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American Voices: Mae Watson Grote

Poverty in America is at a 52-year-high with 46.2 million people in poverty, according to income thresholds used in the 2010 national census.

This week’s American Voices is from Mae Watson Grote, founder and executive director of the New York-based non-profit “The Financial Clinic,” who is trying to inspire change on a local level by helping some of our nation’s most economically disadvantaged build financial security.

The Financial Clinic’s mission is to improve the financial security of working poor people. The genesis was, really, around the major demographic shifts that were happening in the country at the time.

Where you had hundreds of thousands of people who were in welfare reform shifting to a booming economy, but one that was, really, expanding in the service sector so that the jobs that were available were, basically, lower paying jobs.

So hundreds of thousands of people moving from welfare poverty to, basically, working poverty. Two thirds of our customers come to us with debt or credit problems…They don’t know where to start… and they don’t know– how to be able to…make ends meet. And so our financial coaches will sit down and, basically, will map out…what their situation looks like, how much income they have coming in…how much more income can be brought into the household.

Then, we will map out, basically, a trajectory– that helps navigate those initial pitfalls.  Helps them make the decisions that they need to be making, so that they can reach– a one year goal or maybe, even, a two year goal.

Generally speaking, people really do have a sense of– what’s a luxury item or– and what’s a necessity…a customer that– that  I served, …I remember very clearly that she … spent, maybe– $35-$40 every week on getting her nails done. And that, of course, wasn’t something that our financial coaches would advise someone not to do– because she knew that already… but …needed someone to facilitate seeing those day to day decisions in context of her longer term financial goal.

So, with that, she was able to immediately cut that out. And, then, came back … to name five other things that she had cut out of her budget… what we’re doing is leveraging what we’re learning on the ground for systemic change. We believe that…the research– and the anecdotes, and the customers that The Financial Clinic has access to– can help contribute to– a larger– national discourse on what it means to be working poor.