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In the Delta, Building Stronger Financial Futures Through Credit Education

July 12, 2023
Working Credit is helping residents in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, forge a new path to financial security, and even home ownership

When it comes to life in the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, residents with low credit scores, or no credit score at all, see higher prices on everything from purchasing a cell phone and car insurance to the mortgage rate for a new home.

For communities of color in particular, climbing the ladder to economic prosperity has been inhibited by generations of structural barriers. What began with slavery and sharecropping continued with redlining of neighborhoods that prevented Black families from becoming homeowners. High-fee payday loans and check cashers also stepped into the void that traditional banks left in these communities. Today, the median wealth of Black families is one-eighteenth that of a white family.

“Credit can either be the key, or the barrier,” says Morgan Spears, Chief Community Engagement Officer for Working Credit. “My grandfather used to say that it’s expensive to be poor, and that remains true today. The costs associated with predatory lenders and low credit scores oftentimes creates a cycle of debt that becomes nearly impossible for people to get out of.”

Morgan Spears. Working Credit
Morgan Spears of Working Credit

Since 2014, the national nonprofit has assisted strategic partners and individuals to build a more inclusive and equitable credit system. One where everyone has the knowledge and tools needed to achieve their financial dreams.

Working Credit provides credit-building education, one-on-one counseling, and facilitates access to affordable products – like credit-building loans and credit cards – that people need to thrive financially, all free of charge. By the end of 2025, the group estimates it will have provided counseling to more than 8,000 individuals, roughly 75% of whom are able to substantially improve their credit scores. Improved credit not only reduces the cost of everyday expenses, it can help with securing larger purchases like car and student loans, small-business investment and mortgages.

We are going to meet people where they are and offer support.
Susan Simon, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Working Credit

With support from the Walton Family Foundation, Working Credit is now expanding their programming to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Residents of the Delta have some of the lowest credit scores in the nation. The region has the highest proportion of people with no credit score at all.

Pine Bluff housing
Working Credit is helping Black families in the Delta build and maintain wealth by opening pathways to home ownership through improved credit scores and financial literacy. Pictured is a Pine Bluff home renovated as affordable housing.

Building a new generation of prosperity here will take a coalition of community leaders, organizations and institutions working together. The partnership with Working Credit is part of an ongoing effort to support innovative community partners and help Black families in the Delta build and maintain wealth through pathways to home ownership and financial literacy. Both are key first steps to closing the racial wealth gap and ushering in a brighter, more equitable future for the region.

Susan Simon is Working Credit’s director of strategic partnerships. Typically, she says the organization works directly with entities like anchored employers and universities to reach a large swath of people who need help improving their credit. The partnership in Pine Bluff is different.

“This is the first time that we're really able to take a community-wide approach and potentially affect a credit-profile change for a whole population,” she says. “We are going to meet people where they are and offer support.”

Susan Simon. Working Credit
Susan Simon of Working Credit

In Pine Bluff, Susan is engaging with a wide swath of partners and locations to help reach residents. This includes where they shop, seek medical care, work and worship. Partners like the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce have already hosted a number of Credit Health Lunch-and-Learns for the local business community and connected individuals to sign up for one-on-one credit-building counseling sessions.

Jamal Gordon is a management engagement manager at the chamber. “We are not a thriving city yet, but we have the potential to be,” he says. “I’m a small business owner myself, and I understand how access to credit and cash can be a stumbling block to growth. Having this counseling available to our members is so important as we continue to help Pine Bluff reach its potential. Because good credit shows stability. It shows trust.”

She is also reaching out to entities who support Delta residents whose credit challenges are the most significant, like correctional facility re-entry programs, rehab facilities and local shelters.

Helping young people plan for their financial future is another major component of building generational prosperity. “One of the things we hear most often about credit education is, ‘I wish I knew this when I was 18.” Susan is hoping to partner with the local school district and universities, incorporating credit education into campus offerings.

So far, she says that the Pine Bluff community has been incredibly receptive to their outreach.

‘Everybody understands credit. But what most people don’t understand is that – even if you are credit invisible, folks can actually build their credit to as high as a prime score in as little as six months. It’s not only eye-opening, it provides life-changing opportunities for people who thought they would never have those opportunities.”

Owning a home ... is a gateway to opportunity.
Morgan Spears, Chief Community Engagement Officer, Working Credit

Beyond workshops, Working Credit will support Delta residents with individual counseling in-person and virtually. Each participant is matched with trauma-informed, non-judgmental credit counselors who take a full accounting of expenses and provide one-on-one check-ins and guidance on a regular basis.

Morgan says it’s a method that is working across the country to get people on the path to financial stability, and even homeownership. “Owning a home is the largest asset most people will ever have,” she says. “You can tap into it for collateral for other important things, and you can also pass it down to the next generation. It creates a gateway to opportunity.”

In Pine Bluff, overcoming the distrust of a financial system that has long excluded and taken advantage of communities of color will take time and input from the local leaders already on the ground doing this work. “Leveraging the infrastructure that already exists to reach more people is absolutely essential,” says Susan.

When they are reached, she says the impacts are profound. “You can't imagine the difference it makes to someone who has been told they would never buy a home. Once they know this is an opportunity for them, it changes the trajectory for their entire family and how they see themselves in the world.”

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