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VCU researchers are helping to pilot the Building Wealth and Health Network, which addresses the underlying causes of poverty while promoting financial literacy. (Getty Images)

VCU researchers team up with Salvation Army to promote financial literacy for Richmond families while targeting the roots of poverty

Psychology professor Marcia Winter says addressing both topics together, through the new Building Wealth and Health Network, can help break the cycle.

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Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are working with The Salvation Army Central Virginia Area Command to pilot the Building Wealth and Health Network, a program that will provide tools for financial empowerment to those living in poverty in the Richmond area.

Since its inception in 2014, the network, which was launched by Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, has served more than 1,000 low-income families in Pennsylvania. Now the network is coming to Richmond as part of The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope initiative, which seeks to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by addressing its root causes.

To launch the program locally, The Salvation Army was awarded a $100,000 grant from the city of Richmond through its Office of Community Wealth Building, with additional funding provided by Virginia Credit Union and Atlantic Union Bank.

Unlike some financial literacy programs, which stop short of addressing the underlying causes of poverty such as individual and collective trauma, the Building Wealth and Health Network works to address them in the process of promoting financial literacy, said Marcia Winter, one of several VCU researchers working on the project.

“When I hear about financial literacy programs, I can get this automatic, negative reaction,” said Winter, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences as well as director of the Child and Family Perseverance Lab. “Financial knowledge doesn’t feed you when you’re hungry. I don’t know much about banking or financial literacy, and I get that it’s important, but it also feels very much like, ‘Oh, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and learn some stuff and you’ll be fine.’”

So she had reservations when she was initially approached by Stephen Batsche, executive director of program services at The Salvation Army Central Virginia Area Command, to help launch the program in Richmond. However, the more she learned about it, the more she got on board.

“When I really looked at their program, it started to really make more sense to me,” Winter said. “I loved it because it’s a group intervention and trauma-focused but also healing-centered. It really recognizes and honors how trauma, both individual and collective, can keep people in poverty, and endeavors to release people from the guilt of not knowing anything about finances within a system that was not set up to lift them.”

Following the original program’s model, the local Building Wealth and Health Network setup will consist of 16 sessions over a period of eight weeks for up to 15 participants per cohort. The program will be fully funded for participants, who will have transportation, child care and dinner provided for them to attend meetings. Empowerment coaches hired by The Salvation Army and trained through Drexel will work with participants during the group sessions as well as having one-on-one opportunities for discussion.

“This is a financial empowerment model,” Batsche said. “It uses a healing-centered engagement approach, and it addresses the fact that a person’s past or current trauma might be directly related to their socioeconomic environment. Even if you learn the things that you need to know about how to apply for a loan, how to open up a bank account, how to budget, it’s that trauma that can really paralyze you and reduce your agency to make decisions that will help you achieve your goals.”

The Salvation Army will run three cohorts over a period of eight to 12 months, with the first cohort starting this spring. VCU will collect data to assess the program’s feasibility and efficacy for Richmond families.

Winter said a community focus group was held in late 2023, inviting Richmond residents to tell the program developers what local families need.

“We wanted to represent those community participant voices before we even started,” she said. “Part of our job has been to look at how we fit this program to Richmond and meeting Richmond’s needs, not just copying the Philadelphia program. At the same time, we’re using the Philadelphia program as our template because it’s done so well. We’re not reinventing the wheel if it doesn’t need it.”

Along with Winter, VCU researchers working on the Building Wealth and Health Network project include Anika Hines, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the School of Population Health; Youngmi Kim, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Social Work; and Amy Pridemore, executive director of the VCU Financial Success Center by Virginia Credit Union, which is affiliated with the School of Business.

Eventually, the goal is to expand the network to include additional programming and to reach more Virginia families, Winter said.