Royal Credit Union has made a significant investment to ensure its financial wellness program for incarcerated populations succeeds. But the success of financial wellness comes down to a few critical components, chief among them confidence, says Cooper Larson, community financial education coordinator at the $4.1 billion asset credit union in Eau Claire, Wis.
“It’s providing an empowering mindset that says even though you’ve made some mistakes in the past, you can walk into a credit union and ask for help,” she says. “If you plug in those numbers every week and hold on to a job, you’re going to make a difference in your life. You can build savings, learn how to manage credit, and shape your own financial future.”
Without programs like this, financial futures are put at risk. Being in prison can lead to the loss of jobs and benefits, and can create debt that extends beyond the incarcerated individual. One in five families reported that they had to take out a loan to cover court-related costs, according to the Filene Research Institute.
These kinds of financial barriers are a natural place for credit unions to step in and make a real difference.
Providing a financial wellness program for prison populations was a natural extension for Royal, Larson says. “One of our core values is doing the right thing. Financial wellness is a perfect representation of that.”
Royal’s correctional facility financial education program started in the Eau Claire County Jail in 2015. The effort began as a partnership with Literacy Chippewa Valley, a local nonprofit organization.
At the time, Literacy Chippewa Valley offered educational programs in the facility and asked if Royal would want to join their efforts by providing financial literacy training.
The credit union developed a curriculum focused on money management topics such as understanding spending habits, creating a budget, dealing with debt, and building credit.
After initial success, it became clear the program could be replicated in other correctional facilities. Royal has since expanded the program to 11 correctional facilities, including a juvenile detention center.
That expansion was the product of planning and research. Royal received a National Credit Union Foundation Impact Tracking of Financial Health Components grant in 2019. It used the funds to work with the University of Wisconsin-Stout Applied Research Center to examine the curriculum and participant achievement goals.
“The goal of the research was to make sure we were teaching the right things in class, which isn’t as easy as it sounds because every class is so different,” Larson says. “Everybody in the class wants to take away something different. Our curriculum is solid, which is fantastic, but it’s also important in building engagement with the participants.”
Larson refers to a chart describing financial wellness developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“The chart talks about security and freedom of choice in the present and future,” she says. “I use that as the basis for what we teach. Some of these individuals have been incarcerated for a long time. Some of them are going to be released and are going to be dealing with a significant amount of debt in past-due payments and credit.”
These challenges can leave program participants with some tough financial choices upon their release.
“It might mean stopping at a gas station knowing you have $20 until your next paycheck,” Larson says. “So, you can put $10 of that in your gas tank and that's going to get you to work, your kids picked up from school, and maybe a trip to the grocery store. Some months you might miss a bill payment. Next month, instead of making three on-time bill payments, aim for four. That’s still financial success.”
She says the program’s influence goes far beyond financial wellness.
“To the participants in the program, I’m a volunteer,” Larson says. “I may be paid by Royal, but I’m not employed by the correctional facility. I’m making time to be there; to bring education into their lives.”
She says one of her favorite comments from a survey of participants is the value the student felt in being treated like a “real person.”
“They shared that isn’t always the case,” Larson says. “That ability to impact lives goes beyond the financial aspect. That’s what is really amazing about this program.”
In July 2022, CUNA and the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) entered into a strategic collaboration to put financial education programs into county jails across the country. This collaboration will work to identify opportunities to connect incarcerated individuals with credit union resources and create a pathway toward financial well-being.
The NSA program has since launched in seven counties across Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia, and there are nine ready to launch.
Royal is among the first credit unions to participate in the NSA program. In March, Royal will begin offering a financial education program called HOPE (Helping Others Promote Education) to assist individuals in the care of the Hennepin County Jail in Minnesota.
“We appreciate CUNA’s strategic partnership with the National Sheriff’s Association and support of correctional facility financial education programs offered by credit unions,” says Jennifer McHugh, Royal’s vice president of community engagement. “This is a wonderful example of how collaboration between CUNA, member credit unions, and local correctional facilities can support the movement’s financial well-being for all initiative and make a positive impact in the lives of an often underserved and overlooked population.”