Aaron Bode is a junior at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently pursuing majors in Economics and Applied Mathematics, and will be spending the 2015-2016 academic year studying at New College at the University of Oxford. He currently serves as the Vice President of Human Asset Management for the Jubilee Initiative for Financial Inclusion (JIFFI), a student-run social enterprise that promotes economic prosperity in South Bend, Indiana through sustainable and equitable credit solutions that replace payday loans.
If I begin to talk about someone experiencing poverty, whom do you imagine in your mind?
In the U.S. we want to believe that the “American Dream” is accessible to everyone, and that anyone who works hard can achieve at least a middle class lifestyle. Thus, people tend to associate poverty with a kind of personal failure. This flawed thinking has been analyzed elsewhere (for example, check out former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All“), but the relevance of it to this particular blog post is how stereotypical views of those in poverty impact client interactions in and outside the microlending process.
One of the great challenges working with JIFFI is to connect with individuals by meeting them “where they are in life.” To truly serve clients to the best of our abilities, it takes understanding and accurate characterizations of the lives of those experiencing poverty. This can only come from a) context and b) time spent meeting with each individual client.
Imagine hearing about a client without having access to either of these components. Allow me to describe one of our clients – “Sarah” – minus the benefit of context or narrative:
Sarah is a client I met with in June of 2014. She is a mother of six who lives in a trailer park in a town outside of South Bend, Indiana. Sarah’s car was completely totaled earlier that week, and she came to JIFFI looking for a down payment for a new vehicle. She is disabled and had not worked at a regular job in over a year. Her benefits were expiring in the coming months as well. Sarah was hoping for a “same-day loan,” a very rarely-considered proposal.
Who are you imagining Sarah is right now? I’m sure at this point, any underwriting team’s attitude towards Sarah is one of skepticism. As a reader, you are probably cautious of a loan, as well; Sarah sounds like someone who will struggle to make repayments, and your intuition may even have you questioning her responsibility.
Now let’s try to re-imagine Sarah with the full picture.
Where is Sarah coming from? JIFFI serves the greater South Bend community, where some progress is being made in the fight for financial inclusion. But many citizens still lack access to fair credit and the tools needed to navigate the complex financial world. Our client base primarily comes from this segment of the community: underbanked individuals who are looking for help as they recover and/or build from their situation. Our clients come to us already striving for a better financial state, and want to use every opportunity they can to improve their lives. Before we even hear their unique stories, we know our clients possess zeal and determination.
What did I learn about Sarah’s personal situation after spending two hours with her? Sarah’s children attend and have graduated from schools such as Indiana University, Valparaiso University, and Bluffton University. Sarah’s car was completely totaled earlier in the week while her daughter was driving. After making doctor’s visits and talking with the insurance agency, she came to JIFFI looking for a down payment for a “new” car (i.e. a used vehicle in good condition that she could afford). She had already spoken to two dealerships, and was in contact with a trusted mechanic to ensure that the vehicle she would purchase would be fairly priced and of solid quality.
Sarah experienced PTSD at a former job, and had to take time off to recover and address her mental, emotional, and physical health. Sarah worked two separate three-month jobs as a way to prepare herself for returning to the workforce full-time, and she is starting a new job working as skilled labor. She even planned ahead for expiring benefits, and has been setting aside money each month for emergencies.
Why did Sarah want a same-day loan? Because the next day she was driving to her daughter’s college orientation in Ohio.
Indubitably, your perception and understanding of Sarah and her situation has changed. Sarah was absolutely wonderful to meet and work with, not just as a client, but also as an individual. Its telling that I could only encounter Sarah’s resilience, earnestness, and nurturing attitude after considering her background and spending extended time meeting with her.
Client interaction is at the heart of JIFFI’s mission – “To enable our clients to unlock their full potential through affordable credit solutions, financial empowerment programs, and supportive relationships” – and it is through our connections with clients that JIFFI can contribute to a better understanding of who the people experiencing poverty in our community are. I hope outstanding individuals such as Sarah can transform our responses to my “initial question” in this post, and affirm the excellence of all clients and all individuals in not only South Bend, but all communities.
Irish Impact is proud to work with JIFFI and what they do. Let us know what you think of what they’re doing in the comments below!