San Francisco Treasurer Speaks About Creating a City Rich with Opportunity

March 26, 2012
by Neil Bomberg

"In San Francisco, we are very proud of what we are doing to help our most disadvantaged residents gain access to quality health care and mainstream financial services," San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros told members of the Human Development Steering Committee during the Congressional City Conference.

"We made access to health care for all our residents a priority and established Healthy San Francisco, and created financial empowerment programs that ensure that our disadvantaged residents have access to bank accounts, appropriate lending services and other financial services most of us take for granted," he added. 

"We think the city is the perfect place for this to happen, and our message can be very powerful. Think of how effective cities have been in getting the message out about smoke detectors. Well the same is possible for bank accounts and other financial services. Now, whenever anyone comes in for any type of assistance someone will ask 'Do you have a bank account?'" Cisneros said.

Healthy San Francisco (HSF) was established in 2007 so that every resident of the city, regardless of their employment, immigration status or preexisting medical conditions could have access to quality health care. Fifty-four thousand San Franciscans with a family income below 500 percent of the federal poverty line participate in the program. Rather than issuing private insurance, San Francisco developed an integrated public and private health care system that relies on the city's Department of Public Health clinics and Community Consortium clinics, along with private providers, and provides San Francisco's uninsured residents with complete health care coverage. 

"We had four goals when we established our financial empowerment programs and achieved all of them. They were improving access to financial services for all San Franciscans, providing financial education and counseling, building and protecting assets and providing tax time services and benefits," said Cisneros. 

SF's financial empowerment programs include the Working Families Tax Credit (WFC), San Francisco's version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); Bank On SF, which provides low-income people with access to quality banking services; Payday Plus SF, which provides low-income residents with access to low-interest pay day loan services; and K2C, a college savings program for low-income students to which the city contributes.

Established in 2005, WFC was designed to encourage residents to apply for the federal EITC. Each low-income resident who applies for EITC benefits gets a 10 percent match from the city. In the first year alone, 10,000 families drew down money from the city after receiving the EITC benefits. 

Despite the success of the WFC program, the city quickly realized that many of the families who received WFC funds did not have bank accounts, cashed their checks at check-cashing services where they paid high fees, had no safe place to deposit their WFC, risked loss or theft of those funds and had no way to save and build assets. In 2006, San Francisco challenged its financial institutions to partner with the city to change bank policies in order to increase account options for unbanked residents. Each year, an estimated 10,000 San Franciscans who otherwise did not have access to banking services, joined a bank and have saved 5 percent of their net income at check cashers. They now have a safe place to keep their money and are on the road to building assets and wealth. The program has become a national model and is being championed by the Obama Administration. 

Efforts did not end there. The city realized that it could not help its residents become financially independent if it did not end the payday lending practices that often result in individuals paying upwards of 500 percent interest. The city passed a zoning moratorium that prevents payday lenders or cashiers from opening a new office if one exists within a quarter mile. In addition, the city worked with its five credit union partners to create Payday Plus SF, which allows borrowers with low or no credit scores to borrow $50 to $500 at 18 percent interest and pay it back over six to 12 months. 

To match the financial products with education, the city created the SF Smart Money Network, which provides eligible individuals and families with free financial planning and other services. San Francisco also created K2C to help motivate families to save for their children's college education. Every child entering SF public school automatically receives a college savings account in his or her name, seeded with a deposit of $50 or $100 from the City. Now the city is developing CurrenC, which will enable every worker to take advantage of direct deposit, even if his or her employer does not offer it. "Our goal is to be the country's first paper paycheck-free city," said Cisneros.

Cisneros concluded with the following offer: "If you need assistance, I can assure you that San Francisco will be standing by to provide help and advice along the way."

Details: For more information about SF's efforts at financial empowerment go to: http://sfofe.org, the website of the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment.

NLC Resources on Local Financial Empowerment Strategies 

Since 2006, NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families (YEF Institute) has partnered with the City of San Francisco and Treasurer Jose Cisneros to help other cities learn from San Francisco's innovative financial empowerment work and assist them in enhancing the financial stability of local residents. 

Through the YEF Institute's Bank On Cities Campaign, dozens of cities have received technical assistance as they have sought to replicate the Bank On San Francisco model in their communities. The institute is also working with cities to explore financial education strategies and cutting-edge alternatives to high-interest, short-term loans, and recently held a cross-city convening in San Francisco to highlight new financial empowerment initiatives like CurrenC SF.

For more information on how the YEF Institute can help your city promote family economic success, please visit www.nlc.org/iyef or contact Denise Belser at (202) 626-3028 orbelser@nlc.org or Laura Fischer at (202) 626-3056 or fischer@nlc.org.