At a time when many people in Central Iowa are facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Polk County has launched a new initiative aimed at significantly increasing the availability of free financial counseling for Polk County residents.

The Financial Empowerment Center program — which has been two years in the making — is an initiative designed to ramp up the training and delivery of financial counseling as an embedded service for Polk County residents, said Deidre DeJear, program manager of the Financial Empowerment Center at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families. The center, working with Des Moines Area Community College, is the program provider for the initiative. 

“Supplemental services, whether it’s around housing, food assistance or rent and utilities assistance, are tremendous assets to the individual,” DeJear said. “But I think the cherry on top is empowering individuals to take control of their personal financial situation by actually analyzing it with a coach.” 

Through the services of the Polk County Financial Empowerment Center, professionally trained financial coaches will help individuals and families manage finances, pay down debt, increase savings, establish and build credit, and access safe and affordable mainstream banking products.  

The center follows a successful model that was developed by the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. The New York City-based nonprofit has helped to seed 17 such centers across the country to date, most of them in much larger metropolitan areas than Des Moines. 

Polk County’s involvement in the CFE program began in 2018, when the county was selected along with eight other municipalities across the country to receive a $20,000 planning grant. The Polk County Board of Supervisors, together with several community organizations, provided $150,000 in initial funding to match a grant of $150,000 from the CFE Fund to kick-start the program. 

In December, the Davis Center was the winning bidder in a request for proposals issued by Polk County. Des Moines Area Community College, which houses the Davis Center on the DMACC Urban Campus downtown, is the actual nonprofit contract holder with the county. 

“The Evelyn K. Davis Center came out as the clear choice just based on the amount of experience they have with doing financial coaching and interacting with low-income families and the underserved,” said Sarah Boese, director of community relations for Polk County.  

The center began scheduling remote telephonic and videoconference appointments in March under the Polk County Financial Empowerment Center banner. When social distancing restrictions are lifted, the center will resume in-person coaching sessions. 

One of the unique aspects of the Davis Center is the wraparound services that it provides clients in addition to financial education, DeJear said. 

“Also, its ties to Des Moines Area Community College and its access to thousands of students each and every day [as potential clients is a benefit],” she said. “The relationship that DMACC has with the county is very strong. I think that makes for a very seamless relationship in this process to make sure that people are getting served.” 

The CFE Fund support includes not just dollars, but training, DeJear said. “I would say that this project has given us an opportunity to [raise] our service provision in a way that connects us with more training and experience than we have ever had before,” she said. “It has also given us the opportunity to connect with more partners than we have ever had before.” 

Next year, the CFE Fund will provide an additional $100,000 in funding for the program, which Polk County and community organizations will be required to match with an additional $200,000 in funding. In 2022, it’s up to Polk County and its partners to continue providing the program without CFE support. 

Each member of the Polk County Board of Supervisors is deeply committed to the project and to supporting its growth on a long-term basis, said Matt McCoy, who currently serves as the board’s chairman.  

“We think [its growth] will be organic, and as needs grow as people are referred to the program, we will adjust it,” McCoy said. “But honestly, I don’t think we’re setting up something that’s going to be a one-and-done model — it’s very much a startup. ... We’ll move into and expand on it based on the needs of the community and the referrals that come in. … Ultimately, we want this to be a long-term, permanent solution for families that need help with their financial house.” 

DeJear said she believes the enhanced Financial Empowerment Center will boost support for the Evelyn K. Davis Center. 

“We’re continuously fundraising, and I think the CFE program will really show people how important our financial education service is and will help in our fundraising efforts,” she said. 

“There is always going to be a strong effort around raising money for this, because this is a service that has not always been prioritized.” 

An important aspect of DMACC’s support of the program includes providing the center’s space to the Evelyn K. Davis Center on the DMACC Urban Campus at no cost. “They’re giving us a great deal of support, which takes the pressure off of our budget, and that’s tremendously helpful,” she said. “That means that we can put more money into getting more coaches in the future.” 

Since joining the CFE program, the Davis Center has added three financial coaches to the staff; there was previously just one financial coach. The current combined caseload of the four financial coaches is about 600 people a year, which will rise with the embedding of the services with Polk County and DMACC, DeJear said.  

“Prior to COVID-19, people weren’t necessarily busting down the doors for financial education,” she said. “In the grand scheme of things, people’s priorities were more about how to earn money, rather than on figuring out how they’re going to spend it. So we’re going to help people keep those priorities at the same level of significance.”


ISU Extension provides financial counselor assistance during pandemic  

To assist the new Polk County Financial Empowerment Center with handling additional workload demands during the pandemic, Iowa State University Extension has provided four members of its staff to offer financial coaching to small business owners and individuals. 

“There are certain consumer protections that are available to individuals that they may not know about,” Polk County FEC Project Manager Deidre DeJear said. “That’s why it takes a strong village right now to make sure we’re giving people access to these services.” 

ISU Extension counselors will be providing training for Davis Center coaches as well as providing coaching themselves, DeJear said. 

“They will do some training for some of our partners who are trying to help people with their finances as well. There are a great deal of organizations in our community that work with non-English-speaking populations, so they will be working with those groups to give them more specific training.” 

Another focus of ISU Extension’s financial counselors will be working with small business owners, particularly sole proprietors, to help them develop survival plans for keeping their businesses afloat during the current public health emergency.  

“The Extension has been a partner with us before, so they’re just digging in a little deeper to find more resources they can offer to help during this time,” DeJear said. “But they’re also looking at this globally, to figure out ways to get to more people after this [pandemic] is over. We’re really grateful to them for their help in this process — it’s a tremendous value add.”


Centers replicate successful model that began in New York City 

The financial sustainability of the centers themselves is a critical goal for each of the Financial Empowerment Centers as they continue to be rolled out, says a leader of the national initiative. 

The Cities for Financial Empowerment concept was piloted in New York City under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008. In 2013, the CFE Fund awarded its first grants to replicate the model in five cities — Denver; Lansing, Mich.; Nashville, Tenn.; Philadelphia and San Antonio — through a $16.2 million, three-year investment by Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

“The idea is to really help residents address financial challenges, looking at short-term, medium-term and long-term needs,” said Tamara Lindsay, a principal with the CFE Fund in New York City who oversees the Financial Empowerment Center initiative. Lindsay previously was the director of programs at the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs Office of Financial Empowerment. 

Currently, there are 17 Financial Empowerment Centers that are operational across the country, while 13 additional centers are in various stages of development, Lindsay said. Polk County was part of a cohort that entered into the planning phase in 2018. 

As noted in a 2017 evaluation of the program by Cities for Financial Empowerment: “The FEC counseling model centers on building rapport, prioritizing the clients’ own goals, and encouraging clients to return for follow-up sessions both to continue working toward their goals and to report on their progress. The cities and nonprofit providers built networks of partner agencies, initially casting a wide net to recruit and refer people from a variety of places who faced financial instability.” 

Collectively, the FECs across the country have worked with over 104,000 clients, helping them reduce individual debt by over $146 million, and increasing their families’ savings by close to $22 million, according to data reported by each of the centers. 

Notably, the oldest five centers that followed New York in 2013 are still in operation, Lindsay said. 

“What’s really important is that city and county governments recognize the value of having this service in their community,” she said. “During this crisis of COVID-19, it’s more critical than ever for local governments to offer this. We are seeing many cities that are highlighting these centers as part of their COVID relief strategies.”  

Individuals and families interested in setting up an appointment are encouraged to contact the Evelyn K. Davis Center at 515-697-7700 or schedule an appointment online at www.Empowermoney.org.