off — so she gave them different advice.
She saw vendors lining up to peddle goods right outside of her workplace on paydays. She realized that customers weren’t receiving advice tailored to their financial situations.
So Downer took matters into her own hands, offering free tax services, clipping coupons and encouraging customers who entered the doors to pay their bills on time. She even started holding cash behind the counter for customers, as a sort of renegade bank account system.
“No bank ever asked them what’s going on,” Downer said.
Downer’s own journey to becoming fiscally responsible had its own ups and downs. Having never been taught how to manage her finances, she didn’t even pay taxes for three straight years, she said. But eventually, Downer recognized the pitfalls of living paycheck to paycheck.
“I just didn’t want this to be the inheritance I was leaving my children,” said Downer.
Needless to stay, her career didn’t last much longer at the cash-checking outlet. Now she gets paid to give good advice to people who sometimes live paycheck to paycheck, through a job with the New Haven MOMS Partnership.
And Downer can carry on her mission as a self-appointed advocate of financial literacy through a series of the initiatives the city will undertake to empower low-income New Haven residents out of a social-services and small-business-assistance outpost in the Dixwell neighborhood called the New Haven Opportunity Center, where MOMS has an office.
At a press conference Thursday morning, members of the city’s Financial Empowerment Commission, launched by Mayor Toni Harp in March, convened there to reveal a set of recommendations they’ll work to realize over the next few months.
The city will offer tools like an interactive website that provides residents with guides on banking/credit union options, budgets, housing and debt. Likewise, the city will bolster resources already available at the Opportunity Center, launched in July at 316 Dixwell Ave., by offering financial classes and one-on-one counseling there, with the help of people like Downer.
City Community services Administrator Martha Okafor noted that these new services will become part of the New Haven Financial Empowerment Center, which itself will be folded into the Opportunity Center. What this means is that residents can continue to use the location as a “one-stop shop” for information and access to different social services.
The network of city and state agencies and not-for-profit organizations working on the commission hope to build up residents’ fiscal savvy, focusing on a couple of target populations: low-wage households earning 100 to 200 percent less than federal poverty guidelines, and the formerly incarcerated.
With these new resources, residents might improve their credit scores and pad their savings accounts while reducing debt, commission members stressed.
The commission’s work was spurred by a grant New Haven received in 2015 from the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund — one of five awarded to a “vanguard of cities” alongside San Jose, Oakland, Shreveport and Boston, said fund CEO Jonathan Mintz (pictured).
Mintz admitted that while the name of the grant may not be the catchiest, the fruits of its labor will be tangible. He said this model of financial empowerment is a proven model that has reduced millions of dollars in debt for people across cities running similar initiatives.
“If the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series, we can do this,” commission member and vice president of programs and Easter Seals Goodwill Joseph Parente said.