Building Stronger Communities Together in Florida: Immigrants and Asset Building

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

By Althea Gonzalez and Michael Kavate, GCIR

Florida has one of the hottest economies in the nation—and immigrants and refugees are big players in the state’s success. Cities and towns across the Sunshine State have benefitted from newcomers’ outsized role in starting businesses, filling jobs in growing industries, and fostering innovation. As workers and entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers, and friends and neighbors, immigrants and refugees play a vital role in economic development and growth.

Yet for all their contributions, many first- and second-generation immigrants struggle to achieve economic stability. They lack access to the tools and services they need to expand their businesses, establish credit for home loans, and take other fundamental steps toward long-term financial security.

The role of immigrants and refugees in our workforce and economy—and the barriers they face—was the topic of a recent session led by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) and the Asset Funders Network (AFN) at Florida Philanthropic Network’s 2017 Statewide Summit on Philanthropy. The discussion highlighted the pressing need for Florida funders to consider this population’s trends and the implications for philanthropy in the state.

Using the examples of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s “2Gen” or two-generation approach and Self-Help Credit Union’s work in low-income rural communities, the session showed how a focus on asset-building strategies can be an effective way for funders to both address the needs and expand the opportunities of foreign-born residents to have greater prosperity while improving the fortunes of the communities in which they live.

One of the session’s speakers, John Annis, the community foundation’s senior vice president of community investment, didn’t always think of himself as an “immigrant funder.” Yet, a closer look at his grants portfolio, showed support for several elementary schools whose students are mostly immigrants or children of immigrants. Annis realized that an intentional strategy to address the needs of this community was necessary. The Foundation’s innovative "2Gen" approach is designed around programs and policies that serve children and parents simultaneously while tracking outcomes for both. It includes financial coaching and ESL and nursing classes for parents, the latter held in the same school as their children attend.

“When I joined the Community Foundation, I was overwhelmed by all the great stuff that was happening across the organization. It felt like a six-lane highway with traffic moving in all directions,” Annis said. “When we learned about the 2Gen approach through Ascend at the Aspen Institute, I could clearly see a route to unify some of our work – a vision for family success with a legacy of economic security and educational success for everyone, including immigrants.”

Foreign-born residents are vital to Florida’s present and future. Nearly 20 percent of Florida residents are immigrants, totaling approximately four million residents, and one-third of children in the state have a foreign-born parent. While born abroad, most immigrants in Florida have deep roots; 87 percent have lived in the United States for more than 15 years and 36 percent for over 25 years. The majority are U.S. citizens. They are more likely to be in the workforce and to be business owners than U.S.-born residents. However, they are also more likely to live in poverty, to not have health insurance, and to have limited English proficiency—all barriers to financial security and full participation in the local economy.

Asset building strategies are varied and include short term and long term approaches using the right products and behavior change supports. 

Short term strategies include:

  • Children’s savings accounts
  • Use of Earned Income Tax Credit refunds
  • Credit building approaches such as lending circles.

Long term wealth building approaches focus on the strategies that can make the biggest impact in helping families become financially secure:

  • Home ownership
  • Business ownership
  • Post-secondary education

Funder-supported direct service strategies such as financial coaching, seeding children’s savings accounts, support for credit score building and contingency savings can put families on the road to economic wellbeing. These services are particularly vital for immigrant communities, who are often the target of predatory lending practices and for-profit college abuses. Funders can also consider systemic approaches such as encouraging alternatives to payday lenders and supporting CDFIs and other financial institutions to provide small business and home loans with more flexible requirements, such as are used by Self-Help Credit Union.

“Like many low and moderate income families, New Americans face the same barriers of entry to benefit from mainstream financial tools such as lack of credit and savings. However, I’ve witnessed how credit and savings building tools empower an immigrant family to move from being a renter to a homeowner in two to three years, or assists a foreign-born worker to kick start his/her own business,” said Adelcio Lugo, Regional Director, Self-Help Credit Union, who also presented at the session. “Beyond creating economic prosperity and wealth, asset cushions help families tackle both income disruptions and unexpected unavoidable expenses.”

New Americans already have an outsize impact in Florida as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, and consumers. Access to asset-building tools can further expand their opportunities and contributions, not only for their families, but for the communities in which they live and work. For funders seeking to improve their communities’ economic fortunes, asset-building strategies can expand opportunities for everyone.

Stay Connected

We invite you to continue deepening your engagement on these issues. We hope you can join us for forthcoming FPN-GCIR programming, including a planned webinar in the next few months, as well as participate in GCIR’s March 16 briefing, the latest in GCIR’s Monthly Immigration Policy Calls series, and attend the 2017 AFN Grantmaker Conference, May 2-4, 2017. To stay abreast of these events and other news in the field, subscribe to newsletters from AFNFPNGCIR and follow us on social media. Please contact us at GCIR or our colleagues at AFN if you have any urgent questions.

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