Racine is the first local government in Wisconsin to offer free, confidential, one-on-one financial counseling to help individuals and families with low and moderate incomes. It's part of a national initiative called Financial Empowerment Centers, or FEC.
Racine Mayor Cory Mason and others announced the effort on Monday. He said the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need.
"Residents who are struggling because their hours on the job have been cut this year due to COVID, or have fallen behind on student loan payments, or maybe have put more money than they wanted to on credit cards this year. All of them will get free, professional help from the FEC to address and unravel those sometimes complicated financial issues," Mason said.
Two professionally-trained Racine residents will serve as financial counselors, working out of the public library and for now just meeting with people online or by phone. Counselor Xenia Jackson said one barrier to overcome is a person with financial problems being embarrassed.
"Finances are pretty intimidating, scary. And for some people, it's a little more about pride — especially traditionally in the Hispanic community. It's something very private. So, I would say, don't let that get in the way. This is completely judgement-free. We are here to help you from day one,” Jackson said.
The other counselor, Curtis Szymczak, says he wants people to realize that getting out of financial problems can take time. "This takes baby steps. Anything with finances doesn't happen overnight and won't happen in a week. But persevering and sticking to it,” he said.
Racine is using federal community block grant money to help pay for the program, and has also raised money from local sources — including banks and a credit union. The national group, Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund is also providing money. The fund began in 2008 under then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.