School of Social Work Collaborates on Child Savings Account Program to Benefit Marshallese Community

by | Sep 22, 2017 | Community, Diversity & Inclusion, Events

Members of the Marshallese Community in Northwest Arkansas gathered at the Lee Elementary School Auditorium in Springdale on Saturday, Sept. 9, for the kickoff of the Child Savings Account Program specifically created to benefit children of the Marshallese community.

The University of Arkansas School of Social Work, the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese and the Economic Opportunity Agency have collaborated to develop and deliver the first Child Savings Accounts Program in the world specifically targeting Marshallese children.

The program is designed to provide $100 in seed money to 200 Marshallese children and youth (birth to 18 years) to use toward post-secondary education or job training costs. Funds will be placed in an Arkansas 529 GIFT College Investing Plan account through the Arkansas Treasurer’s Office. Each family will have additional opportunities to receive up to $100 in incentives to be deposited in each child’s 529 GIFT account if they attend financial education classes or sign up for direct deposit.

Funding for Child Savings Accounts Program needs assessment, program planning and community engagement initiatives started with a seed grant from the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, and a challenge and capacity-building grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. Both the funding support and the strong collaborative partnerships positioned the team to prepare a successful $250,000 grant to the United Way of Northwest Arkansas to implement the Child Savings Accounts program and a $20,000 grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to seed 200 child savings accounts at $100 each. In addition, the Arkansas Treasury of State has pledged $5,000 of additional support to seed more accounts in 2018. 

Marcia Shobe and Yvette Murphy-Erby are co-principal investigators on the project and have evaluated dedicated savings programs for traditionally underserved communities throughout the country over the past 20 years.

Murphy-Erby has worked with the Marshallese community on two other community-based projects, and Shobe helped develop the Family Asset Building Program in Kansas City, Missouri, which was part of the national American Dream anti-poverty policy demonstration (1997-2001). Shobe notes: “In his seminal book, “Assets and the Poor,” social work scholar Michael Sherraden writes about the ways in which household savings play a very different role than household income in thinking about the future. Sherraden states “Income feeds people’s stomachs, assets change their heads.”

Thus, when Marshallese children grow up knowing that their family and community is invested in their academic future, they will change the ways in which they think about and plan for their future. Current research in the field supports this notion, with children with even meager post-secondary savings demonstrating increased parent college expectations, child college aspirations, and college completion.”  

In addition to seed and incentive funds, Marshallese parents and children will have the opportunity to attend financial education classes at the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese. Janet Wills, a consultant for the Economic Opportunity Agency, noted: “The financial literacy, or money management, classes are being developed specifically for this population and will be taught in the Marshallese language. They will each be about one hour in length and presented at various places throughout the community where Marshallese residents gather.

Some of the topics include:

  • Financial responsibility of owning a car
  • Financial responsibility of owning a house
  • Managing credit
  • Working with a bank
  • Savings accounts, checking accounts, and using prepaid debit cards.

The list of classes offered is growing as the Marshallese residents identify additional topics of financial interest.

The day of the event, Melisa Laelan, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, facilitated a discussion between Marshallese community members and a panel comprised of Murphy-Erby and Shobe from the U of A School of Social Work; Wills of the Economic Opportunity Agency; and Emma Willis, executive director of the AR 529 programs and financial education in the Arkansas State Treasurer’s Office. Also in attendance was state Rep. Jeff Williams. 

Emma Willis pointed out: “This is the depiction of shifting a paradigm in a community. The conversation in the Marshallese community will now be, ‘let’s start saving for higher education’ instead of ‘how do we save for higher education?’ 529’s give families who would not normally see themselves as having the opportunity to save, a platform that is both affordable and intentional. I say intentional because it was designed for families at any income level to obtain the dream of higher education.”               

According to Murphy-Erby, “This project reflects the mission of the UA School of Social Work and the University of Arkansas priorities. In designing the program, we were intentional to ensure a culturally relevant process that promoted community engagement, collaboration, outreach, support and diversity, and inclusion. We believe the project provides a pathway to post-secondary education and ultimately prosperity for Marshallese children and families.”

Murphy-Erby also believes this effort is only the beginning: “We have plans to expand this CSA effort in many ways.  We aim to acquire additional funding support to track the outcomes for each participant through age 25. We also plan to engage corporations in offering direct deposit options and employee participation incentives and savings matches. We are thinking on a grand scale and so is the Marshallese community. For example, during the kickoff event, one Marshallese attendee inquired about a way in which the Marshallese community could establish a community trust to give collectively and ensure every Marshallese child has a CSA.”

When asked about the team’s largest aspiration, Murphy-Erby said, “Ultimately, we aim to close the racial wealth and educational gaps by facilitating similar efforts with other communities and populations. Imagine the positive outcomes we could achieve as a state in areas such as education, economic, and workforce development and a host of other metrics if every child born in Arkansas received a CSA at birth.”

Melisa Laelan, ACOM, summed up the importance of the project within the Marshallese community: “We are realizing that our community has a very low rate in college enrollment. One huge factor that contributes to the gap is limited availability of financial resources. In many instances where we have contact with a large audience or even when individuals visit the ACOM office, we have heard the community making inquiries about financial assistance for their children. Parents have approached us seeking answers and unfortunately many of those that we were able to assist, they ended up not completing college because assistance programs are limitedly afforded to Marshallese due to their status. We are very excited to launch the very first CSA program in any Pacific Islander community. It is meant to address the gap in education that we are now seeing. The community was fully engaged in the dialogue at the event. I was very impressed to see the large crowd that participated. This confirms the high level of interest that we have always anticipated. We had people walking in even after the event. The interest that I saw fueled me with motivation to get this program going. I look forward to see the outcome of the program years from now.”

The following quotes from members of the Marshallese community that attended the kickoff event exemplify the excitement they have about the program:

  • “We are here to learn about a better future for our little ones. This is something new to us, and it is so exciting!” — Maggie Muller
  • “We are glad to hear that this is the first program like this just for the Marshallese community. You make us think about the future. I hope you think of doing this in the Marshall Islands and in other Marshallese communities in the U.S.” — Murjel Tarkwan
  • “My grandson was so excited when I told him about it. This is something for our kids to look forward to. So often, our children ask us for things, and we have to say, ‘not now.’ This is something we can do now.” — Lisa Mendoza
  • “This was perfect timing because I have six children and I am always wondering how I will be able to afford to send them to college. Now, I have a way that I can start saving for all of them. This is a good opportunity and we thank you.” — Joanna Maddison



This story originally appeared in the University of Arkansas’ Newswire publication. Please visit for more stories like this.

Yvette Murphy-Erby

Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

479-575-3338 //