Rick Kahler: Helping the poor

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

September 14, 2015

Helping people work their way out of poverty isnít just about money. It requires addressing the beliefs and culture around money that may be keeping people stuck financially and emotionally.

Like many of my financial planning colleagues, I have an interest in finding effective ways to help middle- and low-income people increase their financial health. One method Iíve used from time to time is teaching community classes.

Iíve offered classes on basic financial skills like managing money or the fundamentals of investing. Iíve also tried offering classes focused on money scripts ó peopleís basic, and sometimes fallacious, beliefs on the subject ó or other aspects of money psychology. Guess which classes fill and which ones donít?

No matter what their income level, people tend to shy away from looking at the relationship between money and emotions. There seems to be a widespread money script of: "More financial knowledge is all I need in order to have more money." Yet Iíve seen time and time again over the years that this simply is not true.

Helping low-income people increase their financial literacy is a start, but it isnít enough. This was confirmed for me recently, at the annual Financial Therapy Association meeting, when I heard a talk that Louis Barajas gave. A noted author and expert on giving financial advice to lower-income people, he said, "All the financial literacy in the world is not going to help the poor."

Born into a poor family in East Los Angeles, Louis managed to become the first Hispanic certified financial planner in the U.S. and pull himself out of poverty. After a successful career, he returned to his childhood community to live his passion of helping his community transcend poverty. It turned out to be far more challenging than he ever dreamed.

As Louis said in his talk, he discovered that, "Most people in poverty are unaware that their cultural beliefs hold them back." He described some of those beliefs, which I call money scripts. A few of them are:

óA sense of fatalism, that "this is just how things will be."

óAn assumption that working for someone else is the only option.

óA group dynamic where anyone who reaches for too much success is pulled back down into the communityís financial comfort zone.

óA victim mentality of blaming and feeling powerless to change.

óRelying for financial advice on the wealthiest or most successful person in the neighborhood, without the knowledge to evaluate the validity of that advice.

Barajas has found that telling someone about a better way doesnít work. He had to find how to expose them to it. As he said, "If you donít see a brighter future, you wonít plan." But even before that, people need help to take care of their urgent needs first before they can even consider that a future exists.

Hearing Barajasís talk only confirmed for me how important it is to consider peopleís beliefs and emotions about money. This is essential knowledge for financial advisors, debt counselors, social workers, volunteers and anyone working to help people get out of poverty. More money or more knowledge about money is simply not enough to help people who seem stuck in poverty or in a repeated pattern of financial missteps.

The easiest way to advise people who are struggling financially is to focus on the mechanics of managing money. Yet anyone who really wants to help people make lasting changes in their money behavior needs to find ways to help them look deeper. Ironically, the need to look beyond the money to build financial health is one important thing the poor and the wealthy have in common.



Rick Kahler is president of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D. He writes for AdviceIQ, which delivers quality personal finance articles by both financial advisors and AdviceIQ editors.