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How to Help Working Families Avoid Financial Downfall

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As we continue to struggle with the effects of the national recession, more and more working families are being pushed to the financial brink. We cannot let these families succumb to debt, foreclosure or other financial hardship, and we must act now to get them back on the path toward success.

The first critical step in this process is empowering them to take control of their financial situation. Only by giving families access to the tools and resources they need to get out from under their financial burdens and back investing in their future we will be able to strengthen our economy and ensure family success. And there are two key areas where we can get started immediately.

Number one: we must educate working Americans on the resources they have access to.

Tax season is a perfect example of this. The federal government has several resources available for working families that eliminate the financial burden and stress of filing taxes and can help them get back hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on their refunds.

There's the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which provides working families making less than $49,000 a year with free tax assistance and preparation. Right away that's up to $200 back in the pockets of working families that they might otherwise pay to an accountant. And since all VITA workers are certified by the government, it ensures that thereturns are done right and on-time, eliminating the potential for penalties or fees.

There's also the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which is available to individuals and families making less than $48,362 per year. The EITC provides these families with real money back --up to $5,666 for a family with three or more qualifying children.

Yet while millions of U.S. households areeligible for both programs, many are not taking advantage of these powerfulbenefits. In fact, only 17 percent of Americans utilized the EITC program last year. That's a major loss for working families.

In Newark alone last year, VITA and EITC helped bring back more then $6.3 million in refunds to the city's households and stimulated more than $10 million in economic activity. In a city ravaged by the recession, it was a welcome stimulus. Both in Newark and across the country, we must improve the number of citizens taking advantage of these critical programs.

However, a large refund is only as good as the use its put toward, and the second key to financial empowerment is teaching families how to invest in their future.

This can mean a variety of different actions. For families facing debt or credit issues, it's about offering advice and aide in paying down those outstanding debts and helping them create a plan for asustainable financial future. It's also about increasing earning potential by helping individuals fill-out FAFSA forms and enroll in vocational or community colleges to build new skills. Finally, it's about showing families how to save and connecting them with programs, like SaveUSA, that provide matching funds for a proportion of every dollar saved.

In Newark, we have a program called the Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) that's offering these services, among others, to help Newark's working families take control of their financial future. In the past year, the FEC has helped more than 7,000 Newarkers workthrough their financial problems. And with a relatively small budget and staff, the FEC is not unique to Newark and could be replicated in other cities across the nation to provide similar services.

There are numerous challenges facing our economy today. The U.S. has lost hundreds of thousands of working class jobs, and most are not coming back any time soon. While we work to develop new industries and get our economy going, we also must ensure our working families can get back on their feet.

To put it simply, we won't be able to drive real recovery if our working families are so crippled with debt, bad credit and financial burden that they are unable to contribute. We must give our these families back control of their financial future.