Q&A: Washington Representative Jeannie Darnielle

Representative Jeannie DarnielleQ: How did you get involved in asset building?
A: I had been working on poverty throughout my adult life, and I realized that all my work had been defensive. In other words, I had been dealing with people who were already experiencing poverty. I saw that this work could really prevent poverty. That’s why I got interested in asset building – to be proactive.

Q: Why do you think it’s good public policy?
A: There’s certainly the obvious: when you provide families with the tools they need to succeed, the financial benefits to families trickle up to communities, to cities and eventually to the state. This is a place where we can have nothing but success. This is apolitical. The fight on poverty, for example, often has been a fight between parties. Since we began our multi-year commitment to asset building, however, we’ve seen a diverse group of people working on it. Because it’s a win for everybody—for the family, the corner grocery, the small business association—it goes round and round. Legislators and community leaders become excited and commit to it.

Q: What are some of the advantages to supporting local coalitions?
A: The statewide network behind the local coalitions—the Washington Asset Building Coalition—has really driven ideas such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), free tax preparation and financial literacy out to communities across the state. Then the local coalitions go in a number of directions to serve the particular needs of their communities—getting services to the unbanked, supporting Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), providing workforce and skills training, and offering credit card debt and homeownership workshops. One coalition even worked with high-school youth on entrepreneurship. We started as a small group of Washington legislators wondering what we could do for working families, and this idea of local coalitions has really taken off.

Q: Did the economic downturn make you think differently about asset building?
A: There’s nothing like a recession to show whether a state has invested in its low-income working citizens. If we don’t help that strata of the population build their own family safety net, then in a recession they’ll need to rely on the state. All our work with people—teaching them about delayed gratification, teaching them the dangers of living on credit, and the satisfying advantages of saving for a goal like housing or education pays off when more people can stand on their own two feet. And financial institutions have realized that engaging lower-income workers is a win-win for the private sector, too.

Q: Budget conditions in Washington are as tough as anywhere. As vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee, can you afford to continue funding initiatives to create opportunities for working families to save and build assets?
A: Last year, five committee chairs attended the NCSL Working Families meeting, and we also involved the Senate. We came out of that meeting with some pretty aggressive goals, even in this downturn. We’re not going to be 100 percent successful, but it shows a turning point in our work. We’re keeping the asset building line item in our budget. It may be reduced, but we support it. We’ve made a commitment to develop private sector support for the children of the recession forum idea that started in Connecticut, and we’re in the process of planning several of our own this fall. We have a Prize Linked Savings bill and we’re hoping to bolster the IDA money—even in a year like this when we’re cutting everything in the world. It’s difficult, but it needs to be done. We’re trying to help people build individual safety nets through savings.

January 2011