Q&A: Pennsylvania Representative Dwight Evans and Heather Tyler, Director of Strategic Services for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, formerly with the Pennsylvania Department of Banking
Q: Why a task force on working families?
Representative Evans: I knew state budgets weren’t going to grow, so I wanted to figure out how to re-channel our resources to efficiently support working families. The purpose of the task force was to look at current policies across the board and come up with recommendations for new ones. I was hoping it would encourage cabinet officers to begin measuring initiatives with a different yardstick: what is the impact on working families?
Q: How important was it to have the executive branch involved from the beginning?
Representative Evans: It was extremely important. Obviously, as legislators, we mainly pass legislation and oversee the budget. Since the executive branch is responsible for delivery, I thought if we had cabinet members involved early on, we’d learn more and we’d build better recommendations.
Heather Tyler: Because the Office of Financial Education was housed in the Department of Banking, we had a stable funding source and the time and resources to mature. We had an administrative structure that supported us, and that was key. We had the luxury to do 100 percent mission-oriented work because we had a talented staff to take care of our daily needs. They helped us contact professionals to help us build the website and the database, and they supported our ongoing IT work.
Q: What were the advantages of having Secretary of Banking Schenk as a co-chair?
Representative Evans: So much of what we’re talking about is related to money—financial planning, counseling and education. This is what it comes down to. So can you think of anyone better to get involved that the secretary of the Department of Banking? Normally you would think this should be a Health and Human Services initiative. But, banking and financing are important for households—loans, home equity, business development, financing—and these are under the purview of the Department of Banking. We needed to involve someone who knew the industry’s products and services. Secretary Schneck brought an invaluable perspective. He really believes in educating financial consumers. It’s also important to understand that the Department of Banking isn’t paid for with tax dollars, it’s paid for with banking fees.
Q: Was it helpful to involve the private sector?
Representative Evans: Yes, the banks. Obviously, banks look for customers, and working families can save and borrow money. Smart savers become smart borrowers—they take out student loans, finance houses and start businesses. So there was a natural alliance to form with banks—they are looking for depositors and for people to borrow money. The ultimate goal is to have responsible lender and responsible borrowers, and the banks have helped us educate wise financial consumers.
Q: What were the benefits of the open discussions you held across the state?
Representative Evans: It brought an added breadth and depth to our awareness. I’ve been in the legislature for more than 30 years. Never before had these kind of open discussions occurred in my time. We were really trying to understand people’s finances, and this helped us tremendously. You know, you learn about money at home or in school or at church, this gave us an opportunity to learn where and how people were getting their financial education.
Heather Tyler: The Office of Financial Education’s website, www.moneysbestfriend.com, came out of what we learned from the task force’s information gathering. When we went around the state, we heard two really interesting stories. First, people were saying there’s no opportunity for financial education in our district. Second, financial educators were saying we have all these programs but no one comes. We needed to find a way for programs to input their information into a database and then, after we’d vetted the information, create a clearinghouse for people to find educational resources in their area.
Q: States are facing some of the toughest fiscal conditions in decades. Can you afford to invest in measures to help families get ahead?
Representative Evans: I think you have no choice. Plus, a lot of our recommendations were about better communication and collaboration—they didn’t cost a lot of money. When people don’t make good choices and don’t have the opportunity to get ahead, however, that costs money. When people know how to manage their own finances, it helps everybody.
Q: What’s one of the main messages of the report?
Representative Evans: We basically took an inventory of what we have and how it works. Then we asked government to think differently, to orient itself a little better toward the average working family. This is a roadmap, and it’s an especially good one for how things are economically these days. We went through every single department to find what each of them can do, and a lot of it doesn’t cost much money. It’s a blueprint for how departments can address the concerns of working people. I believe if we operate with a little more of this thinking embedded in our agencies, we can really roll people into the middle class.
Q: You could choose to focus on a lot of things as a state legislator. Why is this work important to you?
Representative Evans: Every state has financial problems, but nobody wants to talk about raising taxes or cutting services. The greatest value you can find is in education. Teach people how to survive and succeed on their own. This task force report is still just as relevant as it was in 2005. It’s difficult as a legislator to be a steward of this kind of work, so it’s really important to involve the administration so it can be sustained.
Q: Why are you proud of the Fresh Foods Financing Initiative?
Representative Evans: This is a metaphor for everything we’ve been talking about. First of all, I was trying to add jobs and improve people’s health, and this seemed like an efficient way to do both. It took us 16 months to turn around and start this up. We’ve generated 5,000 jobs. These aren’t jobs that go overseas; they stay in those communities. Our health care system is on the back end, but good food is also medicine, so this was about overall health—of individuals, communities and the state—and that fits right in with working families. If you have quality food purveyors, it gives consumers better and more choices. There’s your analogy: If you want to change behavior, change the environment. By having quality grocery stores, people have better options and the opportunity to make better choices. You can’t mandate this stuff. It’s about making good choices realistically available.