What Ails American Family Finances?

How Can We Cure What Ails American Family Finances?

Groundbreaking new book takes a hard look at what it means to be financially unhealthy:
offers solutions and a path forward for the nation
WIW book

Cathie Mahon, Federation President and CEO, is a contributor to What It’s Worth: Strengthening the Financial Future of Families, Communities and the Nation. To read her essay, Reestablishing Trust, An Essential First Step for Financial Institutions, order the book at www.strongfinancialfuture.org.

Washington, DC- (December 8, 2015) A majority of Americans today struggle with debt, limited savings, and have little chance of moving up the economic ladder. What can be done to address a problem that has devastating consequences for families, communities and our nation as whole? A new book released today by CFED and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco explores these and other questions, offering both answers and hope.

What It’s Worth: Strengthening the Financial Future of Families, Communities and the Nation includes 40 essays by the nation’s leading experts on economics, financial services, public policy and philanthropy from across a broad range of sectors. It is available at www.strongfinancialfuture.org. Funding for the book was provided to CFED by the Citi Foundation.

Financial well-being effects and is affected by every aspect of a person’s life-what schools they attend, where they live and work, and how healthy they are. According to the book’s authors, opportunities for achieving financial health need to be integrated across all sectors and in all communities.

What It’s Worth highlights innovative approaches already happening in communities across the country, such as the growing use of children’s savings accounts, financial coaching programs aimed at low-income workers and students, and creative workplace strategies that help employees improve their financial health. Regis Mulot, executive vice president of human resources for Staples Inc., describes how the company developed video games to educate employees about financial health and is using the Treasury Department’s new myRA account to help young and part-time workers save. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer discusses how the city implemented a variety of financial empowerment strategies with local partners to give city workers and residents the tools to reach their financial goals.

What It’s Worth is an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the ‘why’ of our work: to empower people to believe in their economic futures and help remove the roadblocks that stand in their way,” said Brandee McHale, president of the Citi Foundation. “To effect that widespread change in the U.S., we must act together, across sectors and promote collaboration towards the financial well-being for all.”

Essays featured in the book explain why connecting financial well-being with jobs, health, housing, and the economy is critical to the country’s economic future. It also describes key trends that are driving poor financial health-including age, education, race and ethnicity-and offers promising solutions from across a broad range of sectors:

Education, Jobs, Housing & Health – Education, and especially higher education, is generally recognized as the surest path to a job with a livable wage, while safe, affordable housing is a key determinant of financial security. “As our recovery from the financial crisis made clear, the American economy is only as resilient as the American household,” writes Sarah Bloom Raskin, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Economy, Politics & the Financial System – Until recently, most American families enjoyed a rising net worth, but this pattern has disappeared. Earnings are peaking earlier while at the same time a changing job culture-including the rise of the “gig economy”-affect financial stability, according to Phillip Longman, policy director and managing editor of New America’s Open Markets Program.

Race, Gender, Age & Place – While demography is not destiny, key drivers of financial health and well-being are race, ethnicity, education and the year a person is born (and enters the workforce). Ray Boshara, director of the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, notes the growing importance of these factors in determining who is a “struggler” and who is a “thriver.” Other essays discuss the growing importance of place and communities in achieving financial health.

Insights into Financial Decision-Making – Income is only one piece of a household’s financial puzzle, note Jennifer Tescher and Rachel Schneider of the Center for Financial Services Innovation. They point to new data sources including their organization’s Consumer Financial Health study and the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Household Economic Decision-Making, which provide a “more complete, nuanced and complex picture of consumers’ financial lives.”

The book also makes clear that everyone does not have the same opportunity to make sound financial choices, noting a common misperception that struggling households mismanage finances. In fact, research shows the opposite-that many families with tight budgets demonstrate high levels of financial discipline. To this point, CFED President Andrea Levere writes that “creating financial health and well-being is not a just matter of changing individual behaviors but also requires changing systems that shape financial opportunities.”

David Erickson, manager of the Center for Community Development Investments at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, echoes that thinking: “Financial well-being for families and communities is a foundation for success on any issue that motivates you-better health, improved education outcomes, more vibrant communities, safer streets, more productive workers, or greater economic mobility. This book tackles the big questions of how we create the products, policies and systems that increase opportunities to be financially healthy. More importantly, it shows that when many sectors work together to improve the lives of low-income families and communities, we are all better off.”

What It’s Worth: Strengthening the Strong Financial Future of Families, Communities and the Nation is the third in a series published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. In December 2014, What Counts: Harnessing Data for America’s Communities, co-published by The Urban Institute with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation explored how to best gather, analyze and use data to improve economic opportunity. A 2012 book-Investing in What Works for America’s Communities-published with the Low Income Investment Fund, focused on the importance of collaboration across sectors and institutions.

CFED empowers low- and moderate-income households to build and preserve assets by advancing policies and programs that help them achieve the American Dream, including buying a home, pursuing higher education, starting a business and saving for the future. As a leading source for data about household financial security and policy solutions, CFED understands what families need to succeed. We promote programs on the ground and invest in social enterprises that create pathways to financial security and opportunity for millions of people. Established in 1979 as the Corporation for Enterprise Development, CFED works nationally and internationally through its offices in Washington, DC; Durham, North Carolina, and San Francisco, California.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, with branch offices in Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Portland, and a cash processing office in Phoenix, provides wholesale banking services to financial institutions throughout the nine western states. As the nation’s central bank, the Federal Reserve System formulates monetary policy, serves as a bank regulator, administers certain consumer protection laws, and is fiscal agent for the U.S. government. Follow us on Twitter at @sffed.

The Citi Foundation works to promote economic progress and improve the lives of people in low-income communities around the world. We invest in efforts that increase financial inclusion, catalyze job opportunities for youth, and reimagine approaches to building economically vibrant cities. The Citi Foundation’s “More than Philanthropy” approach leverages the enormous expertise of Citi and its people to fulfill our mission and drive thought leadership and innovation. For more information, visit www.citifoundation.com.


  • Laura Choi, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
  • David Erickson, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
  • Kate Griffen, CFED
  • Andrea Levere, CFED
  • Ellen Seidman, The Urban Institute

The Importance of Asset Building for Low- and Middle-Income Households

  • Janet Yellen, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System


  • Andrea Levere and Leigh Tivol, CFED
  • Ray Boshara, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
  • Jennifer Tescher and Rachel Schneider, Center for Financial Services Innovation

The Economy, the Financial Services System and Community

  • Jared Bernstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  • Phil English, Arent Fox LLP, Jeremie Greer, CFED
  • Cathie Mahon, National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions
  • Raj Date, Fenway Summer LLC
  • Angela Glover Blackwell, PolicyLink
  • Rick Lazio, Jones Walker LLP
  • Paul Weech, NeighborWorks America

Employment and Business

  • Michael Rubinger, Local Initiatives Support Corporation
  • Regis Mulot, Staples Inc.
  • Janie Barrera, LiftFund

Health and Social Services

  • Greg Fischer, City of LouisvilleJason Q. Purnell, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Rita Landgraf, Delaware Department of Health and Social Services
  • J. Michael Collins, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Vivian Nixon, College and Community Fellowship
  • Susan Sturm, Columbia Law School and Center for Institutional and Social Change
  • Reggie Bicha and Keri Batchelder, Colorado Department of Human Services


  • Sarah Bloom Raskin, United States Department of the Treasury
  • Martha Kanter, New York University
  • Regina Stanback Stroud, Skyline College


  • Phillip Longman, New AmericaDedrick Asante-Muhammad, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • José A. Quiñonez, Mission Asset Fund
  • Elsie M Meeks, Lakota Funds
  • Lisa Hasegawa and Jane Duong, National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development
  • Heidi I. Hartmann, Institute for Women’s Policy Research
  • Elizabeth Odders-White and Charles Kalish, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Ted Beck, National Endowment for Financial Education


  • Ellen Seidman, The Urban Institute
  • Brandee McHale, Citi FoundationAsheesh Advani, Junior Achievement Worldwide
  • Michael Sherraden and Margaret Sherraden, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Laura Choi and David Erickson, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
  • Robert Friedman, CFED

For more information about What It’s Worth, contact:
Sara Knoll, sknoll@burness.com, 301-280-5709
Amy Saltzman, asaltzman@thehatchergroup.com, 301-656-0348


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