Participants at a USB workshop.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Before Sandra Courtenay walked to her own workshop for first time home-buyers, she waited for the puppet show on “How to Save Your Allowance” to start, ensuring her son was safely nestled among the other children.

A representative from the bank hosting the financial literacy event explained that one must have a credit score above 620 in order to secure a mortgage. Courtenay asked, “Can we buy a home if my husband makes $8,000 a year?”

The representative said ‘yes’ enthusiastically and began to explain the application process for a loan. It wasn’t until later that the group of mostly Hispanic and Asian immigrant women realized their credit scores would disqualify them but did not know how to raise those scores.

Courtenay, who emigrated from Belize and has been living in Queens for 21 years, was thankful for the free service, but left the workshop with many unanswered questions.

Her experience at the Financial Literacy Fair for Families and Children on Aug. 4–an inaugural event hosted by the New York-based Literacy Assistance Center, Swiss bank UBS and Queens Library’s Flushing branch–is common among U.S. immigrant women.

As immigrant advocacy groups nationwide try to alleviate the growing demand for financial literacy, they are raising awareness regarding the lack of applicable information at financial education workshops where the majority of attendees are immigrant women.

“People come to adult education for a number of reasons, but women will readily admit to help more than men,” said Elyse Barbell-Rudolph, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit. “Very often it’s the woman, in her own special way, who handles changes of this magnitude, and very often in immigrant families.”

Targeting Low-Income Families

The center aims to help families living below the poverty line, Barbell-Rudolph said, and teaches financial literacy skills as part of the English as a Second Language curriculum.

“Moms do what they have to do to survive,” she continued. “They share recipes, they share shopping tips, learn how to use coupons, understand how to use shopping between different stores, pounds versus ounces, basic skills like this.”

Barbell-Rudolph’s first attempt at a partnership with UBS in providing basic financial education was a success, she said, because of the level of community interest and the high turnout rate.

But she recognizes the need to tailor the program further.

“Something we will change for future workshops is target groups that have a higher level of English or get more translators,” she said. “Most of those folks using the center in Flushing are at level one and speak very little English.”

Barbell-Rudolph said she and her staff debated carefully what the appropriate workshops would be. The eight sessions ranged from “Identity Theft” and “Managing Your Credit” to “Setting Goals for Financial Success” and “Paying for College.”

“We need to give people things to aspire to,” she explained. “These people are living hand to mouth, but it doesn’t mean you don’t give them a full perspective of things offered in this country. That’s why they came to this country.”

Courtenay, who attended the workshop after her literacy program instructor told her about the event, agreed.

“This is good things that we want to know about,” she said after the “First Time Home Buying” session. “I don’t have a good education and work, but I want to get a home. You don’t have nobody encouraging you, telling you these things, where you can learn.”

“Two things he said that help me is,” Courtenay continued, “if you owe the credit card money, you can have the bank take it out every month automatically because my husband pay this, pay that, leave credit card for the last. And the credit score, I want to know more, because my credit score is low.”

Accuracy, Bias Are Concerns

Immigrant advocacy groups warn that generic financial workshops may not be accurate, applicable or unbiased enough to help immigrants, especially women who may not be familiar with handling their family’s finances.

“Women going through divorce or survivors of domestic violence–most often women and usually immigrant women–need help if their finances are intertwined with their spouses,” said Deyanira Del Rio, associate director of the New York-based Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. Married women, for example, may not be liable for a spouse’s loan if it is not taken out in both names, but laws vary between the states.

Del Rio heads the organization’s Immigrant Financial Justice Project, a resource center that helps other advocacy groups tailor their financial education to meet the needs of New York’s immigrant population.

“People’s options or concerns might be different if they’re undocumented, don’t speak English or never tapped into the financial system in this country, if they don’t have documented income, don’t have a credit history,” she said. “For some people, having a bank account might not make sense. Nowadays, a lot of banks have accounts that have high fees. Steering someone towards an account where they might lose a lot of money instead of saving is a big risk.”

Besides the conflict of interest, “banks are not financial educators,” Del Rio said, and may not be experts in the content or may provide inaccurate information because they are limited to discussing their own institutions. The Immigrant Financial Justice Project favors more sustainable peer-education models, she added.

The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 mandates that financial institutions help meet the credit needs of the communities in which they operate, including low- and moderate-income families. One way banks can satisfy their duties is to provide financial education.

Thorough Program at Citi

Citi Foundation also provides financial literacy courses and some advocates consider it one of the more thorough curriculums.

As part of its 10-year $200 million commitment to financial education, New York-based Citi awarded in May 2007 a $220,000 grant to the Delaware Financial Literacy Institute, which funds “From Purses to Portfolios: Delaware Women Take Charge of Their Money.”

Part of the institute’s Delaware Money School, “From Purses to Portfolios” has trained over 300 women with a non-degree certificate program, in which women can take online financial courses in increments of 10, 20, 30, 100 and 250 hours. The courses are described as free.

“But for women to give up two to three hours, give up their time, find a babysitter, it’s not free,” said Ronni Cohen, executive director of the school. “Women are still not getting equal pay, women may handle bill paying but don’t know the whole financial picture and in some immigrant populations the women don’t handle money at all.”

The nonprofit Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment in St. Paul, Minn., has a financial literacy initiative for immigrant and refugee women where transportation and child care is provided, and the “Building Wealth in America” curriculum is translated into seven languages other than English.

“We are trying to empower the women because we feel that they can help their own family manage money better,” said Anusha Ramachandran, the initiative’s financial literacy manager.

She says their curriculum is designed to provide information that women want to know, and stressed the importance of being culturally and language sensitive. About 600 women have been trained since 2004.

Jacqueline Lee is a Los-Angeles-based reporter with Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

Literacy Assistance Center:

NEDAP, Immigrant Financial Justice Project:

Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment:

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