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date: 18 August 2019

Financial Social Work

Abstract and Keywords

Financial well-being is an individual responsibility in twenty-first century America, even though research reveals a serious inability for many Americans to attain it. Social workers have the education and training to help people modify behavior and a history of working with low-income and minority families, as well as the skills to engage and empower clients, making them the best professionals to help Americans take control of their money and their lives. This article explains how incorporating financial-literacy skills and models of financial behavioral change into the social work curriculum would benefit both social workers and their clients. It describes the financial social work model and an understanding of its relevance to the social work profession.

Keywords: financial social work, financial literacy, financial well-being, social work curriculum, financial behavioral change

The Growing Need for Financial Knowledge

In today’s times, individuals are required to have both greater financial knowledge and investment skills. The need for greater financial sophistication stems from a variety of factors: (a) the financial deregulation process that started in the 1970s that has led to a wider variety of financial products; (b) the greater complexity involved and degree of self-reliance expected in terms of retirement planning due to changes that have taken place with the proportion of retirement income being covered by Social Security and defined benefit employer pension plans, and the shift to defined contribution 401(k) type plans; and (c) the increase in financial responsibility in other areas, such as college-tuition costs and insurance costs for health, long-term care, and disability (Boshara, 2010). For example, 40% of employed adults who have benefits packages report seeing a decrease and/or elimination of their benefits (such as health care, retirement savings, insurance, or training) (NEFE, 2012).

Aside from individuals needing to take greater charge of their financial well-being, the cost for attaining many components of the American dream (such as purchasing a home or funding a child’s college education) has increased since the 1980s and 1990s and is expected to continue to rise throughout the twenty-first century (FINRA Investor Education Foundation, 2009). As a result of the increased costs of living, and the changes in the financial landscape, the consequences of not having the necessary skills to make sound financial decisions have become much more serious. This is particularly true in the case of an economic downturn, when there is a greater risk of job loss or decrease in income. According to several academics, think tanks, and others, the current economic slump is expected to continue for several years (Boshara, 2010).

Unfortunately, despite the necessity of financial know-how, Americans repeatedly demonstrate, in study after study, little knowledge about financial concepts and products (Boshara, 2010) and rather poor financial capability (FINRA Investor Education Foundation, 2009). To illustrate, according to the first National Financial Capability Study (FINRA Investor Education Foundation, 2009) conducted in the United States by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) in consultation with the Treasury Department, nearly half of survey respondents reported facing difficulties in covering monthly expenses and paying bills. In addition, half of American adults (49%) do not have “rainy-day” funds set aside for unanticipated financial emergencies and, similarly, do not plan for predictable life events, such as their children’s college education or their own retirement. Also, more than one in five respondents reported engaging in high-cost, alternative borrowing methods, such as payday loans and pawn shops (FINRA Investor Education Foundation, 2009).

Furthermore, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s (NFCC) survey on financial literacy (2012), 40% of U.S. adults gave themselves a grade of a “C,” “D,” or “F” on their knowledge of personal finance, and more than half (56%) admit that they do not have a budget.

While some of the results from the NFCC survey (2012) differ from those of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation (2009), the overall trends are identical and highlight the struggle that so many men and women experience in the management of their day-to-day expenses. One third do not pay their bills on time, and 39% are carrying credit card debt month to month (NFCC, 2012). In addition, 39% of U.S. adults report no retirement savings, and a quarter of those indicate that if they were to begin saving, they would keep their savings at home in cash (NFCC, 2012).

Today’s Financial Crisis

Today, more and more Americans are experiencing some form of financial crisis. There were a total of 1,362,847 personal bankruptcies filed in 2011 (ABI, n.d.); 23% of the roughly 50 million residential mortgages in the United States are currently “underwater,” that is, the amount owed exceeds the value of the underlying home, and about 8 million consumers have faced a new foreclosure filing since 2007 (Dynan, 2012); the average credit card debt is $6,503 (, 2012).

In addition to struggles with credit card debt, many Americans face student-loan debt: two-thirds (66%) of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student-loan debt, with an average of $26,600 (TICAS, 2012). The difficult job market poses particular challenges for those college graduates who need to begin paying back student loans; the unemployment rate for this group was at 8.8% in 2012, and many graduates are underemployed—either working part time but wanting a full-time position, or working at a position that does not require a college degree (TICAS, 2012).

While research continues to show strong economic returns on investments in college degrees, graduating with high debt is a serious and growing concern in the United States. It can limit career options and make it difficult to save for a home, family retirement, or one’s own children’s education (TICAS, 2012).

In the past, home ownership was perceived as achieving the American Dream. In the early twenty-first century, the most important financial goal for nearly half of American adults (47%) is being able to save enough money for retirement (NEFE, 2011). In marked contrast, only 17% felt home ownership was their top goal (NEFE, 2011).

The Overall Poverty Rate Is Increasing

In 2011, median household income was $50,054, a 1.5% decline in real terms from 2010. Real median household income was 8.1% lower than in 2007, the year before the most recent recession, and it was 8.9% lower than the median household income peak that occurred in 1999 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a).

The overall poverty rate in 2011 was 15%, representing 46.2 million people living in poverty. While this poverty rate was statistically unchanged from 15.1% in 2010, it had risen significantly in seven of the prior ten years, from a low of 11.3% in 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a).

In addition, 6.6% of all people, or 20.4 million people, lived in deep poverty—that is, they had income below one-half the poverty threshold, or $11, 511 for a family of four. Minorities were hit the hardest. African American children experienced the highest poverty rate, at 37.4%, and Hispanics were close, at 34%. For non-Hispanic Caucasian children, the rate was 12.5%, giving an overall child poverty rate of 21.9%, or 16.1 million children living in poverty (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a).

Furthermore, the official poverty threshold does not take into account costs such as health insurance, transportation, or housing, nor does it factor in income from transfer programs such as food stamps. Hence, the U.S. Census Bureau has developed a supplemental poverty measure to address these shortcomings (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b).

When looking at the overall supplemental poverty rate, it is higher at 16.1% vs. the official measure at 15% for 2011. That said, for some groups, it is lower [for children under 18 and blacks] and for others, it is higher [seniors -15.1% supplemental vs. 8.7% official; Asian Americans—16.9% supplemental vs. 12.3% official, and slightly higher for those 18–64, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites] (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b).

Most notably, the Supplemental Poverty Measure data show that out-of-pocket medical costs are the main expense contributor of poverty, followed by work-related expenses (such as transportation), while Social Security is by far the most critical program for reducing poverty, followed by tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the child tax credit (CTC) (Boteach, 2012; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b).

Specifically, the refundable tax credits for working families, such as earned income and child tax credits, was successful at raising 8.7 million people out of poverty in 2011. Similarly, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (which replaced the Food Stamps Program) raised 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011 (Boteach, 2012).

Financial Capability

Restoring economic security for all families is one of the U.S. government’s priorities (President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, 2012). Hence, the Barack Obama administration set a goal to improve the financial capability of every American, that is, to empower “every individual with the knowledge, skills and access to tools to manage their finances effectively for long-term well-being (p. 4).” To this end, as of 2013, it stresses the critical role community involvement via public-private and private-private partnerships will need to play in equipping consumers with needed financial skills and put together a resource guide for this very purpose, “Every American Financially Empowered: A Guide to Increasing Financial Capability Among Students, Workers and Residents in Communities” (President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, 2012).

Determinants of Financial Behavior

Financial behavior is defined as any human behavior related to money management, that is, spending, borrowing, saving, investing, budgeting, and risk managing (Xiao, 2008). There are many internal and external influences on an individual’s financial behavior. Internal factors include personality, individual psychology and cognition, family history. and environment (Shim, Xiao, Barber, & Lyons, 2009; Nyhus & Webley, 2001; Xiao et al., 2010).

Parents impact financial behaviors by influencing children’s and adolescents’ norms and values with respect to how much they believe in the importance of saving vs. spending and overall materialism (Hira, 2010; Nyhus & Webley, 2001; Shim et al., 2009; Webley & Nyhus, 2006; Xiao et al., 2010). According to Webley & Nyhus (2006), modeling and discussion may be the dominant mechanisms by which the fundamental approach to money matters is transmitted from parents to children.

Parental factors such as income, wealth, education, and race also influence the financial socialization process (Xiao et al., 2010). Parents who have greater economic resources at their disposal are able to make significant investments in their children that lead to an increase in their children’s human, social, and financial capital (Conger, Conger & Martin, 2010; Xiao et al., 2010).

External elements consist of influences such as media, markets, and peers (Hira, 2010; Xiao et al., 2010). In addition, factors such as culture, herding (following the crowd’s behavior), and social mood impact financial behavior (Hira, 2010; Xiao et al., 2010). Another potential influence on financial behavior is moral hazard, or the tendency to take more risk when it is perceived that losses incurred as a result of risky behavior will be insured or subsidized (Hira, 2010; Xiao et al., 2010). As per Grochulski (2010), in the event of financial hardship, individuals may consider taking on more debt in anticipation of being discharged of their liabilities via bankruptcy laws.

Last, there is the simultaneous impact of self-worth, net worth. and social signaling on shopping behavior. In a world that too often measures success in financial terms, people often confuse their self-worth with their net worth. As a result, individuals who are impoverished (or who struggle to keep up with their neighbors’ purchases) experience low self-esteem and poor sense of self (Sivanathan & Pettit, 2010; Wolfsohn, 2012a). This lower self-worth often manifests itself in feeling undeserving of a better financial future and actualizing that outcome by engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors, such as indulging in high-status items that one can ill-afford (Sivanathan & Pettit, 2010; Wolfsohn, 2012a). As per Arnold and Reynolds (2009), spending behavior is a form of mood repair and affect regulation with the goal of hedonic gratification that drives consumption behavior.

In fact, the persistence of poverty may be in part due to the “conspicuous consumption” that takes place as the poor try to distinguish themselves from the very poor, according to Moav and Neeman’s (2010) economic model. Low-income individuals increase their consumption of luxury goods in order to send a social signal of a change in their financial circumstances, despite the fact that this action may reverse their economic gain by increasing their debt and maintaining their status of poverty (Moav & Neeman, 2010).

Feelings of Disconnect From Money

Individuals may also spend more than what they would like as a result of their feelings of disconnect from their money. Consumers today can choose from a wide variety of payment options such as: cash, check, credit card, debit card, bank drafts, money orders, traveler’s checks, gift certificates, gift cards, stored-value cards such as those used in mass transit and tolls, and more (Raghubir & Srivastava, 2008). As a result of engaging in these payment methods and employing various direct-deposit methods for income and benefits, consumers are living in an increasingly cashless society. The increasingly cashless society, in turn, is leading individuals to experience feelings of disconnect from their money (Wolfsohn, 2004). This financial disconnect is expressed through the difficulties that consumers experience in knowing how much money they have and understanding the impact that their spending has on their financial circumstances (Raghubir & Srivastava, 2008; Soman, 2003; Wolfsohn, 2004).

With regards to the use of credit cards vs. cash, for example, people tend to spend more (Chatterjee & Rose, 2012; Pettit & Sivanathan, 2011; Raghubir & Srivastava, 2008; Sivanathan & Pettit, 2010; Soman, 2003). This is primarily the result of the “pain of paying” and the transparency effect (Soman, 2003). The closer a form of payment is to cash, the more an individual will feel its potency, or the “pain of paying,” and the less the individual will spend (Chatterjee & Rose, 2012). Conversely, the more a person is able to psychologically decouple the payments from the consumption by buying on credit, the less pain the individual will feel, and the more positive perceived overall assessment of the value of the transaction the consumer will have, and therefore, the more the consumer will spend.

The transparency effect of cash refers to the ability of individuals to remember spending it due to its physical form (bills/coins) and the amount of payment (it needs to be counted) (Soman, 2003). This transparency, in turn, makes it easy for consumers to see the money they are spending, and therefore, they tend to spend less of it. Conversely, consumers tend to be less aware of their credit card payments, and therefore, they spend more (Soman, 2003).

Social Workers and Financial Literacy

While it would be beneficial for many front-line professionals who work with the public (such as case managers, employee-assistance counselors, and family and community advocates) to seek training in financial capability, social workers are particularly well suited for the role of helping consumers achieve behavioral change in the financial arena. This is because they have the education, training, and experience to help people modify their behavior, and they also have a long tradition of working with many struggling, financially low-income and minority families (Birkenmaier, 2012; Birkenmaier & Curley, 2009; Hawkins & Kim, 2012; Sherraden, Laux, & Kaufman, 2007; Wolfsohn, 2012b).

Furthermore, social workers are likely to already be involved in providing some assistance on financial matters via employment training, providing material needs (such as housing, food, and utility assistance) to families undergoing crises, and asset-development programs (Individual Development Account [IDA] programs). Social workers are also federal- and state-policy advocates regarding the Earned Income State Tax Credit (EITC) and other matters that affect the financial well-being of low-income Americans (Birkenmaier, 2012; Birkenmaier & Curley, 2009).

Social Workers Could Benefit from Additional Training

That said, despite the National Association of Social Workers (2008) ethical mandate that social workers “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty,” students in schools of social work receive little or no practical training in helping families manage household finances (Sherraden et al., 2007). Hence, social workers tend to lack the necessary skills and expertise to provide financial assistance in spite of the high likelihood that they will confront financial issues on a daily basis in their work (Birkenmaier, 2012; Birkenmaier & Curley, 2009; Despard & Chowa, 2010; Sherraden et al., 2007).

Social workers need to increase their financial knowledge of financial institutions and their products and services (Birkenmaier, 2012), as well as the public policies and benefits that affect their clients (Romich, Simmelink, & Holt, 2007). It is important for social workers to become educated about mainstream financial institutions and alternative financial providers so as to be able to serve as a conduit for their clients in this regard (Birkenmaier, 2012). This is because low-income families comprise a large proportion of the unbanked population (those who do not have a savings or checking account); 83% of unbanked households earn under $25,000 (Barr, 2004). In order to conduct their financial business, the “unbanked” often resort to relying upon local high-cost, nonbank providers such as check cashers, payday lenders, and tax-refund-anticipation lenders. To illustrate the high cost of these alternative financial providers, the range of fees for check cashing is about 1.5 to 3.5% of the face value of a check, and payday loans carry high implicit annual interest rates, with an average APR of over 470% (Barr, 2004).

Beyond the low-income population of the unbanked, there are the “underbanked,” that is, is a broader group of low-to middle-income families who have bank accounts but still rely on high-cost, nonbank providers to conduct most of their financial transactions (Barr, 2004). It is only by having an understanding of the various financial institutions that social workers will be able to help low-income families connect to mainstream financial institutions, so that they will retain more of their income and spend less on costly services provided by high-cost, nonbank providers (Birkenmaier, 2012).

Aside from knowledge about our financial institutions, social workers need to be familiar with the public policies that result in benefit reductions and/or ineligibility and tax increases when their clients’ earnings increase (Romich et al., 2007). This is because under some conditions, due to the late twentieth century/early twenty-first century reforms to policies that affect the working poor, greater earnings can trigger reductions in several benefits. It is only after social workers understand what an earnings change may trigger for a particular client that they may be able to communicate this information in such a way that helps their clients achieve their financial objectives, despite the impending changes in benefits and taxes (Romich et al., 2007).

To be adequately prepared for their roles with clients, social workers would benefit from a financial social work curriculum to help them understand their own relationship to their money and then be able to serve as role models and guides to their respective clients (Birkenmaier & Curley, 2009; Gillen & Loeffler, 2012; Wolfsohn, 2012b). While interest and recognition in the need for a financial-empowerment approach is slowly growing among social workers and social services organizations, the number of social workers who routinely engage clients in financial management is small relative to other areas of social work practice and could be greatly expanded (Birkenmaier & Curley, 2009; Gillen & Loeffler, 2012; Sherraden et al., 2007).

In addition to empowering clients to be able to take more control of their financial lives through the employment of a financial-empowerment model (Birkenmaier et al., 2013; Kent & Sun, 2012; Wolfsohn, 2012a), social workers may ask new clients a number of financial-related questions as part of the intake process (whether they have a checking account or savings account, or use payday loans/check-cashing outlets, and other factors to get a picture of their financial practices) (Chang, Wagner, & Herr, 2010), provide their clients with information about financial institutions, and suggest questions for unbanked/underbanked clients to ask of banks in order to facilitate a banked relationship (Birkenmaier, 2012).

The Center for Financial Social Work

Financial Social Work is a transformative learning model that was first developed by Reeta Wolfsohn, CMSW at the Center for Financial Social Work (Wolfsohn, 2012b). The changes that result from a transformative model are deep and long-lasting (Garvett, 2004; Lusardi, Clark, Fox, Grable, & Taylor, 2010; Mezirow, 2000). While it is an approach that leads to positive financial outcomes for recipients of diverse backgrounds, it originated from “Femonomics,” a term Wolfsohn created while working exclusively with the female population back in 1997. “Femonomics” broadened into an applicable methodology for both men and women in 2005 (Wolfsohn, 2012a).

This model is multidisciplinary and strengths-based; it incorporates a psychosocial focus on the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that determine each person’s relationship and behavior with money. It expands self-awareness and sense of self, and provides financial knowledge. It also helps people integrate better decision-making and self-assessment into their daily lives (Wolfsohn, 2012b).

Individuals’ relationship with their money drives their financial behavior, and it’s their financial behavior that determines their financial circumstances (Vitt, 2009; Wolfsohn, 2012a). One of the underlying tenets of Financial Social Work is to help individuals gain control over their money to ultimately attain [better] control of their lives (Wolfsohn, 2012a). Diener, Weiting, Harter, and Arora (2010) found that economic wealth (income and ability to purchase luxury goods) and social-psychological prosperity (relative power and autonomy) were the best predictors of well-being in their deep dive of data gathered from a World Gallup poll (Diener et al., 2010).

Improved financial circumstances require increased self-awareness. Often more unconscious than conscious, an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about money are reflected in every financial decision an individual makes and in how he or she chooses to spend and save (or not to save) (Vitt, 2009; Wolfsohn, 2012a). The more insight a person has about where, why, when, and how thoughts, feelings, and attitudes came to be so ingrained in his or her belief system, the more likely the person is to make financial choices that will improve his or her financial future (Vitt, 2009; Wolfsohn, 2012a).

Within the framework of Financial Social Work, the uniqueness of each individual’s personal journey to a better financial future is respected. Consumers are encouraged to choose their own paths by engaging with what resonates most to them based on where they currently are in their life cycle and in their readiness and willingness to change, as per the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM) (Ozmete & Hira, 2011; Xiao et al., 2004; Xiao et al., 2010). In addition, as indicated in TTM (Ozmete & Hira, 2011; Xiao et al., 2004), ongoing education, motivation, and support are critical components of the work, to ensure optimal results (Wolfsohn, 2012a).

Financial Social Work is taught by the Center for Financial Social Work via a self-study online process (Wolfsohn, 2012a). The model, as of 2013, was being extensively researched for efficacy using a carefully crafted logic model in Erie, Pennsylvania (the city suffering the highest poverty rate of any major city in that state) under the auspices of United Way (Bates, 2012). The program’s goal is to create sustainable, long-term financial behavioral change that supports self-sufficiency and financial stability in individuals and families via education, motivation and support. Research findings were expected to be available in early 2015.


While the field of financial capability is still in its early stages of development (Collins and Birkenmaier, 2013); the importance of including financial literacy as a component of social work education is slowly becoming recognized as demonstrated by the recent endeavors of a number of higher education institutions and other organizations attempting to train BSW and MSW level students, alumni, as well as other human resource staff in this capacity (Birkenmaier et al., 2013).

Among some professional circles, there is the recognition that adults are most likely to learn and establish long-lasting financial skills within a Transformative Learning framework (Lusardi et al., 2010; Mezirow, 2000), such as the Financial Social Work model developed by Wolfsohn (2012a). This is because financial behavior is a function of our values, attitudes, and thoughts, and a model that is going to lead to long-term financial changes requires an evaluation of those conscious and previously unconscious socialization factors (Schuchardt et al., 2009; Vitt, 2009; Wolfsohn, 2012b). Positive correlations have been demonstrated between increased financial knowledge and positive financial behaviors, attitudes, and thoughts; research has been unable to definitively establish that financial education leads to more improved financial behavior, however (Hira, 2010; Lusardi et al., 2010; Schuchardt et al., 2009; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2011) the evaluation of financial-capability programs remains a challenge to overcome in terms of developing a common set of reliable measures (Collins & O’Rourke, 2010; Schuchardt et al., 2009; Vitt et al., 2010).

Finally, social work advocacy on a macro level to ensure equal access is critical. To increase the range of available opportunities to the low-income and most oppressed populations, we need to try to reduce the growing wage inequality by: (a) joining political organizations that seek to limit the political power of wealth so as to facilitate the election of officials less indebted to economic elites and permitted to support measures to reduce inequality, (b) lobby for direct job creation by the government, (c) engage in living-wage campaigns to raise the minimum wage and Earned Income Tax Credit, (d) join unions and advocate for labor’s commitment to reforms on behalf of all workers (not just union members),(e) press for an improved measure of poverty to increase the potential number of beneficiaries and constituencies for reform, and (f) press for implementation of consumer protection laws (Goldberg, 2012).

Additional ways in which social workers could assist the impoverished on a macro level include: (a) seeking governmental funding to enable supportive financial social work services to be extended to larger numbers of low-income people (Anderson, Zhan, & Scott, 2007), (b) lobbying for increased access to financial services and institutions in low-income neighborhoods (Anderson et al., 2007; Sherraden et al., 2007), and (c) engaging with bankers and other community partners to help discourage predatory financial practices (Anderson et al., 2007).


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