First Step Alliance is pleased to share with you our 2021/2022 Impact Report, highlighting our accomplishments during 2021 and our plans for the coming year. We continue to expand our community outreach and program partnerships, and are working hard to start a new credit union for our community.
Thank you to all of our volunteers, Advisory Council members and donors for contributing your time, treasure and talent to help us improve the financial lives of justice-involved individuals.
Integral to our mission to help advance successful reentry and financial independence for justice-involved individuals, in 2021 First Step Alliance launched its Fresh Start Financial Education and Banking Programs. Our primary focus was on the development and implementation of these programs, and cultivating partnerships with community-based organizations and Departments of Corrections.
Fresh Start Financial Education
Knowledge is power. First Step Alliance provides justice-involved individuals with access to a free online financial education learning program that includes many important topics. Certified credit counselors are also available to help people overcome specific financial challenges. This program is available 24/7 through a smartphone, computer or tablet, and is designed to accommodate a wide range of people, regardless of financial acumen or learning style. In 2021 we established the following partnerships:
Family Promise New Jersey – Family Promise is a national nonprofit that addresses homelessness, workforce development, education, financial capability, and health and wellness. Our financial education resources are available to families through a financial coaching program.
Mississippi Center for Reentry – our financial education and banking programs are available to MS reentry program participants in Desoto, Tunica, Marshall and Tate Counties.
National Cyber Protection and Training Corporation – through this secure platform, our financial education program is available to 5,000 people on parole and probation across the country.
New York City Correctional Facilities – our financial education program and entrepreneurship resources are available on 2,500 tablets to currently incarcerated individuals.
SCORE Northeast New Jersey – funded by the SBA, SCORE is the largest network of volunteer small business mentors in the U.S. First Step Alliance works with SCORE and local reentry organizations to provide entrepreneurship workshops.
Fresh Start Banking
To improve access to affordable banking products, First Step Alliance developed a Fresh Start Banking Program in partnership with Element Federal Credit Union. The offering is specifically designed for justice-involved individuals, and includes a no-minimum checking account, online & mobile banking, bill pay, direct deposit of paycheck, fee-free ATM access, and a secured credit card to help build credit.
In addition to expanding our community outreach and Fresh Start Program partnerships, our plan is to focus on the following activities during 2022. We are also continuing to advance our efforts to start a new credit union for justice-involved individuals.
Credit Union Program for Justice-Involved Individuals
The credit union movement is well positioned to provide products and services that support reentry and help give returning citizens a second chance. With the help of a generous grant from Alloya Corporate Federal Credit Union, First Step Alliance will develop a product and service "playbook" for credit unions, to help them better serve justice-involved individuals in their communities. The project includes creating customized procedures and policies around identity verification and compliance systems, as well as developing special loan underwriting criteria. Our Fresh Start Financial Education Program will also be made available to participating credit unions.
Alabama ID Initiative
First Step Alliance has partnered with Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Jimmy Hale Mission, two established community-based nonprofits in Alabama, to address issues of access to identification documents and financial services for returning citizens in Alabama. The goal is to develop a uniform resource manual for state agencies and local reentry organizations in order to better understand the critical need and steps for obtaining identification documents. The guidebook will also identify financial services resources appropriate for individuals recently released from incarceration and/or on supervision. The Financial Health Network has provided the funding for this important project.
Financial Education Licensing Program for Formerly Incarcerated Community Leaders
Financial education is a unique subject that requires specialized expertise to teach effectively. The quality of instruction directly influences both short-term student outcomes and long-term impact on their financial wellbeing. Peer-to-peer education by and for the justice-involved community can be highly effective in this regard. We are currently seeking funding for a pilot program.
For millions of justice-involved individuals, fair treatment in banking is a huge issue. Which is why, in addition to its other programs, First Step Alliance is committed to starting a credit union for returning citizens. This new Credit Union will be uniquely focused on justice-involved individuals and their financial needs, providing access to safe, affordable banking products and the financial education people need to create a path to sustainable financial well-being.
Why a Credit Union
There are about 5,000 credit unions in the United States serving over 100 million people. Like banks, credit unions accept deposits and make loans, and provide a safe place to save and borrow money. But unlike banks, credit unions are not-for-profit organizations, and aren’t driven by making big profits to satisfy shareholders. Instead, credit unions generally provide:
Better Service & Community Support. Credit unions exist to help their members and actively support the communities they serve.
Favorable Rates. Credit unions generally charge lower fees and interest rates on loans, and offer higher rates on deposits.
Ownership and Security. As a credit union member, you are an owner, not just a customer. Credit unions are democratically run – one member, one vote.
Where We Are Today
First Step Alliance has brought together an experienced group of financial services professionals and formerly incarcerated community leaders with the vision and passion to bring this new Credit Union to life. We have widespread institutional support for this initiative from government regulators, Congressional members, the credit union industry, reentry programs and other community-based organizations. We are now seeking funding for the initial costs of starting the new Credit Union, and expect to begin the charter application process in the second quarter of 2022.
We are actively engaged with mission-aligned organizations on advocacy initiatives for current and formerly incarcerated people. Our Founder serves as a Program Ambassador with the New Jersey Reentry Development Corporation, one of the largest reentry organizations in New Jersey (started by former Governor McGreevey). First Step Alliance has also published research on the financial health of justice-involved individuals.
The Justice Roundtable
First Step Alliance is a member of The Justice Roundtable, a broad-based coalition of more than 100 organizations working to help reform federal criminal justice laws and policies. Last year, we signed on to several letters to Congress and the President which were supported by recognized groups, such as the ACLU, Vera Institute of Justice and the Sentencing Project. Issues included compassionate release related to COVID and ensuring justice-impacted youth and adults remained a priority in the American Jobs Plan.
First Step Alliance Letter for the Record – House Financial Services Committee Hearing
First Step Alliance submitted a letter for the record for the September 28, 2021 House of Representatives Financial Services Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion hearing entitled, "Access Denied: Eliminating Barriers and Increasing Economic Opportunity for Justice-involved Individuals." The purpose of this hearing was to discuss the economic hardship formerly incarcerated individuals face as a result of limited access to banking, housing and employment. Our letter described the issues that prevent many returning citizens from obtaining mainstream financial services and suggested several modifications to existing bank policies to help improve access.
First Step Alliance Research Report – Economic Health of Justice Involved Individuals
First Step Alliance recently published a report on the"Economic Wellbeing of U.S. Adults with Experiences with Incarceration & Unpaid Legal Costs." The information is based on data obtained from the 2019 Federal Reserve Board Survey of Household Economic Decision-making (SHED), a study the Fed conducts every year to understand the range of financial challenges and opportunities facing families in the United States. The data reinforces the connection between systemic issues of access to financial services and poor financial health – justice-involved individuals are two times more likely to be discriminated against, unbanked, use predatory alternatives, and have poor credit scores.
Thank you to all of our volunteers, who have passionately supported our mission and vision. We also wish to acknowledge the following organizations for their generous grants to First Step Alliance, which help support the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion in financial services:
Alloya Corporate Federal Credit Union
Financial Health Network
Rothschild Family Foundation
US Alliance Financial
And to the many community members, friends, family and allies who have generously donated their time, treasure and talent to help improve the financial lives of justice-involved individuals.