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Author: Alexandra Altman

MyMAF: Mobile Insights During the COVID-19 Crisis

When we set out to create our new MyMAF back in 2018, we wanted to build something that would live up to our values. We would meet people where they are: on the go, with researchers noting a significant rise in the number of households who rely on their smartphones to access the internet. We would listen to their journeys and needs, and offer bilingual, culturally-relevant content that reflected the realities and lived experiences of low income and immigrant communities. We would build on what’s already good and working in people’s lives: instead of prescribing another financial management or budgeting lesson, we would recognize people as the experts we know they are. We would provide a tool that empowered people to create a plan that was relevant and valuable for their lives, helping them build a pathway to reaching their goals – whatever they are.

In today’s new COVID-inflicted world, those guiding principles and tools have proved invaluable. As we shift into a new normal marked by virtual meetings and remote support, people need ready and accessible financial resources more than ever. They need tools to match the new remote world. Over the last few months, we’ve seen how MyMAF can be one of those tools.

Since April, activity in the MyMAF app has grown exponentially. Over the last five months, more than 9,000 people have visited MyMAF – accounting for the vast majority of the nearly 10,600 people who have used MyMAF since the app launched in late 2018.

At first, we wondered if people were only looking for more information about our Rapid Response campaign. More than financial empowerment tools, people need direct cash assistance today – so that’s what we prioritized providing them with. But as MyMAF user numbers climbed, we saw people actively engaging with content, building financial action plans—and making progress on those plans! So we looked closer: how is MyMAF helping people in their financial journeys during COVID?

  • A growing number of people are relying on MyMAF for financial tools and resources in Spanish. We count on getting information to people in ways that are accessible to them. That’s why we’re encouraged to see that more than 2,400 people are using the MyMAF app in Spanish – to access financial education modules, build financial action plans, and work through those lists. This reflects the communities MAF serves, who the app was built for, and who we’ve worked with over the years: the roughly one quarter of MAF clients who prefer Spanish over English.
  • There’s growing interest in quick and actionable content. People are using the app to access financial education, where and when they have time, on topics relevant to their lives. MyMAF offers four interactive content modules on the homepage, covering credit, savings, self-employment, and preparing for an immigration emergency. Between March and July, unique views of content modules rose more than 700%! MyMAF users can also access a separate online library of 30 financial education videos, offered in partnership with EverFi. We’ve seen a similar increase in EverFi video views through MyMAF—rising nearly 500% in July compared to March. Notably, views of content modules and videos both declined in August, and we’re keeping a close eye to see how MyMAF use continues to evolve.
  • People are looking for information about savings. Even as many people are dipping into savings to weather the current storm, people are looking ahead. Many are interested in how they can build savings now so that they’re prepared for the next crisis.  Across MyMAF’s financial education modules and EverFi videos, information about savings is the most frequently or second most frequently viewed content. This lines up with what others are reporting too: According to a survey by BlackRock’s Emergency Savings Initiative, 52% of respondents reported that they have increased the amount they put into savings or have begun saving more in order to be prepared for the future.
  • People are making plans – and acting on those plans. The number of users adding items to financial action plans has increased more than 250% (from average 60 users each month up to 210+). And about 50% of users are completing items on their action plans.
  • Credit, credit, and more credit. Credit is on the top of people’s minds today – how the crisis is going to impact their credit, and the lasting effects it will have on their financial lives and opportunities. In a recent report from Finicity, 61% of people who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 are concerned their credit will be negatively impacted. In MyMAF, we’ve seen a huge surge in users who are adding credit-related actions to their financial plans. The top three added and completed action items all relate to credit: setting a goal to check their credit score, learning more about the factors affecting credit, and setting a credit goal.

We want MyMAF to continue to be a useful tool to help people navigate the new COVID-19 reality. As we move forward, we’re committed to ensuring that our programs and services remain relevant. So, we’re keeping the channels open. On a daily basis, we’re talking with and intentionally listening to clients to understand their challenges and needs. Their stories and journeys will inform new content, features, and tools in future versions. We’re excited to see what’s next, and we hope you’ll be there with us.

Prioritizing Education in a Pandemic

The pandemic has halted the world’s usual activity, allowing the dust to settle and revealing inequities that lay just below the surface.  The cracks in our social bedrock are now painfully visible in many sectors, not least of which is higher education. Even before this moment, so many students had to overcome staggering barriers to access and navigate our higher education institutions.  First generation students, for example, often juggled multiple jobs and a full course load to reduce debt and support family.  Students with children balanced their studies alongside care-taking.  The stresses of our pandemic reality have only magnified these challenges.

But as always, they persevere. Driven by the hope of using their education to support their families and communities, these incredible students carry on.

At MAF, we recognized our duty to use our platform to support students as they weather this crisis (on top of managing a full course load and a full life load). This is why we started the California College Student Emergency Support Fund — an effort to offer immediate relief to students in the form of $500 grants.

Below, we’ve included a few statements shared by grant recipients that illustrate what their educational opportunities mean to them and the valiant efforts they are making to continue their education during these difficult times.

As a former foster youth, I have already aged out of a lot of programs and services that could support me financially. Given the current pandemic, there are few to no programs to help students in situations like mine. This grant would allow me to take control of my life and alleviate the burden that this pandemic has already placed on me and my family.

-Sheneise, CA College Student Grant Recipient

Due to the pandemic, I was forced to move back home in order to support my dad and my brother. I support my dad financially, and I also pay rent on an apartment near campus. When the lockdown ends, I know I will have little to no money left, and I am also at risk of losing my remaining two jobs. I have a lot to manage, and this is affecting my academics. I want to break the cycle of poverty through my schooling, but these adverse circumstances make this goal very difficult. This grant is important because it provides security and relief.

-Gabriela, CA College Student Grant Recipient

I am currently 8 months pregnant with my second child. I am no longer able to walk across the stage for graduation. I must give birth alone due to the travel restrictions that are in place. I cannot easily access childcare because most facilities are shut down. I spent six years in the navy, and all I could think about was getting out, getting my degree, and doing something I love. I’m ready to graduate strong so I can do what I love for once in my life. I want to show my daughter that she can do anything and be anything no matter what life throws at her.

-Chelsea, CA College Student Grant Recipient

One year ago, I was living on the streets with my children. After losing my daughter to the court system, my son to the county jail, and my husband to state prison, I found myself alone, hopeless, tired, and ready for change. I had reached the point in my life when I had to make a stand and better myself. With my first granddaughter on the way, I wanted to start right away, so I decided to enroll at Coastline Community College. Regardless of what comes my way, I will continue my education. In three years, I hope to be a Professional Paralegal Assistant.

-Betty, CA College Student Grant Recipient

The challenges of the past few months have made it nearly impossible to focus on my education, and I have thought about dropping out to find a part-time job to support my family. Since 2013, I have dedicated so much of my life to this higher education experience. Now, I’m within reach of a huge milestone in this journey and I don’t want to walk away from it. It’s a difficult road ahead, but I’m confident that the skills I’ve gained throughout my life will allow me to stay resilient and work towards obtaining my degree in environmental science while continuing to support myself, my loved ones, and my community.

-Cristobal, CA College Student Grant Recipient

I was working in security and catering—which both involve large gatherings of people. I don’t know when I’ll be able to schedule any gigs in the near future. This grant is important because it could help relieve some of my financial burdens during these troubling times. I believe that grants like this are what help young poor people like myself to continue our education and to pursue careers that can help us and our families.

-Patrick, CA College Student Grant Recipient

Pushing Back: USCIS Proposed Fee Hikes

On November 14, 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a proposal to dramatically raise the costs of filing fees. The proposed fee schedule raises unfair and prohibitive financial barriers for individuals applying for U.S. Citizenship, DACA renewal, adjustment of status, and asylum. On top of these fees, USCIS is also planning to eliminate much-needed fee waivers for low income applicants and transfer over $110 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for enforcement purposes. If implemented, this sweeping set of measures would put the American Dream out of reach for many hard-working and financially vulnerable families. MAF is speaking out against this outright assault on low income immigrants and advocating for a more equitable and just system for all.

USCIS is proposing to raise the filing fees for critical benefits that help millions of immigrants establish a path to becoming contributing members of our communities.

In their proposed rule, USCIS is nearly doubling the cost of filing fees for those applying for Green Cards and U.S Citizenship. In addition to this, they are also proposing a new additional fee of $270 for DACA renewals and an unprecedented new asylum fee — making the U.S. the fourth country in the world to charge an application fee for those fleeing their home countries as asylees.

For more than a decade, MAF has witnessed first hand the impact that immigration benefits have on our clients.

In 2017, we helped over 7,600 DACA recipients renew their status following the Trump Administration’s attempt to put an end to the program, threatening to remove protection from deportation and work authorization for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants. When we checked back in with those folks a year later, they shared with us how much the DACA program had affected their lives. In fact, over 50 percent said that DACA has enabled them to pursue more educational and professional opportunities. But the DACA program doesn’t only affect recipients directly, it’s also led to a multiplier effect — over 60 percent of respondents also shared that DACA enabled them to better support their families. 

The new USCIS fee proposal jeopardizes the success of an entire generation. The protections and opportunities provided under the DACA program make it possible for young immigrants to invest in themselves, support their families, and build a stronger future. Implementing higher financial barriers to accessing benefits hurts recipients, their families, and whole communities, that rely on the hard work and investments these individuals are making to our society. 

Immigration benefits, like DACA and U.S. Citizenship offers singular opportunities for people to strengthen their financial security. As documented by the Center for American Progress and Urban Institute, receiving either DACA or becoming a U.S. Citizens are associated with significant gains in household income. On top of the economic gains, we have also heard first hand how legal status helps people gain greater agency, power to advocate for themselves and others, and control over their lives. We have heard comments like this from Karla, for example, a former client and MAF staff member whose life was transformed after becoming a U.S. Citizen. 

We are raising our voice.

If we imagine a world where financial barriers stop people from accessing these critical immigration benefits, we will see classrooms with empty seats, local businesses struggling to fill vacancies, and a country deprived of the rich and vibrant contributions of community members at their best. On a personal level, prohibitive financial barriers would deprive many of opportunities to build financial stability, security, and well-being. 

MAF submitted a public comment letter to USCIS in response to their egregiously unjust proposal in efforts to call attention to the significant and unjust effects it would have on the communities we work with. Read the full letter here.

We should be putting all of our efforts into maximizing the opportunity for all to thrive in our country, regardless of their financial status.

In our day-to-day work, we witness the resilience and resourcefulness immigrants in America display in overcoming barriers. Like many others incredible organizations in our field, MAF wants to ensure that the promise of our country is available to everyone regardless of their origins or financial status. With the well-being of our communities and the success of our nation in mind, we urge USCIS to withdraw its proposed fee increases for crucial immigration benefits.

At MAF, we’re turning our pain and frustration into action.

We’re expanding our Immigration Loan program and committing a $2.5 million revolving loan fund to help eligible immigrants to apply for immigration benefits. 

You can join us! 

  • Share information with your family, friends, and community about MAF’s Immigration Loans — zero interest, credit-building loans to help finance six different USCIS filing fees. 
  • If you know any community-based organizations that would be interested in hosting us to share more information about the program, you can reach out to us directly at
  • You can also donate to support this work by contributing to our Future Citizens campaign. You’ll be contributing to our $2.5 million fund that provides zero interest loans to over the cost of USCIS application fees. 

Be a part of a movement that believes in the ability and potential of everyone, no matter where they come from or how much money they have.

Navigating the Financial System with an ITIN

“Impossible” is not a word in Regina’s vocabulary. Her savviness and tenacity stood out to us within minutes of meeting her one Monday afternoon. She walked confidently through MAF’s door, took a seat, and launched into her story, painting a picture of a personal and financial journey marked by unwavering strength and vision.

Like many people MAF works with, Regina is an independent business owner who built her own livelihood from the ground up. That Monday afternoon, we had asked Regina to come talk with us about her experience as a small business owner as well as her finding and accessing financial services with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or an ITIN. When we asked about challenges or barriers she had faced to building her business, she described her workaround – which was, like her approach to life in general, defined by resourcefulness and perseverance. Certain financial providers, she found out, wouldn’t accept an ITIN as identification. But, as Regina discovered through dogged investigation, others would. Whenever she faced an obstacle, she said, “I just kept looking and looking and looking,” until she found a solution.

Fortunately, Regina didn’t have to look far to find MAF. Every day, she walked by MAF’s offices on the way to herstore just a few blocks down the street. When walked in that Monday, she was taking another step in her self-directed journey to build the life she wanted. She’d already sought out the information and resources she needed to get the appropriate licenses, run her business, and thrive as an entrepreneur. Now, she wanted to learn about how MAF’s small business loans could be another resource in her toolkit.

Over the course of the evening, Regina was joined by a handful of other resourceful entrepreneurs from across San Francisco. An important part of taking out a loan with MAF is the Lending Circle formation -an evening where clients come together to share their personal journeys, the resources they’ve drawn on, the challenges they’ve faced, and the dreams they’re working towards. The idea is to share resources, lessons, and insights with the other financially savvy, hardworking people around the table.

More than a decade of experience

MAF has been working with clients like Regina for over a decade. In that time, we have served more than 11,000 clients -issuing over $10 million in zero-interest social loans so that people can find the products, services, and tools they need to pursue their full financial potential.

Through this work, we have gathered rich insights and a deeper understanding of how our clients navigate their financial lives. At the center of our work are stories of struggle, perseverance, and dignity. By listening to these stories and hearing their feedback, we understand the challenges and pain points our clients face and can develop programs that genuinely meet their needs and realities.

In our forthcoming research, we will be uplifting these insights and data to add to the conversation around financial citizenship, poverty, and immigration in this country, and to advocate for much-needed reforms.

We’re launching this body of research with a report on the financial lives of people who, like Regina, have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINs. The U.S. Treasury created ITINs to allow people who are ineligible to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN) to file tax returns. Over the last two decades, the IRS has issued over 23 million ITINs to people in this country.

For millions of people in the U.S., ITINs create a barrier to accessing financial services. Many financial providers cite SSNs as the only acceptable form of identification -despite there being no regulation that says an SSN is necessary, or the only acceptable identification form. But these default requirements, in effect, become barriers to accessing financial services, sending a clear message to the community: If you don’t have a SSN, please don’t apply.

We’re reaching into our rich client data set to pull back the curtain on individuals’ financial journeys, helping us better understand how our clients with ITINs navigate their financial lives. While not a national sample, our analysis lifts important insights for providers, advocates, and policymakers. In this report, we see our clients’ financial lives are interwoven with larger communities and often relies on informal resources. We see both the barriers clients with ITINs face and the implications of those barriers. We also see client successes when they find the products and services they need, including industry-leading repayment rates and prime credit scores. We invite you to explore this issue with us, develop a deeper understanding of the barriers, their implications, and the innovative strategies our clients have developed to navigate their financial lives.

Access the report here and keep an eye out for future research updates.

Invisible Barriers: Navigating Financial Services with an ITIN

Invisible Barriers: Navigating Financial Services with an ITIN


America’s financial landscape is littered with invisible barriers. These barriers take many forms, including credit scores, bank accounts, and identification requirements. For millions of people in this country, that invisible barrier is an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number or an ITIN. ITINs are nine-digit numbers issued to people paying their taxes but who are not eligible for a Social Security Number (SSN). They are issued to a variety of people, including international investors, students and spouses in the U.S. on visas, and immigrants. The U.S. Treasury has issued over 23 million ITINs over the last decade. In 2015 alone, over 4.3 million people paid taxes with an ITIN -totaling over $13.7 billion.

Many financial services providers cite SSNs as the only acceptable form of identification. There is no banking regulation that says an SSN is necessary or the only acceptable identification form. But these default requirements, in effect, become barriers to accessing financial services, sending a clear message to the community: If you don’t have an SSN, please don’t apply.

Here at MAF, we serve many people that mainstream financial institutions overlook, including people who apply for financial services with an ITIN. In this pilot report, we are reaching into our rich client dataset to understand how our clients with ITINs navigate their financial lives. While not a national sample, our analysis lifts up important insights for providers, advocates, and policymakers.


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