Saturday, January 15, 2022

[Part 1] Building financial capabilities of vulnerable households


I found an interesting textbook for social workers in Kinokuniya a week ago and decided to buy it because it discusses issues that have bugged me for more than a decade. 

When I just published my first book, I attracted my first bunch of critics. They challenged me to see whether a non-degree worker can also be made to retire early on a salary below $2,000 in today's dollars. 

Faced with such a question, I retreated immediately because my salary was actually quite good when made my first $100,000 ages ago. Also, I enjoyed living like an ascetic. The idea then was that most of Singapore cannot be helped. Even if some kind of magic formula were to exist, most citizens would lack the IQ or conscientiousness to implement a multi-decade plan for retirement. Government understand this well which is why they have CPF - it's a system to save Singaporeans from themselves.  

I'm not the kind of guy who retreats from fight, so the incident stung me for many years. 

Even if Financial Capability and Asset Building in Vulnerable Households is unable to address that challenge, it's worth plunking down $100 to read a book that highlights the difficulties of vulnerable families so that we can at least understand what obstacles stand in their way. To further this end, I made the immense personal sacrifice to stop reading the Economist to focus on finishing this textbook book. 

I'm halfway through and find this a pleasurable read. Way more pleasurable than certain sections of The Economist. 

Before I begin, I'd just like to point out that if you are that unfortunate social worker who reads my blog, the book will be useless to you because it is totally US-centric, I had to wade through information on 529 college plans and welfare schemes available to Native Americans. I also baulked at how shameless US textbooks are at giving suggestions on how to lobby and protest against unfair regulations. The book is written by the political left. And we don't need that kind of shit here in Singapore. 

On the other hand, the book may be useful for some local bodies to develop a framework to help vulnerable families, the key is to wade through all the chapters and find the equivalent social programs to document for Singapore. Whoever succeeds in doing this, is a saint, it may make commissioned financial advisors matter less in society, and I'm happy to volunteer my personal time to help. 

Here are some things I have learnt from 50% of the book:

  • It's hubristic to jump in to look at the expenses of the vulnerable immediately. If someone looks for a social worker, they have a specific problem they need to be solved. Solve it first before getting into processes to clean up a person's finances. Eg. An abused wife may need a PPO before addressing the lack of a bank account as all her money is shared. 
  • Banks can be very oppressive with deposit account charges and ATM fees. Social workers need to be armed with alternatives or find ways to top up to avoid service charges. Sadly, if you have a savings account that is less than $500 with DBS, you will have to pay $2 a month. But $500 is kinda manageable.  
  • Because vulnerable families often work for the gig economy, one area that needs to be looked at are earnings volatility. A poorer family can expect 25+% drop in monthly income every few months from illness or other events. So social workers in the US are always finding ways to get their charges to find more sources of income. 
  • A three-month emergency income kitty is ridiculously hard to achieve for vulnerable families and suggesting this can make you lose credibility. $200-$300 standing by for sudden visits to the doctor or malfunctioning appliances is a simpler and quicker win. I would say $500 to minimise service charges from DBS is a good confidence target.
  • Eventually, a social worker needs to build a map of the family finances. Prioritise the income statement first because there may be some bleeding to stop. Constructing a balance sheet can only come later once they are ready to build better financial capabilities. I don't even know how many can even reach the balance sheet stage.
To go through the volume, I have also wasted a lot of time figuring out how to game withholding taxes and massaging a person's credit report. I really think that the US is really not helping their citizens with a complicated system that makes our CPF policies look like a colouring book.   

In part 2 of my review, I may propose what this means for Singaporeans and what we can do for vulnerable families here.

1 comment:

  1. The median ITE grad salary in 2020 was $2.2k a month. That for poly grads was $2.7k. This was right smack in the worse of covid & lockdowns. Salary should be better now esp with inflation pressures.

    The most important thing is attitude. If they inbreed unhealthy attitudes like siege mentality, or crutch mentality, or victim mentality then nothing can save them. The "I have to stick it to 'rich' people by robbing that aunty at the ATM coz society 'owes' me and that's the way I can get my fair share" attitude.

    IQ isn't so impt at this level to break the poverty cycle & establish sustainable baseline foundations. AQ is most impt, followed by EQ.

    Conscientiousness is one aspect of AQ.