Friday, March 27, 2009

Academics: Part 2 of 5: "Answer Poverty"

Today, we did our final presentation for our Gemstone project.

Our Gemstone project was titled "ANSWER Poverty," which stands for "Assessing the Need for Services which Effectively Reduce Poverty." During our project, we interviewed recent immigrants living in Langley Park, a community just a few minutes away from Campus that has a high number of low-income immigrants. Our goal was to find out their experiences with and knowledge of financial services. The point of our project was to find ways of bringing people who currently use "fringe" financial services like check cashing, money wiring to pay bills, payday loans, etc. into the mainstream banking system, so they don't lose a large percentage of their paycheck to things like check cashing fees.

What we found in our focus groups was surprising in many ways. First of all, most of our focus group participants didn't even know what check cashing was, and only one out of several dozen total participants mentioned using it. This was surprising because Langley Park has a lot of check cashing outlets, which is why we chose it. We also found that for many members of our target population, mainstream banks could have fees such as overdraft fees and below-minimum-balance fees that exceeded even those offered by fringe financial institutions. We also expected that language barriers would be a difficulty, because many recent immigrants only speak Spanish. We found out that most of the time there was someone on the bank staff that could speak Spanish, but that a lot of bank literature was in English only so they couldn't understand it. We ended our presentation with recommendations on what banks and other financial service providers could do to offer more consumer-friendly services. At the end we got feedback from a panel of expert "discussants" we had recruited in order to give us advice for how we should revise our thesis.

There were, however, a few hitches and embarrasing moments. Twice during the presentation, we referred to "cash checking" instead of "check cashing." Also, during our rehearsal, I discovered that during the process of "cleaning up" the slides, on one of the slides I made featuring a graph showing the racial composition of counties in the United States versus the number of banks per capita, that one of my teammates had replaced the phrase "non-Hispanic white" with "non-white Hispanic." Fortuntely we caught this error before it made it into our final presentation. Also, at the beginning of our presentation we included a video showing the sights and sounds of Langley Park. One of our discussants was Bill Hanna, a professor at UMCP who also runs several community organizations that focus on Langley Park, and he politely informed us that several of the shots in our video featured locations that weren't even in Langley Park.

However, overall, the experience was exciting and we learned a lot. Also, at the presentation, they were distributing pledge forms asking people to donate money to the Gemstone Program in order to make sure future generations of students have the same opportunities we did. If you are interested in donating to the Gemstone Program you can contact Jim Wallace.

And finally, this was the last day on the job for one of our team's mentors, Jerry Grossman (although he will still be coming to our meetings to advise our team for the next few weeks as we finalize our final thesis). Starting next week he will be working at the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) as an "economic growth officer." I imagine he will have his work cut out for him there.

(We have two mentors. Our other mentor is Brian Beard, whose area of expertise is on poverty assessment tools in developing countries.)

By the way, Mom and Dad, they will but putting out a DVD of our presentations at some point and I will send it to you when they do so you can see it. Also if you are interested in meeting our mentors or other team members I can see if that can be arranged when you are in town for graduation.)


Nanette Goodman said...

Interesting findings. If they don't know about check cashing and they don't use banks, how do they get paid? Is it all in cash?

Interesting findings.

Dan Mont said...

Wow, it must feel like a real sense of accomplishment to have a three-year project almost coming to a close.

I was surprised about the lack of check cashing, as well. Did any representatives of the banking community of Langley Park attend your presentation? It would have been interesting to hear their comments.

By the way....are you aware that my work is similar to what Grossman and Beard do? I work in what is equivalent to USAID's economic growth dept for the World Bank in VN, and I also am assisting Vietnam with poverty assessment tools.

I'm looking forward to seeing your DVD...and it would be nice to meet your Gemstone advisor, but only if it isn't a big deal. But if he is around at the graduation while we are there, it would be fun to talk to him.

But I definitely want to meet your advisor from the Computer Science Department. I assume she'll be there on Friday.

Oh! By the wy, please write and tell me what time the Thurs and Fri events are, and also how many tickets you can get. Please do that ASAP because people are making travel arrangements for your graduation and need to know.