Unleashing Financial Literacy for Native Americans

The concepts of financial literacy seem pretty intuitive if you’ve been immersed in them since childhood: the importance of budgeting, the power of saving, the power of letting your money work for you through compounding, the importance save for that first home, and put away a rainy day fund to cover those sudden emergencies that can cost $500 and more.

But about half of Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency for a multitude of reasons, including entrenched poverty. Growing up in a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, or finding yourself in that situation as an adult, often means scrambling day in and day out just to get by. In many communities deprived of the opportunities offered by intergenerational wealth transfer, the long-term outlook for families is often dire, made even more complicated by the fact that they often struggle with the fundamentals of financial literacy.

This is the reality for many Native Americans, like to research over the years has demonstrated that this community has faced a long struggle with financial literacy. To that end, a community development financial institution (CDFI) based in northern Colorado has taken the initiative to develop the financial tools necessary to ensure that indigenous people can not only survive, but also create wealth now and in the future.

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Westa Corporation presents itself as much more than a community bank. CDFI, which has been in operation for more than 20 years, also provides financial education, matched savings programs, and public policy advocacy for Native communities across the United States.

Thanks to continuous co-branding series with Forbes, Oweesta showed how its community outreach is doing its part to help create wealth for Indigenous families. To date, working with groups such as Partners for Rural Transformation, Oweesta has certified over 2,000 trainers in various personal finance principles; they in turn organized training for more than 40,000 people. The results are bearing fruit, with an increase in average savings, reduction in debt and an increase in credit scores. New financial literacy skills also help families escape the cycle of poverty often exacerbated by check cashing services and other businesses that end up punishing the working poor with high fees and interest rates.

“Increased inequality in access to financial support has rendered individuals in persistently poor counties unable to withstand economic shocks and access opportunities to accumulate short- and long-term stores of wealth,” Essence wrote. Smith, project manager for Partners for Rural Transformation, and Stephanie Cote, senior program manager at Oweesta, who together described the past experiences of several of their clients with the darker players in the US financial sector. “Members operate primarily outside the mainstream of finance in the second tier of financial services: a market saturated by predatory, aggressively advertised and high-cost credit products.”

Oweesta’s track record over the years has seen it secure partnerships and funding from financial institutions including Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

The work of Oweesta and its partners contributes to another outcome: making the Native American population more visible. In a recent Non-profit quarterly article, CDFI CEOs and COOs Chrystel Cornelius and Krystal Langholz noted how this community has long been overlooked. One such example is CNN’s categorization of Indigenous communities as “something else” when reporting on the 2020 election; worse still, there is also the tragedy of thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women whose fate has not been reported or investigated. “Our lives, our economies and our lands are afterthoughts – if we are lucky — to integrate American society and philanthropy,” Cornelius and Langholz wrote.

Image credits: Oweesta Corporation via Facebook; Paul Marshall via Unsplash

Sarah J. Greer