With the nationwide factory closings in 1981, I found myself working any job that would allow me to support my family. Starting out with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in hand and 13 years of manufacturing experience under my belt, I never could have imagined the route I would take in life.
I have been an industrial worker, a taxi-cab driver, a waiter, a bartender, a home repairman and an auto salesman. I learned that the harder you have to work, the harder it is to get ahead – and the easier it is to get behind. There’s not a lot of help for working people. We have to work harder to help them help advance themselves, their families and communities.
My situation was not uncommon 36 years ago – and it’s not uncommon today. It’s too common. Living paycheck to paycheck and doing whatever it takes to get by is a routine part of life for many families in Baltimore and across the country.
Many working families live in financial deserts – communities where money is scarce, and moves slowly and at great cost in the form of cash. This significant lack of financial resources makes life and getting ahead even harder.
Fortunately, Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy (MSU SCHP) recently conducted a study that seeks a better shared understanding of these communities and potential ways that they can moderate the severity of the challenges they face. It is clear that the impacted populations must be involved in working toward solutions to help elevate themselves.
Working with the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the community empowerment program Master Your Card, the MSU SCHP study included community forums to gain the on-the-ground perspective of those living within financial deserts across Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore.
According to the study, to find solutions for financial desert communities, we need to understand their systems of survival and work within their unique culture. Because those living in financial deserts often find nontraditional ways to meet their financial needs and to access their money, outsiders don’t always recognize the successes and the struggles of these communities. In this way, financial deserts are much like traditional deserts. From the outside, both appear barren and lifeless. But if one looks closer, there is vitality and life.
The research shows that those living in financial deserts are hardworking, resourceful, resilient and tenacious in navigating their lives and finances. While a physical lack of access to financial resources, such as distance from a bank, can play a role, so do the individual’s past experiences with financial institutions and their sense of confidence, vulnerability and trust in such institutions.
Without access to bank branches and physical bank accounts, the nontraditional form of life pulsing through financial deserts is alternative financial services. Among U.S. households without bank accounts, more than 57 percent rely on services like check cashers and payday lenders. These services, while heavily used, are often not in the best interest of families already struggling to get by. In fact, the average financially underserved family spends nearly 10 percent of their income on these services.
Fortunately, some methods already exist to assist these families in pivoting away from costly and inefficient financial services. Electronic payment technology, especially prepaid and payroll cards that don’t require traditional relationships with banks, can help these families to access their money quickly without spending their hard-earned paychecks in the process.
But these financial tools themselves are only part of the battle. The MSU SCHP study reveals that we also need consistent and protracted educational outreach tailored to each unique community. It’s vital that we work with trusted community partners who understand the challenges faced by their communities and have built the relationships to effectively communicate the benefits of electronic payment technology and other money-saving techniques.
Taking on multiple jobs in order to provide for my family showed me that there are many paths for us in life. Though different than what I planned for, the trajectory I charted has enabled me to find my passion in the fight for economic and social justice for working families. That is why I am proud to serve as president of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO and as a member of the Master Your Card African American Advisory Board.
In the same way that I found an alternative course when I reached one of life’s roadblocks, there are many routes available to families living in financial deserts. Electronic payment technology has opened the possibility of a new route – one that arms families with the tools that can help boost their financial well-being.
It’s time to come together and – from the ground up – help empower these families in Baltimore, the Eastern Shore and across the country. With the right tools and education, our communities can take steps toward brighter futures.
Fred Douglas Mason, Jr., a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 8018 with over 40 years of labor and social justice activism, was elected President of the Maryland State and District of Columbia, AFL-CIO in October of 2001.