Last week, my colleague, Eric Tyler, and I participated in the MyMoneyAppUp Challenge hosted by the US Treasury, D2D, and CFSI. The Challenge encouraged ordinary citizens to come up with an idea for an app that would improve the financial capability of Americans. Eight creative ideas made the finals of the Challenge. The winning idea was Centz, an app that would allow students to better manage their higher education loans. I’m pleased to say that our idea -- MOOLAH, a financial management app customized for the needs of lower-income consumers -- was a runner-up.
The MOOLAH (Make Opportunities Open by Leveraging Assets Here) app concept is based upon work I’ve been doing with the Administration for Children and Families, the Capitol Area Asset Builders, Healthy Families/Thriving Communities, and the Latino Economic Development Center to integrate financial empowerment and asset building opportunities into social services available in DC. It’s the beginning of a vision for how initiatives started by the federal government, such as the White House’s commitment to promote financial empowerment across the country, the Smart Disclosures and Open Government National Action Plan, and the Administration for Children and Families’ ASSETS initiative, can be combined with state social programs, on the ground financial access programs like Bank On, and research on consumer financial behaviors to create a tool that can make the complicated financial decisions low-income families face, easier. We’ve got a lot more research and development work to do to make MOOLAH a reality, but for now you can read more about the app and see our MyMoneyAppUp presentation for MOOLAH here.
During the Challenge Q&A, the judges asked a lot of great questions. One question I wish I could go back in time to address was posed by Jean Chatsky. She asked if we knew what the benefits take-up rate is. I did not have specific numbers at the time because the answer is quite complicated given the wide variety of programs out there, eligibility requirements (by programs and by states), and reasons why people may or may not be signing up for public benefits. Some programs, like SNAP (aka “food stamps”) have recently improved take-up rates to about 90%, while others, like TANF (aka “welfare”) are at a possibly historic low of 36%.
While improving take-up rates for social programs is undeniably an issue to address, what I should have pointed out at the time is that MOOLAH’s primary purpose is to help make financial decisions easier for lower-income families rather than merely getting connected to benefits. So what do I mean by that?
The financial lives of low-income families are hard. People live on tight margins with most of their income going toward basic necessities, such as food and rent/housing, and experience variability in income and hardship expenses (see more citations in the MOOLAH app design submission). On top of the general problem that making ends meet is hard when incomes are limited, safe, low-cost financial services and financial tools like financial advising are not traditionally accessible to low-income families and well-intended public benefits and social welfare programs can be so complicated that the rules and miscommunications of the rules may impede the full impact of the programs. For example, the largest inflow of cash for a low-income family most likely comes from the EITC tax credit which comes once a year and requires diligent planning and incredible foresight to maximize its financially stabilizing benefits; earning additional income by taking on a new job may cause a reduction in benefits greater than the income from working; and limitations on the amount of savings a family can have to receive public assistance discourages low-income families from saving. Recognizing that it will take a long time to make the policy changes to simplify rules in public benefits system, MOOLAH seeks to make that planning ahead easier for someone that’s utilizing public benefits and community services as part of their financial portfolio.
So, for me – MOOLAH is an essential tool that needs to be developed to help make financial decisions easier when there’s not a lot of slack. We’re hoping to keep pushing forward with understanding the different puzzle pieces out there that can be put together to help get more MOOLAH out there for families that need it the most.