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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.