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Why Hill Harper Is On A Mission to Fight Financial Fragility

Wednesday, May 1, 2019 – Detroit, MI: Actor, author, and owner of The Roasting Plant, Hill Harper discusses financial literacy at the Experian #BoostAmerica campaign launch.

Tim Galloway/AP Images for Experian

Actor and author Hill Harper has always had a comfort level with money. From a very early age, his father worked with him to understand the basic principles of finance.

Harper, known for his roles in The Good Doctor and Homeland, describes his father as entrepreneurial in how he saw money.  He wanted his son to see the value of being an investor and having access to capital. For Harper, these early financial lessons still resonate today.

But his father also imparted to him another key lesson:  It doesn’t matter how much money you have if you don’t have quality of life.  While Harper has built a successful career as an actor, advocate and writer, this lesson continues to resonate with him, and not just in terms of his own life.

That’s why, as he looks at the patrons of the coffee shop he owns in a Detroit neighborhood, he wants to help the people he sees around him, many of whom are struggling with their personal finances. They aren’t getting a fair shot at participating in the economic upside of the American dream. As wealth disparity increases in this country, he’s on a mission to help those around him.

“The small percent of wealthy are getting significantly wealthier, while poor folks are poorer,” Harper says.  Addressing the issues facing those who struggle, he says, “It’s a double storm.  What I mean by that is one, there is lack of financial literacy in general and two, there is an even greater lack in the communities that are preyed upon the most, with predatory products.”

In short, he says, “It’s expensive to be poor.”

The Threat of Financial Fragility

Financial fragility is a major issue for many Americans.  The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) defines financial fragility as “being unable to cope with emergency expense in a short period of time.”  NEFE estimates that 36% of all working adults in the United States are financially fragile.

But financial fragility hits certain segments of Americans more harshly than others.  A NEFE/George Washington University study found that 24% of Asians and 34% of whites were considered financially fragile.  In comparison, that number was 37% for Hispanics and 47% for African Americans.  In addition to ethnic differences, gender also has an impact.  Forty-two percent of women were considered financially fragile versus 29% of men.

Harper is well aware of these statistics.  He’s concerned that as wealth disparity increases in this country, it will adversely impact certain communities harder, especially if more challenging economic times arise. “There’s an old adage my pastor used to say that when America catches a cold, black folks get pneumonia.”

A Small Step Can Be a Game Changer

Clearly financial literacy needs to become more prevalent across all economic, ethnic and gender categories.  But for adults who want to take a step up, there must be a starting point.  While increasing credit scores might not seem meaningful, for this group it can be a game changer.

This is something Harper has thought a lot about. In his book, the New York Times Bestseller, The Wealth Cure: Putting Money In Its Place, he lays out the basic principles of budgeting, saving and investing.  Unfortunately, for the financially fragile, it takes more than a spreadsheet to create a strong financial foundation.  The first step is to gain access to the right tools to help improve their financial situation.  A basic building block is having a strong credit score, but for those who are financially fragile, it can be an impossible hurdle.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019 – Detroit, MI: Grosse Pointe Park resident Matt Evans, 48, (left) speaks with actor, author, and owner of The Roasting Plant, Hill Harper (right) about the importance of financial literacy at the Experian #BoostAmerica campaign launch.

Tim Galloway/AP Images for Experian

“The folks who can least afford it are often the ones who pay the most,” he points out, as poor credit scores have a ripple effect from making it challenging to rent an apartment in neighborhoods with better schools, to getting a job, to accessing credit.

This is where Harper’s mission becomes key.  He wants these individuals to be rewarded for some of the basic financial skills they do have – such as paying their phone bill on time.  It sounds elementary because in higher socio-economic groups, this is taken for granted.  But it could be a ‘boost’ to help these individuals move forward.

“One thing I know for sure is that folks I know pay their cell phone bills and electric bills.  It’s the connection to their families. It’s necessary.  When times are tight, they may let their credit card slip and carry a higher balance,” he explains.  “They get penalized for that, but they never get credit for paying these other bills on time regularly.  Our goal is to create a thicker file of positive credit history for populations that have thin files.”

The first step Harper is taking is partnering with Experian on their new Boost program.  The program gives extra credit to individuals for paying their phone and utility bills.  All they need to do is connect their bank account to their Experian profile and they can then choose which payments can improve their credit.

Steps Towards Financial Empowerment

Harper is aware that this is merely the first step towards financial empowerment.  The same basic principals of finance will still apply in terms of budgeting and saving.  But simply giving this group of Americans better access to the credit markets provides an opportunity to change the quality of their lives – the same lesson that Harper’s father gave to him all those years ago.

“The biggest issue is that we don’t teach money in schools,” he says. “The simple fact is that if we can teach financial literacy, we can create solid foundations.”

Bringing financial literacy to more Americans might end up being Harper’s ultimate mission. But in the meantime, he knows this is the right step for many financially fragile Americans to make a real change to their financial lives.

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