RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
In his inaugural address last week, President Obama spoke of a country where, quote, "a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else."
MONTAGNE: That's the aspiration. Now let's talk about the reality.
INSKEEP: If you measure a family's financial well-being, it's common to ask about their income - how much they're earning right now.
MONTAGNE: But there's another vital question about savings, total net worth, wealth, or lack of it.
INSKEEP: A new report out today defines a huge obstacle for many Americans. They do not have savings or assets to get ahead.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: It seems that many American families aren't prepared to weather a financial storm. If they lose their income, almost half don't have enough savings or other liquid assets to stay out of poverty for more than three months. Almost a third have no savings accounts at all. That's according to the nonprofit Corporation for Enterprise Development, which in its words tries to help low and moderate-income families achieve the American dream.
President Andrea Levere says that's not easy when all your energy goes into paying the rent and buying food.
ANDREA LEVERE: It's only when you have those basic needs satisfied that you then can think: How do I make sure I have the best education for my children, how do I make sure I have the skills I need to be more competitive in the workplace?
FESSLER: Which is why her group and others are pushing new efforts to encourage more people to save, and to be smart about how they handle money. People like Michelle Jones, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, who says she lost everything when she got involved in drugs a decade ago, and is now trying to rebuild her life at age 52.
MICHELLE JONES: It's hard because right now I have a job that does not have benefits and it's part-time. And I'm making like $11 an hour.
FESSLER: But even so, through a program called Maryland CASH, Jones has been having $200 a month withheld from her paycheck and automatically put into savings. And it's a good thing too, because in November she was in a car accident.
JONES: I couldn't work and, you know, my job doesn't pay me when I'm off. And I had to use that money to pay my rent.
FESSLER: Just the kind of emergency that can send someone without a financial cushion tumbling into tough times.
ROBIN MCKINNEY: I noticed very early on that money is something that goes to the root of whatever issue is going on - whether it's a health issue, a criminal justice issue.
FESSLER: Robin McKinney is a former social worker who now runs Maryland CASH. She says low wages are clearly a problem, but so too are some government rules. For example, the state of Maryland used to prohibit public assistance for those with more than $2,000 in assets. But many low-income families qualify for big lump-sum payments through the federal Earned Income Tax Credit Program.
MCKINNEY: Our average refund is about $2,200. So that's already over that $2,000 asset limit. So if they didn't spend that money down immediately, they were at risk of losing their benefits. This is a huge disincentive to savings.
FESSLER: So in Maryland, the asset limit has been abolished and there are similar efforts in other states.
Indeed, there's a lot of bipartisan agreement that getting people to save more is a good thing. Stuart Butler, with the conservative Heritage Foundation, says while problems can be found at all income levels, those at the lower end of the economic ladder are especially vulnerable to financial setbacks.
STUART BUTLER: It's almost a double whammy. They don't have a lot of assets and then when they try to get credit in some ways, it's very expensive. And it sucks them into a much worse economic situation over time. And that's really what we've got to try to break out of.
FESSLER: Both he and McKinney say they're encouraged by a number of initiatives, especially something called Prize-Linked Savings. These are offered by credit unions in Michigan and pretty soon in a few other states. The accounts reward savers with a chance to win a big monthly or yearly prize, just like the lottery.
BUTLER: What it does is to convert the gambling instinct into a savings instinct.
FESSLER: An instinct he says needs to become much more widespread if there's a chance of achieving the president's inaugural dream.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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