The demise of many manufacturing jobs during the recent recession and the continued downturn of Michigan’s economy left Jackson County suffering. Estimates showed that one in four children in the county lived below the poverty line. It was clear something needed to be done and the staff of Jackson (Mich.) District Library felt it could make a difference, with help from the Smart Investing @ your library program.
Launched in 2007 by ALA and FINRA Investor Education Foundation, Smart Investing @ your library helps create and expand community awareness of investor-education resources and services available through public libraries. Since its creation, the program has awarded $6.96 million in grants and grown a national network of 94 programs representing more than 900 facilities that reach a service population of over 31 million. Each grant not only helps participating patrons learn more about financial responsibility, but also provides the basis for spreading those projects to other library systems through collaboration.
Jackson District Library, which was chosen in 2011, used its grant money to educate low-to-moderate-income households. Participants developed financial plans, increased their knowledge about money management and investing, and gained better access to learning resources with support from a personal-finance help-desk service and classes based on the FDIC Money Smart curriculum. “Our grant is for two years, so we are right in the middle of our plan,” said Debby Sears, reference coordinator for the library.
“We have had success with the Money and Marriage luncheons,” she said. “Each one has had good attendance and is presented with such a positive attitude that couples leave in good spirits regarding their ability to talk together about money.”
ALA and FINRA invite selected public libraries, nonprofit networks, public library systems, community college libraries, and state libraries to submit a grant application. Because it is a competitive program, there is no guarantee that a library will be awarded a grant. The grant amounts range from $5,000 to $100,000, and the terms last anywhere from one to two years. This competitive yet monitored process yields a range of interesting projects.
Milwaukee (Wis.) Public Library was awarded two Smart Investing @ your library grants, one in 2007 and another in 2010. With the second grant, the library staffers decided to focus their efforts on teaching teens about financial responsibility. They used the money to partner with Make-A-Difference Wisconsin and created a series of video vignettes written by teens to educate their peers. “My recent class really seemed to be engaged when watching the videos and they helped bring home the points in the program. They have been a hit!” said Joe Schlidt, a volunteer with the Milwaukee program.
Queens (N.Y.) Library, awarded a grant in 2009, took a different approach, focusing its efforts on educating neighborhood immigrants. “During the grant period, more than 500 people attended financial literacy programs [taught] in their own languages for maximum intake of the information,” said Joanne King, director of communications at the library. Queens Library serves residents who speak Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, Korean, and more than 100 other languages. The staff wanted to make sure that the widest possible audience would be involved.
Fifty-six sessions were held in six languages throughout the grant period. Though the average number in each class was nine people, King said that the impact of the program cannot be judged by how many bodies were in the chairs. “We still have the collections on the shelves and they are being accessed,” said King. “Counseling sessions are still going on via the New York City Office of Economic Empowerment. The learning is shared among other members of the participants’ social group. Overall awareness of financial education in the community has been raised. All of that will add value as time goes on.”
Smart Investing @ your library was created to bring universal financial literacy to underserved populations. “If we can help residents learn to navigate money management and discover the possibilities of finding ways to be debt-free, as well as helping them navigate computers and software, then we will be doing our job to help the community,” said Debby Sears.
For more information on the program, as well as tips, tools, and ideas, check out smartinvesting.ala.org.
JORDAN BRANDES is a Chicago-based freelancer writer.