Polk County will develop a program to offer free one-on-one financial planning for low-income families, as part of an expanding initiative that has helped thousands of families across the country slash debt and begin saving for the first time. 

In mid-October, Polk County was selected for a $20,000 planning grant as part of the Cities for Financial Empowerment program. Polk County is one of nine local governments across the country — among them Atlanta, Rochester, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. — that were selected for the program. 

The grant kicks off a nine-month planning process, to be followed by two additional grants of $50,000 and $100,000 — each requiring a local match — to get the program going, Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly said.

“Right now the county offers case management, but it’s not one-on-one financial counseling,” Connolly said. “It will be really beefing up the program that our counselors use.” 

The goal of the program is to embed financial counseling — a service not traditionally offered by municipalities — within city and county governments nationwide. 

The concept was piloted in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008. In 2013, the CFE Fund awarded its first grants to replicate the model in five cities through a $16.2 million, three-year investment by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The CFE Fund, along with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Wells Fargo, the JPB Foundation, JPMorgan Chase and Capital One, is now working to expand the Financial Empower Center  (FEC) model to as many as 50 local governments across the country. 

The 18 existing centers have collectively worked with more than 82,000 clients, helping them to reduce individual debt by more than $100 million, and increased their families’ savings by more than $10 million. 

At each center, professionally trained FEC counselors help individuals and families with low and moderate incomes manage their finances, pay down debt, increase savings, establish and build credit, and access safe and affordable mainstream banking products. The model integrates the financial counseling with other social services such as housing and foreclosure prevention, workforce development, prisoner reentry, benefits access and domestic violence services. 

The CFE Fund will provide technical expertise to Polk County through the entire planning and implementation process, Connolly said. “They’ll walk us through best practices they’ve seen in other cities.” 

In each of the cities that have taken on the program so far, city government leaders managed the initiative, contracting with a primary nonprofit partner, or sometimes multiple partners, to deliver counseling services. Counseling efforts and results are tracked on four dimensions — banking, credit, debt and savings. On average, participants who have sought financial counseling had annual incomes of just over $21,000, and faced disproportionally high housing costs and low savings. 
Part of the process will be tracking results that Polk County experiences to gauge the program’s effectiveness. 

“I think that once you empower people, we’ll be able to show that this really works,” Connolly said. By enabling people to reduce their debt, “maybe they can have one job rather than two or three. Hopefully we’ll be able to provide that data within the first couple of years. There’s no reason that we can’t sustain it.”
Connolly expects the first planning meeting will be scheduled within the next 30 days, with the formation of an advisory committee being among the first steps. CFE officials will visit sometime early next year. 

She acknowledged “a tough road ahead” in getting the program going, similar to what Polk County faced when it first began addressing the issue of hunger. 
“When we started doing Hunger Free Polk County, it took a lot of work to find out who was doing what and how all the pieces would fit together,” she said. “In the same way, witthis program we’re going to find out where the gaps are and come up with a plan.”