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Firm Footing

Tory Schalkle is currently a Senior Vice President of Enterprise Strategy at U.S. Bank

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Banker Tory Schalkle Launches Non-profit Firm Footing

Tory Schalkle understands the U.S. banking system - topics that usually give others headaches like credit scores, interest rates, and collateral. Yet he realized many in the U.S. were not so lucky - particularly those with poor credit, no credit history, and financial illiteracy.

Tory Schalkle and his wife discussed how they might help others better understand and navigate the financial system. There were numerous groups they were eager to help with financial literacy, including recent immigrants with no credit history, those leaving abusive relationships without credit history or independent finances, etc. But one group stuck out as having both a large population and no few financial resources: incarcerated individuals.

When Tory and his wife looked for an organization to support in that effort, they found no national financial training program despite robust academic literature articulating its need and potential efficacy. For instance, a University of Arkansas study found, “there is no national program or organization designed to promote financial literacy programs for the incarcerated” despite what the Journal of Correctional Education calls a “glaring need for offender financial education… and the definite need to continue educating offenders in financial literacy. This focus on financial education may be the key to reducing America’s prison population.” Finding none, they decided to start one themselves. So began Firm Footing.

Supporting People, Supporting Society

Every year, over 630,000 people reenter society, yet over 80% of them will be back behind bars in less than a decade, with 93% of those infractions done out of economic frustration and duress. Added to this are astonishing stats that this population is 2-4x more likely than the average American to be unbanked, rely on payday loans, etc. So preventing that duress (through tools such as financial literacy and training) may hold a key to preventing this treadmill and making society safer. Research backs that up: Pennsylvania and the Department for Banking & Securities discovered that three-quarters of inmates with bank accounts do not return. A University of Arkansas report put it more directly, “Without financial literacy training, many former offenders will be set up for failure as soon as they are released back into society, and this can only increase the recidivism rate."

Supporting the Families Left Behind

But there’s another impacted population - family and children. Astonishingly, half of Americans have a "close family member" who was incarcerated, according to a 2019 Cornell University study. These family members are often innocent bystanders in this cycle - the people left to pay outstanding bills, face harassment from debt collectors, and have essentials repossessed. They're the ones who suffer from diminished earnings when loved one get out, and if they go back in.

Lowering Societal Cost

But the direct population and their families aren’t the only ones who would benefit. An average inmate directly costs the government $36,000 per year, so even a modest reduction lowers the overall societal financial cost. These savings aren’t theoretical - according to a 2013 RAND report, those receiving educational courses have 43% lower recidivism.

Giving a Firm Footing

While in its infancy and exploratory stage, Firm Footing gives these vulnerable populations a “firm footing” as they reenter society by providing highly tailored financial literacy programs. The initial curriculum, for instance, was developed with help from the Department of Banking & Securities, local non-profits, and population participants. The initial pilot combined financial education sessions, working sessions, and individualized coaching.

Tailored Financial Literacy

What does financial illiteracy look like for this population? Studies show they’re twice as likely to be “unbanked,” meaning they do not have a checking account and cannot open one. They have no credit card, which makes them vulnerable if anything goes wrong in life, from a refrigerator going on the fritz to losing reliable transportation to a mechanical breakdown. They are three times more likely to pawn an item out of desperation, which likely results in less than fair value, and four times more likely to shop at “rent to own” stores, where vulnerable customers are forced to overpay for everyday goods every week.

“This isn’t just Personal Finance 101, it is knowing that saving is important and that savings accounts are subject to garnishment. It’s knowing how credit scores are calculated and alternatives to rebuild credit when every credit card rejects you.” In one example, Tory Schalkle and his wife tried to work with a participants’ landlord to get their rent payments reported to major credit bureaus.

One-on-One Coaching

Eventually, Tory would like to hire program graduates to work as personalized, one-on-one coaches with new participants - as a way to both improve individualize the learning and to employ this population.

Lives Rebuilt

The goal of Tory Schalkle and Firm Footing is to rebuild lives of those reentering society - giving them a firm enough footing that they won’t feel the financial duress. By helping people avoid situations of financial desperation, Firm Footing provides viable alternatives to more detrimental options.

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