Financial Education Is Key to Improving Health and Wealth in Native American Communities

November is Native American Heritage month and, indeed, there is much to celebrate. The tenacity, cultural beauty and strength of the Native communities with which we collaborate at First Nations Oweesta (Oweesta) continuously humbles and inspires us. As a nonprofit organization ultimately born out of the American Indian movement, Oweesta has watched as Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities have seized the economic self-determination of their communities in diverse and creative ways. However, as we consider both the physical health and financial well-being of these communities, it is clear that the long-term effects of hundreds of years of government-sponsored genocide on these communities continue to be felt.

One of these effects include the fact that Native communities experience some of the lowest quality of physical health in the nation. For example, according to the 2015 Census Bureau projections, the life expectancy of American Indians/Alaska Natives is 77.5 years—years lower than the White population in the U.S. at 79.8 years. These discrepancies are often linked to barriers that restrict access to quality medical care, including lower-incomes, geographic isolation and inadequate housing. For those who have lost loved ones to undiagnosed cancers, diabetes or faulty wiring within inadequate housing stock, these realities have been profoundly felt.

Not surprisingly, Native American financial capability remains among the lowest of all minority populations in the nation. According to a 2016 study by the FINRA Foundation, Native people are the least likely of all population groups ­­­– including other minorities – to plan for retirement, have an emergency fund or to have a checking account. It was for these reasons the Oweesta, in partnership with First Nations Development Institute, created the Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families financial education curriculum over 20 years ago. Oweesta provides dozens of train-the-trainers workshops to Native-led organizations serving local communities on this culturally relevant curriculum each year. In 2019, 79% of all individuals who attended our train-the-trainers workshops started or led financial education programs that reached over 7,000 Native individuals last year.

During 2012, after years of working to improve the financial capabilities of Native communities through the Building Native Communities curriculum, Oweesta began a five-year program evaluation of the long-term impact of our financial education efforts. Using local partner organizations, Oweesta observed 425 individuals for one year following their financial education classes. These financial education efforts were concluded to have a profound impact on program participants and their communities. A full copy of the report can be found here.

Outcomes of the program included increased savings, increased vigilance of predatory lenders, and heightened confidence about overall finance among program participants. More compelling than any of our survey data, however, was the stories that we received. Individuals consistently shared accounts of feeling less stressed and more in control of their day-to-day lives. At Oweesta we know that the toxic stress associated with long-term financial insecurity can have devastating effects on physical health. This is why we see our work in improving the financial lives of Native communities as being inextricably linked to also improving the public health of Native communities.

One of the most impactful stories out of all that we received, was one that highlights the cathartic effect of stress relief. During 2018, one of Oweesta’s financial education trainers shared the story of helping a client build their credit. After several years working together, they pulled the clients’ updated credit report together. When “she looked at it, she started crying. I asked her why she was crying [and] she said she never thought she would see her credit score that high.” Other financial educators shared stories of individuals using newly discovered financial skills to improve credit and save for a down-payment, ultimately allowing them to purchase a home. In some cases, this would not only be their first home purchase, but also the first time that these individuals had access to safe, stable housing.

As we celebrate Native American Heritage month, let us celebrate these individuals. Let us celebrate the persistence, determination and strength of tribal members that are creating healthier communities on their own terms. Let’s also honor the Native organizations that have offered a platform for families and communities to create healthy and growing economies, produce personal assets and ground all these financial practices in deep cultural values that honor the knowledge that Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities have always been sustainably minded and capable resource managers, just as their ancestors have been since time immemorial.

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