Helping Women Achieve Financial Independence

With the Fourth of July just around the corner, we’ll be celebrating the country’s declaration of independence with cookouts, parties and fireworks. But there’s another type of independence we celebrate at The Foundation—financial independence for women. For those who have it, they are secure in the fact that they have sufficient personal wealth to live with more resources and less stress. Their assets generate income that is greater than their expenses. For those who are economically insecure, however, the path to financial independence can be hard but achievable.

Financial security comes from income, savings, and assets that allow a family to create a safety net to absorb short-term shocks and to turn long-term dreams into reality. While steady income is important to moving women out of poverty, assets help women build financial security and open new doors to opportunity. Nevertheless, even as the U.S. economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, a large share of American families are struggling to make ends meet, and more are struggling to save. Many of the milestones of middle class success—homeownership, retirement security, and access to higher education—are becoming harder to achieve for more and more Americans.

More than half of American families are not financially prepared for an unexpected expense, break even or spend more than they make each month, and have a very limited ability to build assets. A full third of American families (33 percent), for instance, reported having no emergency savings whatsoever. In the Washington region, close to one third of families (31 percent) do not have enough savings to live above the poverty level for just three months if they have an income disruption. This situation is critically common among single-parent households—most likely headed by single women—households of color, and low-income households.


Low-income women can and have the capacity to save with the right combination of support, knowledge, financial products and public policies. The Women’s Foundation’s investments help support low-income women in the Washington region through their asset building journey. From financial knowledge—such as learning how to access their credit report, correcting any errors, and negotiating and paying down debt—to increasing their savings and income from new employment, or accessing tax credits for which they qualify. During the 2015 fiscal year, The Women’s Foundation’s funding helped about 1,134 women receive the Earned Income Tax Credit and these women increased their assets by $1.9 million. An additional 276 women participated in financial education programs, increasing their savings, decreasing their debt, and improving their credit scores.

In times of economic hardship, savings and assets become the safety net needed to keep families afloat. The Women’s Foundation works tirelessly supporting women to build assets and create a solid foundation of financial independence for all.

When Data Tells a Local Woman’s Story

CFED asset scorecard coverWorking in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, it helps to be a bit of a data nerd.  Increasingly, tracking, crunching, and assessing data is not just a “nice to do” but a “must do.”  At The Women’s Foundation, we work hard to make sure we’re investing in strategies that are data-driven and evidence-based.

For those who are not data nerds, it helps when data tells a real story of a woman’s life.  That’s why I do a happy dance when CFED launches its annual “Assets & Opportunity” scorecard.  The scorecard is user-friendly and includes data beyond financial assets, such as education, health and jobs.

So, what does the 2014 scorecard tell us about the lives of women and families in the Washington region[i]?  Here are a few things that struck a chord for me:

  • DC and Maryland have stronger asset building policies, and stronger outcomes for families.  Virginia has weaker policies, and weaker outcomes for families.  For example, DC and Maryland have eliminated “asset tests” for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) that discourage recipients from building the savings that could otherwise help them move toward self-sufficiency.
  • Maryland has the highest adoption of asset building policies in the US – but it’s still only 60% of what could be adopted.
  • DC has the worst ratio of homeownership rates in the US, comparing the rate between two-parent (67.7%) and one-parent households (29.2%).  This, to me, says a lot about the financial status of one-parent households in the District, and the importance of investing in asset building for the low-income women we aim to serve.

When the scorecard comes out, I also always look at the “liquid asset poverty rate.”  It’s a jargon-y term for the savings on hand (cash and other accounts that can be liquidated quickly) to help individuals and families in the event of a crisis, like a job loss or medical emergency.  What I’m always shocked to think about is that these assets are what allow someone to “subsist at the poverty level for three months in the absence of income.”  We’re talking about the ability to simply subsist at poverty levels, which is awfully close to slipping below, and is certainly not enough to get by in our region.

  • In Virginia, 51.8% of single female-headed households live in liquid asset poverty.
    If it’s a two-parent household, this rate drops to 27.5%.
  • In Maryland, 48.4% of single female-headed households live in liquid asset poverty.
    If it’s a two-parent household, this rate drops to 21.4%.

These numbers are consistent – or in some cases even lower – than national rates, but they are nevertheless striking.  If half of female-headed households are living in liquid asset poverty – meaning they don’t have the savings to cover three months of basic expenses, let alone the savings to plan for the future – then we have a lot of work to do.

I encourage you to dig deep into the data.  Find out how it speaks to you.

Lauren Stillwell is a program officer at Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

[i] Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s geographic focus includes the District of Columbia; Montgomery County and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland; Arlington and Fairfax Counties, and the city of Alexandria, in Virginia.  Based on available scorecard information, this post broadly discusses state-level information for Maryland and Virginia. There was insufficient data available in many cases for the District.