I will confess – I was a lurker in the Financial Health Network community, voraciously reading its Pulse reports and research articles (even back in its day as CFSI). I knew that the EMERGE conference was the place to be to take in and share what I’ve come across the last decade.
Needless to say I was overwhelmed by the passion and purpose that come across so much more from a 3D person than a boxed frame with a plant or library background.
And I could tell my conference companions felt the same. You see, because of the nature of our work, it may at times feel lonely being buried in the data or debating against other leaders across business and society.
Thus this live “reunion” was a necessary shot of energy and camaraderie, especially as we ready ourselves for the next economic downturn.
So what did I learn? Allow me to share five brief takeaways from the EMERGE Financial Health 2022 conference.
Financial Health of the Common American is Getting Worse
We knew headed in to Summer 2022 that most Americans were already in a financially precarious position. With depleted savings against rising core prices like rent, fuel, and food, the financial stress had started to manifest physically and mentally. Even with an ultra-tight labor market driving up wages across the board, inflation and other financial shocks weighed down low- and middle-income America.
And for the first time in five years, we saw financial health get worse (as measured by Financial Health Network’s Pulse Survey).
Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by this narrative – we saw this canary in our own report from earlier this year, where we also asked participants to share how much they carried in debt and savings.
What was interesting, however, were the areas where I saw hope – where real wage growth in previously ultra-low income workers coupled with other private and public support did lead to better financial health scores.
While not explicitly discussed in the panels, I found a good deal of the coffee talk revolved around what this upcoming downturn will mean to the common American. Exposed and vulnerable, will government need to step in again? What will it do to individual’s decisionmaking about work and education? And how will people-dependent systems – which is basically every system – fare against such an event?
United by a Common Language, We Now Need Common Metrics
Amidst all of that discussion I came to a realization. My colleagues and I agreed on what it means to be financially healthy, what it means to be financially stable and free – and we agreed in almost in an abstract way.
But when we started presenting examples and use cases, it was clear that those abstractions manifested very differently. Some held up a case study of what good financial health practice looks like, but its underlying workforce had more than twice the median American’s income. While others talked on issues that clearly focused on only lower-income America.
So what are the tactical, objective metrics that we should adopt, that we should equip leaders with so they know what to consider? Indicators like net disposable income, liquid savings, or retirement balances? Or events like hardship loans, emergency fund applications, or other form of withdrawals?
For us at Sunny Day Fund, we’re attempting to combine a subjective, self-reported score with the objective view of balances and activity to capture a “truer” sense of financial health / financial well-being.
I am not here to advocate others to follow what we do, because our model continues to evolve with more and more lessons – where our platform employees are our prime teachers.
I am here to advocate, however, that at least at three levels – state, employer, and financial institution – we should have frameworks for a more data-driven insight into the state of our stakeholders. Imperative to the setup of these frameworks will again be the stakeholders themselves, whose data should be fairly rewarded.
Employers & Policymakers Remain Prime Impact Channels
While those three levels or layers – state, employer, and financial institutions (FIs) – may carry metric-level differences, one major takeaway from the conference was that employers and policymakers remain the primary channels for mass impact on financial health.
Why? In both cases a simple reason – they serve as the largest direct and indirect source of resources to people. Money and benefits for employees. Public benefits, tax advantages, and welfare services for citizens.
Given that’s the case, how is the leadership of these institutions thinking about the financial health of their “people” stakeholder?
I shared in the sentiment of my fellow “coffee colleagues” that unfortunately the thinking of most leadership still remains old fashioned. An outdated belief that financial literacy or financial education on its own is all that’s necessary to right the ship. That any “financial wellness” program can be relegated to an overburdened HR or a single state department, rather than a true system-wide initiative.
To their credit, I was delighted to find some leaders who are keeping a tighter pulse of their people stakeholder – realizing their role in removing systemic barriers and aligning incentives.
Fintechs like us and FIs more broadly have an important role to play, not just in educating our end consumers, but truly engaging employer and state leadership to understand the evolving nature of impact delivery in financial health.
Resilient Systemic Change Requires Partnership-Based Delivery
However, we cannot do it on our own. To quote John Donne, “no man is an island entire of itself.”
If we are to achieve our missions, it is imperative that we think across technologies and relationships to discover and deliver with new partnerships.
Whether it’s financial coaching or debt management, earned wage access or emergency savings, tax-favored grants or expedited credit delivery – across these solutions there’s a through line for different customer segments that unlocks our end goal of a financially health and resilient people.
I was encouraged to find that I was not alone in this realization and I am eager to learn how these partnerships will manifest over the next year.
Financial Health and Inclusion: “I Took That Personally”
Finally, I was inspired by my fearless peers leading the change in financial health and inclusion. They reminded me of a repeated line from the Michael Jordan / The Bulls documentary, “The Last Dance”.
“And I took that personally,” Michael said over and over after an affront that in turn motivated him to deliver on record-setting games and titles.
I am not saying entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs are Michael Jordan, but I do feel that those that I’ve met, those that inspired me to find a next gear did share in this deep desire to overcome.
For being an entrepreneur is an impossible task of magic math, vision-setting, and value delivery. All of which requires a limitless fuel – and what better than our own personal hardships?
Personal hardships driven by health events, discrimination of too many kinds, fertility and family loss, and many other challenges – all of which manifested with financial impact. But it didn’t have to be that way, which is why they and we are trying to change the status quo.
In other words, our vulnerability can be honed into becoming our strength.
We as a people are increasingly vulnerable – and we as leaders can and must accept that reality, strive to build on it, and lead transformation of our financial systems for the betterment of all.