Mae Watson Grote | Founder and CEO
Our work to answer this question began by acknowledging what an equitable economy doesn’t look like.
At Change Machine, we’re committing ourselves to an economy guided by principles of equity; an economy in which we all thrive. Formerly known as The Financial Clinic, we wanted our new name to reflect this commitment, recognizing that solutions to create an equitable economy cannot be race and gender neutral in an already racist and misogynistic system.
2020 has ushered in new challenges while laying bare existing disparities — from systemic racism and inequities in our healthcare system to the realities of mass unemployment when many households were already just one paycheck away from poverty. Helping the working poor achieve financial security has always been integral to our mission, but as we round the corner on yet another financial recession, we know there’s much more work to do.
The financial security and the financial health field have often pursued equality of access and opportunity over that of equity. Even some of our own legislative and policy victories have highlighted the gap between intention and impact.
In January 2007, Change Machine launched a new model that positioned free tax preparation as an on-ramp to financial coaching — helping individuals access their tax refunds, but also introducing financial goals as a powerful driver to save at tax time. Over the course of this work, we served primarily Black and Brown women who were heads of household, working with them to save a portion of their refund that they could then put toward a forward-thinking, strengths-based, passionately-held financial goal.
In doing so, we learned the power of educational goals, such as saving a portion of the refund to pay for a child’s college tuition. These educational goals were unique in their ability to help our customers imagine a different future for themselves and their children, in turn fueling their savings activity. We were also inspired by research led by Dr. William Elliott, demonstrating that among low-and middle-income children, 529 savings accounts, even at small amounts, dramatically increase the likelihood of undergraduate enrollment and graduation.
We partnered with the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and the New York Asset Development Coalition to advocate for Refund529. In 2016, Governor Cuomo signed Refund529 into law, allowing New York State tax filers to split their state refund towards a contribution into a 529 college savings account. We celebrated early uptake, estimating that in the first five years of implementation, at least 280,000 filers would contribute over $6.5 million to college savings for their families.
This was a major policy win for us. But although Refund529 began with identifying the needs of Black and Brown women and centering their solutions, we have not done enough to ensure that our systems-level win closes the racial and gender wealth gap. Scaling our mission to change systems is only the beginning of our contribution to creating a more equitable economy.
Today, Change Machine is embarking on a new strategy. Ever since our founding as a direct service organization, we’ve been honing our focus on equity: cementing our customers’ own financial goals as the driver of the coaching process; holding ourselves accountable to an outcomes (not outputs) framework, and defining savings as an activity — not an amount.
Moving forward, we will apply that same equity lens to our systems-change work. This starts by centering the financial realities of Black and Brown women who are low-income. And by “centering,” we mean holding their truths as the center “against which everything else is compared and as the ‘norm’ against which everyone else is measured,” as described by Dr. Ruha Benjamin in Race After Technology. It is only in prioritizing their success that we can build an economy in which everyone is financially secure.
Looking back, what would a Refund529 campaign that advances an equitable economy have looked like?
It’s not enough to create an opportunity for tax filers to save. We must ensure that those who stand to benefit the most from wealth-building products are the ones who actually do in the end. This heightened intentionality about who benefits during concept and design stages must also extend to data collection requirements, resource allocation, and community engagement. Looking forward, we want to hold ourselves accountable to demonstrating our intent and purpose in our outcomes and impact.
That’s why Change Machine is refocusing its mission to scale and advance equity across systems and institutions that help low-income communities achieve financial security. The strength of our economy is defined by the success of these individuals, including their experiences, goals, and visions for the future, not to mention their children’s futures. We need an economy that intentionally champions the aspirations of Black and Brown women who navigate financial insecurity, because when our economy enables them to achieve their financial goals and build the lives they want for themselves and their families, we ALL thrive.