• An Examination of the Effectiveness of Community-Based Organizations in Helping Low-Income Individuals Improve Their Use of Credit and Credit Scores as Part of a Wealth-Building Strategy

      Elesh, David; Kaufman, Robert L.; Levine, Judith Adrienne, 1965-; Stahler, Gerald (Temple University. Libraries, 2016)
      In the U.S., wealth is unequally distributed across racial and income groups. Scholars have promoted numerous strategies to address inequalities in wealth, but evidence about their effectiveness is limited. This dissertation examines whether community-based organizations can help low-income individuals improve their credit usage and credit scores as part of a strategy to help them build their wealth. Credit histories and scores influence access to affordable loans and other forms of credit as well as employment and housing opportunities, insurance rates, and utility and rental deposits. As a result, credit plays an important role in individuals’ ability to weather financial crises, increase savings, and build wealth. Specifically, I assess the impacts and implementation of a program model that integrates financial education and counseling into employment services for low-income job seekers. The study uses a comparison group design to assess program impacts, comparing the outcomes of program participants to those of a matched group of low-income individuals who were seeking assistance from public employment agencies that did not offer financial or credit counseling. I use multivariate regression analysis to assess differences in the outcomes of program participants and comparison group members and to examine whether some organizations were more effective than others in helping participants achieve the outcomes. I also conduct a qualitative assessment of the organizational, programmatic, and contextual factors that influenced program implementation and outcomes across the five organizations in the study. I found that community-based organizations can help low-income individuals make progress in building positive credit histories. By combining financial education and counseling with employment services, the programs increased job seekers’ receipt of financial counseling relative to the comparison group, and program participants were more likely than comparison group members to have an increase in positive activity on their credit reports two years after entering the program. However, overall the program did not increase the likelihood that participants had a credit score or that they had a prime score after two years. Only program participants who had substantial recent credit activity when they entered the program were more likely than their counterparts in the comparison group to have a prime credit score after two years. Some organizations were more effective than others in helping low-income individuals achieve the targeted credit outcomes. Four of the five had impacts on whether participants had positive activity on their credit reports. One organization also had positive impacts on the likelihood of having a credit score and of having a prime score among all individuals who received financial counseling while two others had positive impacts on scores for subgroups of participants. One organization had no positive effects. The implementation analysis revealed that environmental, organizational, and programmatic factors interacted to produce differences in outcomes across organizations. Organizational and managerial experience with and commitment to the model and goals and integration of the model into the organizations’ core services were critical to effective implementation. The three organizations whose financial coaches embraced the model’s credit-building approach, which counsels individuals to use credit responsibly, had more positive impacts on credit outcomes than those that did not. The results also provide evidence that the characteristics of the communities the organizations served influenced outcomes. Communities’ racial composition was correlated with indicators of economic health, the presence of financial institutions, and credit availability, and the findings indicate that individuals in mixed race and majority-Hispanic communities were better able to access credit than those in majority-Black communities. This dissertation contributes to the policy and research literature in a number of ways. It uses a rigorous methodology to assess program effects, examines change in credit behavior and outcomes, assesses how implementation processes influence outcomes, and includes a broader segment of the low-income population than past studies, including those who lack credit histories. The findings provide evidence that low-income people of color face significant barriers to accessing mainstream forms of credit and suggest that policies are needed to increase consumers’ understanding of credit and access to credit at affordable rates and terms. The findings contribute to research and theory on the wealth accumulation process and can inform the work of policymakers and practitioners seeking to increase the financial well-being of low-income people of color.