oughly 10 percent of American households don't use banks. Instead, the people in those households rely on check-cashing stores and other short-term services, leaving them vulnerable to scams. Worse yet, they don't learn how to manage or save money.
Nelson Hernandez is out to change that-one person at a time, if necessary. "When I see those check-cashing places, I say, 'I have to put them out [of business],'" Hernandez says with a chuckle. But he's only partly joking. This is serious business to Hernandez, who grew up in an impoverished part of Los Angeles during the 1960s. "I want people to know that there is a better way."
That better way is Money Smart, a small yet ambitious program Hernandez runs at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The program teaches low-income adults how to use basic banking services, such as checking and savings accounts, and instructs them in financial management.
Hernandez and his team of 40 FDIC staffers travel the country promoting the program and looking for partner organizations to help reach out to the poor. Starting with just one national partner-the Labor Department-in July 2001, the FDIC has since signed up 360, including 20 national organizations, four of them federal agencies.
Hernandez keeps the program focused on low-income people between the ages of 20 and 55. "I want that 25-year-old guy who works in the car wash," he says. "I want that 38-year-old woman who comes in here and cleans the building at night."
That focus has made Hernandez a powerful force in promoting Money Smart, says Doug Dylla, national coordinator of NeighborWorks, a division of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, a nonprofit organization created by Congress to support community-based economic revitalization. NeighborWorks is a Money Smart partner.
"He keeps knocking on doors. And he is continually pushing this program to the next level," says Dylla.
When Hernandez started at the FDIC in June 2001, Money Smart was barely off the ground and the agency had no clear plan for rolling out the program. Training materials were available only in English. Hernandez immediately sought to translate the materials into Spanish. By the end of 2003, training will be available in Korean and Vietnamese, too. There are plans to put the materials on CD-ROM and eventually offer them online.
Between July 2001 and December 2002, the FDIC had sent 85,000 copies of educational materials to its partners. Those groups provide the actual classroom training. At least 100,000 people have completed the course. Of those, an estimated 13,000 have since opened bank accounts.
Hernandez says his dedication to the program "is personal because of where I grew up and my experiences." As a young adult, he worked on community development projects in Los Angeles' most destitute neighborhoods.
As a staffer for a local politician and at the Los Angeles office of the Housing and Urban Development Department, Hernandez has seen the difference that government can make in people's lives.
Donna Gambrell, Hernandez's boss at the FDIC, says his local experience is invaluable. "He has tremendous credibility because he has worked in communities," she says. "People can tell a bureaucrat from a regular person. He can relate to people and knows how to pinpoint their needs."