Shelby County residents can get free financial counseling to plan for economic uncertainty

The coronavirus pandemic isn't just a health crisis, it's an economic crisis as well. 

In Tennessee, the state's unemployment website has seen a 2,000% increase in traffic since the week prior to the first wave of nonessential business closures across the state. Even more people have keep their job, but had their hours and pay reduced.

As COVID-19 began impacting day-to-day life in Memphis, RISE has sought ways to adapt their programs to continue serving the community. 

The RISE foundation has been providing financial literacy training and assisting Memphis families to build assets and make better financial choices for over 20 years.

Karen Madlock, operations manager with the Greater Memphis Financial Empowerment Center, is urging Mid-Southerners facing financial uncertainty to address their existing and potential debts head on and sooner than later.

“If you know that your income has been reduced or eliminated, contact your creditors and let them know what’s going on," she said. "The worst thing you can do is not address it.”

To help, GMFEC is offering free financial counseling services to all Shelby County residents. The service was offered previously but is now being conducted remotely in response to COVID-19.

Madlock said the need for help with financial planning becomes more critical in an economic crisis and she expects many new clients in the coming weeks.

“People are going to need access to resources, and that’s what we can help them do," Madlock said.

Those who sign up work with certified counselors to identify public and social services available to them and to build and implement household budgets in the face of income volatility.

The certified counselors also assist participants in negotiating with creditors when necessary.

“There is nothing too big or too small to help our clients handle," said Madlock. “Anything can be worked out, but we have to face it head on and not ignore the phone calls you may be getting.”

Interested individuals can register through their website here or by calling 901-390-4200 to set up a first interview via phone, Zoom, or video conferencing.

GMFEC is a joint program of RISE and the Shelby County Trustee.

Linda Williams, president and CEO of RISE, said that it is too early to see how flexible creditors will be given current economic conditions, but she has seen success in past mediation efforts. 

She said creditors are often more willing to negotiate with a debtor when a certified financial counselor is on the line because they see that the individual is taking steps to improve their financial situation.

RISE’s is continuing to serve Shelby County through its other financial health programs, though they've been modified for remote communication.
Linda Williams, president and CEO of RISE Foundation. (RISE Foundation)
Staff members are proactively reaching out to their client families across programs to see what needs they may have. This includes calling each of the 489 kids in their Goal Card program to see if they are keeping up with their studies and goals, speak to parents, and share resources.

The Goal Card program works with public schools in Memphis. It teaches students to set and achieve academic, financial, and life goals.

RISE has a Silver Neighbors program for seniors that includes targeted awareness and education efforts. A major focus how to identify and avoid elder scams. They've now pivoted to focusing on scams specific to COVID-19. While they have no evidence these scams have occurred yet in Memphis, RISE hopes to educate Shelby County seniors before they're targeted. 

RISE is also collaborating with other nonprofit organizations to fill other gaps.

For example, they're coordinating with the Mid-South Food Bank to distribute menstruation products to low-income youth. Many low-income students get their period supplies from their schools, include Shelby County Schools, which are now closed.

Period products are considered non-qualifying luxury items by public assistance programs like WIC and SNAP, but when families are in economic turmoil, luxury items often take a back seat to necessities like rent, medication, and utilities. 

"[Covid-19 has] forced everyone to look at the needs of the community we serve and make sure we have good information that we can give them and address needs that perhaps were not already being addressed," said Williams. 

Williams said their staff is small and the obstacles are big, but they're determined to continue mobilizing resources and proactively reaching out to the communities they serve during this time of increasing need.

“We are not waiting until doors are open again," she said.
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