The Hager Educational Foundation: Empowering Citizens To Make Better Communities
The Hager Educational Foundation (HEF) is a 25-year-old family foundation created by Lawrence W. Hager Jr., retired co-publisher of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. HEF’s mission of helping the community improve opportunities for economically disadvantaged children is a continuation of a 100-year family legacy of philanthropy. Upon the foundation’s creation, Hager noted that HEF’s resources were not large; its annual revenue would not equal two percent of one percent of what was already being directed to children’s services. HEF’s response has been to expand its resources by partnering with other organizations, to facilitate increased collaboration among our community’s public and private nonprofit agencies, and encourage all citizens to be actors in the work of building a better community. HEF’s support of public deliberation as an important dimension of community building and its promotion of asset-building as a strategy for fostering financial self-sufficiency are reflective of this focus. Some examples follow.
HEF’s long-standing practice of advocacy for increased support of policies and programs that contribute to the healthy development of children was expanded through its participation in a Kettering Foundation community politics workshop series. Kettering’s research on public deliberation, issue framing and the importance of engaging disparate groups of citizens in civil, deliberative conversation broadened HEF’s view of traditional advocacy as the only way to facilitate needed community change.
A public forum under the leadership of the Public Life Foundation of Owensboro (PLFO) and co-sponsored by 12 other community organizations—“The Challenged American Family: What Should We Do?”—was held in July 2015. It reflected HEF’s efforts to engage citizens in addressing a complex, intractable community problem that seems to defy solution. The structure of the American family has changed significantly since 1965 and growing numbers of families are struggling to care for and educate their children to become responsible, productive adults. Today, Americans are delaying marriage; the average age of a bride in the 50s was 20; by 2010, it was 26. And many skip marriage but not parenthood. Today, the percentage of children born outside of marriage stands at 41 percent, up from just five percent in 1960. Children in single-parent households are much more likely to live in poverty. They are less likely to be healthy, succeed in school and become productive adults. According to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts, 41 percent of all children born in the bottom 20 percent of household incomes will remain there throughout their lives.
This is an issue befitting public deliberation because:
- it is of broad concern to the community;
- there is disagreement on the cause of the problem, or the cause is not clear;
- while there is no definitive single solution to the problem, a decision should be made about what may be done;
- every solution involves trade-offs or downsides about things held valuable;
- the problem is intractable, ongoing or systemic;
- people will face moral disagreements in deliberating the issue; and
- any solution will take multiple actions (i.e., community groups, individuals and government).
As an alternative to the typical right/wrong debate, the framework for a public deliberative discussion about this issue in the PLFO community dialogue included three choices for responding: 1) Reinforce time-tested values; 2) Promote personal responsibility; 3) Expand societal responsibility.
Each choice offered a compelling and distinctly different case for addressing this issue; most participants found some elements in each choice appealing. Participants often struggled with consequences/trade-offs to the actions suggested in each choice, which sometimes conflicted with their deeply held values.
Our public deliberative community dialogue produced these outcomes; participants were able to:
- see the interconnectedness of a complex issue;
- increase their understanding and respect for differing viewpoints;
- see the issue in less ideological terms; and
- more likely see themselves as actors in addressing the issue.
These outcomes will undergird the sustained civic engagement necessary for effectively addressing this issue in our community. Public deliberation is not a panacea or quick fix for responding to every community problem; however, it will continue to be a key component in Owensboro’s community development strategy.
HEF’s focus on asset-building as a strategy for fostering financial self-sufficiency began in May 2004 when it convened the initial planning meeting of nonprofit agencies and financial institutions that led to the creation of the Green River Asset-Building Coalition (GRABC). This experience broadened HEF’s historical—and almost exclusive—focus on income as the primary indicator of financial well-being to encompass the family balance sheet (what a family saves, owns and owes). Owensboro’s community development strategy to help people increase their income is focused on recruiting new businesses, helping existing ones grow, supporting entrepreneurs and increasing the education and skill level of its citizens. It is a sound strategy led by outstanding professionals, but it should be supplemented with asset-building strategies that can foster financial self-sufficiency.
GRABC’s mission of helping working low- and moderate-income (LMI) families achieve financial self-sufficiency is focused in three areas:
- Promoting increased awareness and utilization of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
- Providing free income tax preparation services for working LMI families
- Promoting those policies and practices that facilitate the accumulation of assets needed to become financially self-sufficient
Over the past 11 years, GRABC’s 140 IRS-trained and -certified volunteer tax preparers have filed more than 29,000 tax returns, generating over $32 million in tax refunds for working LMI families in the Green River service area. A conservative estimate of the aggregate savings for tax filers is nearly $4.5 million. On a per capita basis, GRABC is one of the nation’s most productive free tax-preparation coalitions.
The third component of GRABC’s mission—helping families accumulate the assets needed to become financially self-sufficient—is its most important, and by far the most challenging. It is a heavy lift and the real hard stuff of community change. However, several organizations (the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, New America Foundation, Corporation for Enterprise Development and Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis) have documented an array of promising programs and policies that can help families accumulate the assets needed for financial independence. In addition, research from the Center for Financial Services Innovation has identified the attributes of financial education programming that contribute to financially capable decision-making.
GRABC’s 11-year history, combined with what research about asset-building has confirmed, should serve as an impetus for elevating the coalition to a higher place on our community’s agenda. GRABC will continue to support increased community awareness about the virtues of thrift and the importance of flexible savings (at tax time) that all families need. The multiple benefits of beginning to save early are well established. GRABC will continue to encourage the implementation of a community-wide children’s savings account (CSA) initiative in addition to increasing the number of individuals with individual development accounts (IDAs). The myRA (my Retirement Account) product recently introduced by the U.S. Treasury is a great addition to the field of asset-building; plans are underway to promote its positive attributes to our business community.
GRABC’s focus on asset-building is appealing to a wide array of citizens. Its 140 volunteer income tax preparers come from across the social, political and theological spectrum. In an age of increasing divisiveness, enabling disparate groups of people to work together to help their fellow citizens become more financially self-sufficient is worthy of celebration.
HEF’s focus on public deliberation and asset-building is based on the premise that progress requires both individual and collective action from all segments of our community. At their core, both have a belief that individuals, with the right opportunities and incentives, can improve economically, and that through public deliberative discussion of appropriately named and framed issues, citizens from all walks of life can transcend their differences to work on problem-solving as opposed to polarizing debate.
Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.
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