A year ago, Antoinette Thomas' life wasn't going anywhere.
"I was just living month to month," she said.
Unemployed, single, and with four children to support, she wasn't saving money or planning for the future. She would cash her monthly checks and spend the money right away.
Now, the 35-year-old Toledo woman is working part time at Head Start and attending classes at Owens Community College. Her long-term plans: buying a home or even starting a business.
Ms. Thomas is a graduate of the Getting Ahead program, a series of 15 two-hour classes that teach low-income people financial and other skills.
The program is run by facilitators from the nonprofit Community Partnership and funded by the Lucas County Department of Job and Family Services.
"My mom had always preached to me about saving, saving, saving," she said. "But when I went to this class, it really opened my eyes about the need to start saving."
Low-income people often are not financially literate, and frequently do not have checking or savings accounts, researchers say.
Nationally, about 25 percent of low-income families don't have a checking or saving account, said Signe-Mary McKernan, a senior researcher and economist at the nonprofit Urban Institute.
David Seeger, president and CEO of Great Lakes Credit Union, said one industry estimate puts the number of people without accounts - the so called "nonbanked" population - as high as 18 million Americans.
Why? Some with low incomes don't think they write enough checks to make it worth their while; others don't like dealing with banks, don't have enough money, or want to avoid high-cost service charges, such as overdraft fees or penalties for not maintaining a minimum balance, Ms. McKernan said.
Other research from the Urban Institute suggests the asset testing required by many federal assistance programs discourages poor families from saving. Other studies say the lack of bank branches in poor, central-city neighborhoods contributes as well.
But saving money through a bank or credit union is key, said Ms. McKernan, whose book Asset Building and Low-Income Families will be published in September.
"Having a checking or savings account is the first stepping stone to the middle class for low-income families. Coupled with financial education, they can learn how to start to save, build a good credit record Then can come the opportunity of home ownership, and retirement accounts."
Without savings, people can be trapped into using payday lenders or pawning valuables in emergencies to pay large bills. Habitual use or reliance on these services can trigger a debt spiral, Ms. McKernan said.
Getting Ahead teaches broad concepts about economics and class, but also nitty-gritty financial skills, such as how to calculate a debt-to-income ratio.
Ms. Thomas said that the classes also taught her the importance of maintaining good credit.
Prior to Getting Ahead, she said, "I really didn't care about my credit. I didn't know the meaning of credit."
She added, "I have learned to manage my money, instead of just running out and spending it In this class, I was taught how to spend it and how to save."
Sonya Coogler, 40 of Toledo, another graduate of the program, said the class material covering payday lenders was "an eye-opener."
She now has an account at the Jeep Federal Credit Union and likes how the staff there greet her by name, she said.
Participants who complete the program earn several hundred dollars, as well as the ability to open an account with one of several area credit unions, regardless of past banking problems.
"We're giving them the second chance, allowing them to try to start over and get ahead," said Marybeth Sund, branch supervisor for the Perrysburg office of Great Lakes Credit Union.
Ms. Sund has helped advise Getting Ahead program graduates and answered their questions about direct deposit, using an automatic teller machine card, and how to balance their accounts using a check register.
"A lot of them don't have a lot of experience with banking. They didn't know the first steps of having an account, managing an ATM card or the fees that come with it," she said.
While some have had difficulties and overdrawn their accounts at times, she said on the whole, the program has been a positive one. Some women have even opened accounts for their children.
With 10 years of service in the banking and financial field, Ms. Sund knows the program is unique.
"Most banks or other financial institutions wouldn't even let them walk in the door," she said.
Directions Credit Union, TPS Credit Union, Champion Credit Union, and Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union also participate, said Jamie Stanley, the project manager with the Community Partnership.
"This program fell right in line with who we are and what we do," said Mr. Seeger, president and CEO of Great Lakes Credit Union.
If someone overdraws his or her account, the overdraft fee is waived the first time, Mr. Seeger said. If it happens again, they are penalized with the normal $32 fee and are contacted by someone from the Community Partnership.
Of the approximately 50 program graduates who have opened accounts at Great Lakes, only one has had an account closed because of overdrawing funds, Mr. Seeger said.
"[Classes taught] how to manage our lives, how to manage our money," Ms. Thomas said. "How to have enough time to work, go to school, and take care of our kids, and at the end of the day, everybody is still happy."
About 230 people have graduated from the program in the 18 months it has been operating, Ms. Stanley said.
Deborah Ortiz-Flores, executive director of Lucas County Job and Family Services, said the funding for the program comes from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program commonly called welfare.
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, who has been an advocate for Getting Ahead, calls it a "do program, not a talk program."
He added, "People are working their way out of poverty - working their way - sustainably."
Ms. Ortiz-Flores said she is grateful for the commissioners' support.
"Building sports arenas and things like that is exciting," she said. "But if we don't help people living in poverty increase employment and move to self-sufficiency, we're not doing what we should be doing."
Ms. Thomas, though she graduated from the program a year ago, said she sometimes returns to the Thursday evening classes at the Grace Community Center, 406 W. Delaware Ave., to encourage the women there.
Getting Ahead "motivated me to want more out of life and do better, instead of just accepting life for what it was."
She added, "It gave me the foundation to want to get out of poverty."
Candidates for the program must be within 200 percent of the federal poverty level and have a dependent child.
For more information, call the Community Partnership at (419) 866-3611.
Contact Kate Giammarise at:
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