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Author: José Quiñonez

Preparing for the Next Challenge: Our Commitment to Immigrants is Steadfast

Friends and allies, 

The past few weeks have laid bare the hardening political reality against immigrants as Trump’s dangerous lies perpetuate anti-immigrant sentiment and action. We don’t have to look further than the Presidential debate to see how Trump has moved past the “Build the Wall” rhetoric to promising “Mass Deportations” of immigrants as the solution to our social and political challenges. The debate was concerning on many levels, but it was more so because such dangerous, frightful, and dehumanizing claims went unchallenged as if they were now common sense, the politically and socially acceptable norm. 

This darkening political climate underscores the urgency of our work. While the future may seem uncertain, I want to assure you that MAF remains steadfast in doing all that we can to provide resources, tools, and guidance to help low-income immigrant families. Time and time again, we show up with real, meaningful, and timely solutions to help them navigate and make it through times of crisis. This is the essence of our work; it’s how we meet people where they are and why we put the best of technology and finance to build solutions in the context of their lives.

Immigrants Drive our Economy: The Case for Increased Support

During the COVID-19 pandemic, MAF supported immigrants when no one else would. Our support helped families weather and recover from the pandemic faster, significantly contributing to our surprising economic recovery and expansion. Reports are just now showing the important contributions immigrants are making towards our nation’s prosperity and economic growth. 

Instead of ignoring the people underpinning the economic recovery, which many analysts are calling the “envy” of the post-pandemic world, we need to focus on helping immigrants more. Millions of families live in fear of deportation, and even those with legal status are frightened that their progress could end any day. We  celebrated 12 years of DACA this summer. The executive order that protected over 800,000 people from deportations, allowing them to continue their studies and establish careers and families in the US; however, the program is under threat in the courts. Ending the policy will upend their lives and significantly disrupt their families, communities, and the economic well-being of our country.

MAF is Building Solutions and Showing Up for Immigrant Communities

This is no way to live. The uncertainty is overwhelming, depressing our human and economic potential. At MAF, we are working closely with immigration legal experts to find better ways to provide clients with information, advice, and financial support that can move them forward on their path to legalization and secure legal status as best they can. We’re actively fostering a community of support for immigrants, providing culturally relevant solutions to improve their financial lives. 

We firmly believe that by building solutions in the context of their lives, on what is good and what matters in people’s lives, we can drive real and lasting change. This is how we demonstrate a better way forward and how we push back against the dangerous rhetoric that can rip our communities apart. 

While we acknowledge the emotional toll that these challenges can take on our staff and the communities we serve, we remain hopeful and committed to our mission. We are fortunate to be a part of a passionate community of allies, partners, activists, and supporters who work with dedication and empathy. We will continue to support one another, learn from our experiences, and adapt to the ever-changing landscape of immigration policy.

Join Us in Making a Difference

I invite you to join us on this journey. Your support is invaluable, whether you’re an advocate, a volunteer, or someone who believes in the power of community. Together, we can create a world where everyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to thrive.

In solidarity,

José Quiñonez

MAF was a Gamble from Day One.

We started our work 15 years ago in a small office on the second floor of a local cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our vision then – as it is today – was to help improve the financial lives of people pushed aside and left behind without access to the most basic of financial tools like checking accounts or credit scores. Without such tools, how can we expect people to materially improve their financial lives? 

Since then, MAF has put the best of technology and finance to serve our clients, allowing us to scale our work nationally. Now, low income immigrant families all across the country are accessing MAF’s programs to help put food on the table, pay rent, launch their small business, and even to apply for citizenship or gain protective status to allow them to work and live without fear of deportation. We have delivered more than 92,000 grants and loans to immigrants, people of color, and low-income families to improve their financial lives with higher credit scores, bigger savings, and smaller debts. 

MAF’s financial services work because they are rooted in the lives of the people we serve. While we have much to celebrate – and we did just that this past October to mark MAF’s Quinceñera – there is still more work to be done. 

In 2023, we are diving deeper in our research of the 5,000 participants in the largest guaranteed income program for immigrant families. We are expanding small business loans to help clients access credit to recover faster. And we’re improving our tech infrastructure to build and scale our work even further. 

MAF is dramatically different than when we first started our work in the Mission. What has not changed is our community-centered approach to financial security and social change. Our clients are at the center of all that we do. They inform and inspire how we show up to build a better future together. For our true power is always in each other. 

Read our 2022 Annual Report to learn more about MAF and the work to come.

More than a check: MAF provides UBI+ for immigrant families, largest in nation

Have you seen the price of gas lately? My jaw almost dropped when I saw it climb past $6 and stay there.

Gas, food, housing — everything — is getting more expensive this year. Inflation is rising at its fastest rate in 40 years. Everyone is feeling the strain, but the people who are feeling the greatest pressure from inflation are the same people who always get left out, like the ones who were excluded from stimulus checks and the expanded Child Tax Credit. 

Undocumented families are routinely excluded from social safety net programs, despite the crisis of the moment or personal hardships they may be living through.

Millions of immigrant families are simply left to fend for themselves. Without income, people spiraled into debt during the pandemic, and now inflation is threatening their precarious economic recovery.

“We really need the help,” Rosa, a mother and MAF client, told us. “My husband had a heart attack about 4 months ago. He is still recovering and I am the only one who works part time. I have a 3 year old son and he needs things: clothes, shoes, food.” Families like Rosa’s need a little help to weather these storms, especially if they may be rebuilding from prior ones, barely recovering from one crisis before the next hits.

At MAF, we launched the nation’s largest UBI+ program for immigrants to help families recover faster.

We’re partnering with 3,000 immigrant families across the country as they rebuild their financial lives in the wake of the pandemic. Together, we’re learning what it will take to help people recover faster and prepare for what comes next. 

The Immigrant Families Recovery Program is providing $400 a month to immigrant families left out of federal COVID-19 relief for up to two years. This $30 million program is designed to deepen engagement with families we supported during the pandemic. To build back faster, we are providing participants with self-advocacy training to help them weather what may come next. And, we’re investing in research, engaging with a comparison group of 1,750 families to help us understand the true impact of cash aid and financial education. Follow along with us as we share research insights to pave the way for future change.

More than 1,600 families are enrolled and receiving their monthly payments. We are on track to complete enrollment by the end of summer. Families throughout the country in California, Texas, New York, and beyond have enrolled in the program, receiving monthly cash payments and relevant financial services. And we’re partnering with a coalition of San Mateo County groups, Daly City, and other localities to reach immigrant families in their communities.

Monthly cash payments can be transformational for families.

“We have put off a lot of necessities for a very long time in order to just take care of the basics. We try hard to not have our kids feel burdened or that they’re missing out, but it’s a struggle,” Sergio says. “I would love to be able to buy them music lessons, pay for a personal therapist for myself, invest in a college fund and start an emergency savings account too.” 

MAF’s UBI+ program for immigrant families is more than a check — it’s a recognition of their human dignity, a message that they matter and deserve security and opportunity to thrive in this world too.

A Guaranteed Income for the Indispensable

I have been listening to a lot of music during the pandemic, trying to make sense of our world. A global pandemic, raging fires, voter suppression, a recall election, and refugee crises are but a few of what’s top of mind.

There’s one song called “Sueño con Serpientes”—by the Cuban musician and poet Silvio Rodríguez—that uses powerful metaphors that I think speak to what we are going through today.

Silvio wrote this song in 1975 from a nightmare where he battles translucent serpents with a hydra-like tendency. Every time he slays one snake, another larger one appears.

Sound familiar? I replay the song in the midst of yet another COVID-19 surge. Months ago, we were beating the virus until the Delta variant appeared. The light at the end of the tunnel was within sight! Now, we’re in the thick of the pandemic again. But all hope is not lost for, as the song goes, Silvio defeats the larger serpent when he proclaims un verso, una verdad.

I know. It’s soothing to think that proclaiming one’s truth alone can defeat the mightiest of serpents, or whatever monsters or pandemics we’re fighting against. Truth, it turns out, is necessary to strengthen our conviction but it takes a lot more to be a hero. Silvio hints at what that is by reciting this Bertolt Brecht poem at the beginning of the song:

“There are people who fight for a day, and they are good.
There are others who fight for a year, and they are better.
There are those who fight for many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who fight all their lives: these are the indispensable ones.”

Victory is not assured by winning one battle alone. It takes real work over time to be a real hero—making those that fight day in and day out, over years, and throughout their lifetimes, as the poem states, indispensable. 

In our world today, I think of essential workers as the indispensable ones, the real heroes.

Think about it. Even before the COVID-19 vaccines were widely available, essential workers showed up to work in agricultural fields, in food processing plants, and in restaurants when we most needed them. They showed up to work, risking their lives to keep our society going. Without immigrant labor, our food supply chain would have crumbled, causing untold panic and harm in society. 

The same cannot be said of everyone. Our federal government did not show up for immigrant families, instead ignoring their struggles as families lost income, depleted savings, and amassed debts. They excluded immigrant families from receiving relief that could have helped them stay current with bills and pay rent to stay housed. 

Seeing the injustice of excluding immigrant families from relief, our neighbors stepped up to lend a hand.

MAF raised $55M to provide 63,000+ grants to help undocumented families, workers, and students cover basic and immediate needs. But as we wind down our rapid response grants program, we know it was clearly not enough. The need was immense and intense. COVID-19 devastated the financial lives of families, and it will take them years to recover. 

We are ready to do more. At MAF we are moving from rapid response grants to providing long term support to families with children who are now excluded from receiving the expanded Child Tax Credit. Over one million immigrant children without Social Security numbers are not getting support. We are launching MAF’s Immigrant Families Recovery Fund with $25M seed funding to provide immigrant families a guaranteed income up to two years. Participants will receive direct cash, intensive financial coaching, self-advocacy training, and access to MAF’s suite of credit building and zero interest loans to help rebuild their financial lives faster. 

At MAF, we’re bringing all that we have to bear in the fight against poverty, just as essential workers did in the midst of the global pandemic.

And we want to do better. We plan to evaluate, study, and share what we learn from their recovery journey to inform and inspire policy solutions for meaningful systems change. 

Listening to Silvio’s music makes me appreciate the fact that, whether we’re slaying translucent serpents or battling fires or fighting poverty, it takes real conviction and hard work over a lifetime to ensure any victory. 

This has never been a one-time fight for us, but the fight for our lives. That’s our truth. 

Safe, trusted “Financial Empowerment Windows” for the Mexican Community are a light in these hard times

Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are more likely to be unbanked or underbanked when compared to other immigrant groups. At the same time, research shows that immigrants have high levels of savings discipline, and a higher percentage of Mexican immigrants—regardless of whether or not they had bank accounts—accumulate savings when compared to other immigrant communities. With 36.6 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the U.S., including approximately 12 million who were born in Mexico, having targeted, tailored financial products helps the community move forward financially.

Creating products, services, and approaches that are culturally relevant and appropriate – and meeting people where they are and building on their strengths – maximizes their potential for financial success.

In order to expand financial access for Mexican immigrants, Citi, a long-time partner of MAF, seeded a unique initiative that provides in-language services in trusted locations, called Ventanillas de Asesoría Financiera (VAF), or “Financial Empowerment Windows,” at Mexican Consulates across the U.S. The partnership, which includes the Mexican government’s Institute for Mexicans Abroad (IME) and a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations, provides free, high-quality, culturally competent financial education to the Mexican community in the U.S.

The initiative was crucial because the products that the marketplace developed were never designed for, or even conceived of, with Mission Asset Fund’s (MAF) clients in mind. Immigrants—particularly low-income immigrants—become secondary users.

MAF administers the VAF initiative nationally as part its mission to create a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families and to create scalable solutions, like the MyMAF App.

Providing one-on-one coaching to clients in safe, trusted spaces allowed MAF to learn more deeply about the financial lives the Mexican community living in the U.S., including the real fears Mexicans living in the U.S. have regarding what would happen to their financial assets if they were faced with deportation proceedings or other financial crises.

“The physical space in the Consulates is perceived by the community as a very safe place, and a place where you can receive information that is fair, and also the information you need. It’s tailored for you,” said Mexican Ambassador Ivan Roberto Sierra-Medel.

In fact, by meeting clients in those trusted environments MAF was able to elicit more honest responses and questions from the community. The feedback led MAF to develop a whole new curriculum related to financial emergencies to help community members better prepare for moments of crisis, whether they’re deportation proceedings, earthquakes, or pandemics.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of immigrants pay federal, state, and local income taxes, they aren’t able to access unemployment insurance, health benefits, food stamps, and other safety-net programs that U.S. citizens count on in times of need.

MAF’s curriculum includes a “Financial Emergency Action Plan for Immigrants” with simple, tangible strategies to prepare for immigration-related emergencies including tips for protecting money, homes, and other assets, and advice about how to prepare in times of financial stress.

“We didn’t stop working.”

Emergency preparedness is more than a catchword in California, where the threat of wildfires, earthquakes, and other disasters looms large.

According to a March 2020 report by the Migration Policy Institute, there are six million immigrants working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, risking their health to continue providing services during the pandemic, including providing medical and home-health services, cleaning hospital rooms, harvesting and producing food, and staffing grocery stores and other essential businesses. At the same time, the immigrant community, and Hispanic women in particular, have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 job losses.

Fortunately, the tools and systems MAF developed to help people prepare for moments of crisis laid the foundation needed to respond immediately to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the shelter-in-place orders came through, MAF began hearing from clients who were losing their sources of income. In response, MAF moved quickly to stand up a national Rapid Response Fund to get much-needed cash to the low wage workers, students, and immigrant families left out of federal relief.

Launched in March, the Rapid Response Fund provides $500 cash grants to low-wage workers, students, and immigrant families left out of the CARES Act relief, including tax-paying ITIN holders and their U.S. citizen partners and children. In mobilizing a national network, MAF raised over $33 million to provide cash grants and recovery loans to 46,000 grants people nationwide.

Jesús, a client of Central City Neighborhood Partners, the nonprofit partner that provides services at the VAF in the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, heard about the Rapid Response Fund and applied for a grant. Prior to the pandemic, he worked full time in the restaurant industry, sometimes holding two or even three jobs so he could support his family and reduce his debt.  

“The pandemic has affected us, Latinos and immigrants, more,” said Jesús. “Latinos are exposed more, precisely because we didn’t stop working. That is why sometimes you ask for help.”

“In this case, I saw the (Rapid Response) grant, and I applied. It helped me a lot because the table had more food on it, at least for a few days, and I was able to buy a few extras and pay for some things. And really, this was a big help.”

Jesús’s experience underscores the importance of having relevant, culturally appropriate services for the immigrant community.

 “Thanks to organizations like this who work with love, dedication, and professionalism. Thank you for telling people, ‘There are resources here. There is the possibility of help here.’”

“I can proudly say we are serving our community.”

While many organizations were forced to shutter operations due to shelter-in-place, the VAF quickly pivoted, creating a new approach to continue its vital work, including offering online financial coaching services and informational webinars about how to navigate the new reality.  

“Covid has been a challenging period,” said Sierra-Medel. “We have the strategy in place that all consulates keep delivering services, some of them in person and some of them remotely, because the community right now faces the most serious challenges.”

“COVID was almost the worst-case scenario for the Mexican community in the U.S.,” said Consul Julio César Huerta-García, Department of Community Affairs, Mexican Consulate San Francisco. “We worked with MAF to use technology, launch informational videos and webinars, and to be very proactive about providing information and resources to help during the crisis.”

“The Ventanilla is a light in these very hard times, and I proudly can say that we are serving our community,” said Huerta-Garcia.

Unlikely partnerships are key to success

The unlikely partnership behind the VAF initiative—the Mexican government, a global financial institution, and a network of community-based nonprofit organizations—illustrates of the kinds of deep, cross-sector approaches that are required to tackle the complex, systemic challenges facing low-income communities.

This article was written in collaboration between José A. Quiñonez, MAF Founder and CEO, and Marco Chavarin, Vice President of Citi Community Investing and Development, Northern California.

We Lean on Each Other in Times of Crisis

If I had to distill the essence of MAF’s Rapid Response work into one word it would be: partnerships. Amidst the new social distancing, we’ve been able to come closer than ever to listen to one another and help each other during this unimaginable crisis.

Soon after the stay-at-home orders were given in March, we set out to help clients that we knew were going to be adversely impacted.

We heard from clients right away, anxious about losing income, not knowing how they were going to pay rent, buy food or even keep up with their monthly bills. We felt their concern and moved quickly to lift up a Rapid Response Fund on March 20th not really knowing the depth of the unfolding pandemic.

In the early moments of the crisis, the philanthropy field rallied to respond to this new challenge.

We partnered with foundations that stepped forward to support the communities they work with and care deeply about: college students, members of the creative economy, and immigrant families left out of the CARES Act. They worked to get money to us quickly, recognizing the urgency and helping us get money directly into the hands of those who needed it as fast as possible. I have never seen the grant process move so quickly, sprinting from our first conversation to commitment and disbursal within days. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re clear-eyed and committed to the end goal.

While the fundraising was ongoing, our team was repurposing our systems and technology to disburse cash grants at scale.

We built an entirely new application process for each of the communities we set out to support, spending time to consider how we could equitably address the tremendous need that was out there. We made sure that in each application we asked the right set of questions with care and respect and took time to understand each applicant’s financial reality, strategies, and resources. With this, we were able to prioritize need: we knew that first come, first served only exaggerated systemic inequities and barriers to access, privileging those with the fastest internet and best information. We created an alternative that focused the resources we have on those who needed it the most. And, underlying this whole process, we ensured our new system was set up with the same steadfast commitment to processing sensitive financial data efficiently and securely.

Seven weeks into the quarantine, we’re now in the middle of providing $500 grants to over 20,000 people who are in desperate financial need.

It is inspiring to take stock of what we have accomplished with our partners:

  • 3 Rapid Response funds supporting college students, young creatives, and immigrant families
  • 23 foundations pooling resources across all three funds
  • $12M in total to provide people with emergency financial relief
  • 26 outreach partners who are connecting us with eligible immigrant families

With our partners beside us and our small but mighty staff of 29 MAFistas, we’ve been able to support:

  • 75,000+ individuals who signed up looking for help
  • 52,000+ completed pre-applications with insights about people’s financial situation
  • 8,000+ completed full applications on our secure platform
  • 5,500+ grants distributed and deposited into checking accounts

At every step, there has been a lot of careful and thoughtful work behind all of these numbers.

MAFistas stepped up to ensure that we built the right applications, used the right technology, and created the right process for each of the communities we’re helping – all done with care and urgency to help people in this moment of crisis. Why? Simply put: we have received over 7,000 emails, calls, tickets from people asking for help – we hear their stories, their cries for help – and that’s motivating staff to go above and beyond our normal work to show up for people in their time of need.

I can only say that it is truly humbling to witness such devotion.

With this kindness and compassion behind it, we are demonstrating the best of what technology and finance can be. And with our partners beside us, we are demonstrating what it means to show up for people – to help families in this moment of crisis not only with financial aid but, most importantly, a message of hope and solidarity that they are not alone.

You can support MAF’s Rapid Response Fund here.

Helping Those With the Least Weather the Crisis

We are in the midst of a generation-defining crisis. The coronavirus is laying bare the interconnectedness of modern life, rapidly spreading and jeopardizing the health and well-being of millions of people around the world. No one is immune.

This unprecedented and unfolding pandemic is hitting everyone, but those with the least and the last will be hurt the most.

The coronavirus is uncovering deep inequalities in our society. People with homes to shelter, assets to protect, and relief to obtain will be impacted. But people without homes, immigrants without protections, workers without relief are going to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. Already, clients are contacting us with stories of losing jobs, wages, and incomes. They don’t know how they are going to pay rent at the end of the month.

People are feeling deep financial pain right now.

Making it harder still is the fact that many of our clients can’t or won’t get support from government programs. Millions of part-time workers, students, contractors, immigrants and self-employed may not qualify for unemployment insurance, health benefits, or even nutritional assistance. This pandemic is showing the reality that there is no meaningful safety net for the people who need it most.

Immigrant families are terrified. The federal government recently implemented a “Public Charge Rule” that sent a chilling message to immigrant families against using public services. Now, they wonder if going to the hospital would hurt their chances of becoming legal permanent residents. They are worried, “If I’m undocumented, could seeking treatment make me vulnerable to deportation?”

At MAF, we are connecting clients to community services and providing them with direct financial assistance when possible.

There is a growing awareness that in moments like these, what is most helpful is actual cash to help people pay rent, buy food and keep them from falling further behind. For some, it may be a small intervention, a referral, a small grant or a bridge loan that can keep them going. But timing is critical.

We are moving quickly to lift up MAF’s Rapid Response Fund to help low income workers, immigrant families, and students likely to be left behind, without relief from government action. We have the tools, the technology and the reach into these vulnerable communities but we need your financial support to make this a reality. 

In this moment of unprecedented national crisis, it is going to take all of us to come together, to support one another in a renewed spirit of mutuality and respect. We are in this together, and only together can we move forward as a nation.

Click here to donate.

In solidarity,

Jose Quinonez

We saw it coming.

Ever since that dreadful day Trump descended down the escalator to announce his candidacy, we all knew deep down that it was the start of open season on immigrants. We’d seen it before. Desperate politicians using hateful dog-whistle rhetoric to dehumanize and scapegoat people of color. Never did I think that open season this time would mean a shower of bullets – indiscriminately killing human beings just because they look Mexican, including Jordan and Andre Anchondo, both parents protecting their infant child in El Paso.

Like many others, news of El Paso shook my sense of safety and belonging in America.

I suppose that was exactly the intent of yet another act of terror in a campaign against immigrants. What is clear to me is that the El Paso shooter did not act alone. The White House is also driving their own campaign that is now clear: raiding work sites just for the spectacle of it; denying visas at record rates for people looking to reunite with their families; separating families seeking asylum just to send a message of spite and indifference to their claims; and now punishing legal residents with uncertainty over their immigration status if they seek public assistance. They are doing all of this to inflict cruelty in people’s lives, to make immigrants feel insecure, not wanted or welcomed in America. We feel it too.

At MAF, we’re turning our pain into action. We are committing a $1.5 million revolving loan fund to help eligible immigrants to apply for citizenship and DACA.

We’re doubling the number of zero-interest loans to help people that can’t cover the cost of applying to do so now. Over 8 million eligible immigrants can apply for US citizenship; we want to help those who can’t cover the $725 cost of applying. There is no time to waste.

Join us. Help us. Work with us. We can’t allow for America to descend any further.

With gratitude,

Jose Quinonez

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Testifying Before the Joint Economic Committee

On April 30, 2019, I testified before the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee’s hearing on “Expanding Opportunity by Strengthening Families, Communities, and Civil Society.” This bipartisan body was convened to make recommendations for improving economic mobility and strengthening social capital for underserved populations across the country. During the hearing, I presented insights on the barriers that low-income people face in achieving their economic potential and what Congress can do to elevate them from the financial shadows. I am grateful for the incredible opportunity to uplift the role of MAF and other community-based organizations as consistent, trusted resources for supporting lower-income families to improve their financial lives in the U.S.

Thank you, Chairman Lee, Senator Hassan, and members of the Joint Economic Committee for having this important hearing.

My name is José Quiñonez.

I’m an immigrant, came to this country in the dark of night as a nine-year old, adjust my status through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, became a U.S. citizen, and now I’m living my American Dream of helping low-income people become visible, active and successful in the financial marketplace.

As CEO of the Mission Asset Fund, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California, I have first hand experience addressing the daunting financial challenges our clients face everyday.

And what I’ve learned is this: being poor in America is expensive, particularly for people living outside of the financial mainstream.

Nationally, one-in-seven Latinos are unbanked, meaning they do not have checking or savings accounts. While researchers point to various reasons why people go without accounts, we know banks exclude people based on immigration status or by requiring narrow forms of IDs. Consequently, many of our clients are left unbanked and without a choice but to rely on alternative providers that charge more to cash checks or pay bills. The average underserved household that earns $25,500 annually pays about 10% of their income on fees and interest for financial services that those of us with bank accounts often get for free.

Lack of credit is challenge. Nationally, nearly one-in-three Latinos are credit invisible, meaning they do not have credit scores or credit reports. Given the nature of our economy, there is little anyone can do without credit—people cannot get loans to buy homes or start businesses, they cannot rent apartments, and in some states, they cannot even get jobs without employers checking their credit reports.

Without access to affordable credit, people turn to high cost lenders—some paying 100% APRs on small-dollar loans, and significantly more for short-term payday loans.

Barriers to economic mobility are not just financial. People are also burdened with uncertainty from the current anti-immigrant political environment, fearing losing their families and draining their savings. Many worry about being detained for lack of documentation—igniting a financial crisis. Bail alone could strip them of $5,000; obtaining legal representation, up to $20,000; and the costs mount from there.

So, how can we help people realize their economic potential when they are financially invisible and facing enormous challenges in their lives?

We found answers in how our clients leverage social capital—their relationships with family and friends to survive and thrive.

Our clients practice a time-honored tradition of lending and saving money together; it’s an activity known by hundreds of different names throughout the world but which is essentially the same. A group of people come together and agree to pool their money so that one member of the group can take the lump sum, and they do it again on a weekly or monthly basis until everyone in the group has had the chance of getting the lump sum. When people don’t have access to loans, this is how they create their own, using only their word and trust.

We built our Lending Circles Program on this tradition. We formalized loans by having participants sign promissory notes, which MAF then services and reports to credit bureaus.

Since launching the program in 2008, we have made 11,223 loans to help participants build credit—in fact, they see an average score increase of 168 points, opening a world of possibilities for them in the credit market.

And the repayment rate is 99.3 percent—an unheard-of rate in the microlending world.

Lending Circles is an example of what we could do with—and for—people if we design programs and policies for success, based on people’s strengths and social capital to create real lasting change.

Despite the promise from this approach, it is not enough to help the millions of people trapped by barriers that diminish their economic potential.

We need better data to understand people’s challenges. Research reports based on national datasets often ignore those who are financially invisible, thereby missing critical segments of our society.

Congress can remove asset limits to public benefit programs like SNAP that are a lifeline for families not earning enough to make ends meet.

Congress can provide clarity that US citizenship is not a prerequisite for accessing financial services, and allow for more government-issued IDs when opening accounts.

Congress can significantly reduce the number of credit invisible by allowing positive payment data from utilities, rent, and telecoms to be included in credit reports.

And Congress can require “ability to repay” underwriting standards and longer repayment terms for small-dollar and payday loans.

I believe these reforms can go a long way to unlock people’s economic potential, and help them realize their American Dreams too.  

Thank you for holding this hearing and I look forward to continuing this important conversation.

Join the Rabble!

Ten years ago, we started a movement in San Francisco, leading thousands of low-income and immigrants families throughout the country to become financially visible, active, and successful in the financial system.

What started with our flagship Lending Circles program offering zero-interest loans, has evolved into a whole suite of products and services to help people improve their financial lives. We do everything with the steadfast determination to meet people where they are and build on what is good in their lives. We’re now providing financial coaching “windows” at Mexican Consulates in the Bay Area, financing to help cover expensive immigration fees, and innovating tools designed to help clients thrive even more. And all the while, we’re still working with nonprofits to deepen and expand our work throughout the country.

We have a lot to celebrate, but we’re even more energized by what we have coming in November: MAF Summit!  We’re hosting this important gathering of partners, colleagues, funders, friends on November 15 and 16 in San Francisco!

This year’s theme is “Transcend. Evolve. Take Flight.” We envision ourselves and our communities as a rabble of butterflies, having evolved to withstand adversity, and able to overcome obstacles no matter how big or sudden they seem. We finish the journeys we start and we know the final destination is still ahead.

We’re thrilled to bring together an even larger network of change agents—leaders from across the nonprofit, tech, finance, and social sectors—all looking to learn, inspire and build new, long-lasting solutions. We’ll have thought leaders like Fred Wherry from Princeton University and long-time advocates like Daniel Lee from the Levi Strauss Foundation and Elena Chavez Quezada from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund to highlight the good work that’s been done and shift our focus and energy toward building solutions that will endure.

We have to be smart and industrious as we leap forward and build solutions to outlast whatever challenges await. By nurturing partnerships, learning from each other, using technology for good, and sharing sacred stories of resolve and resolutions, we’ll come together with purpose and leave prepared for the next 10 years.

Join the rabble. Take flight with us.