How the University of Maryland’s initiative for financial social work is bringing economic security to low-income families

Why universities should add personal finance to their social work programs

Financial social worker Holly Mirabella helped an elderly woman cope with an $8,000 debt—from tolls!

Financial social worker Holly Mirabella helped an elderly woman cope with an $8,000 debt—from tolls!


Every now and then it hits me that it’s the personal aspect of personal finance that makes me love this topic. And it’s those truly personal stories of real people coping with some of life’s most frustrating money problems or circumstances that move me most.

That’s why I was thrilled to find Holly Mirabella, a financial social worker who is fighting the good fight—and using her money smarts to help her clients.

I first heard about financial social work last fall when I spoke to more than 200 financial literacy teachers from around the world at a Council for Economic Education (CEE) conference. It was there that the chair of the nonprofit’s board, Barry Haimes, clued me in to the Financial Social Work Initiative, a unique program that Mirabella completed at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Here’s an interview with Mirabella.

Tell me what you do. I’m intrigued. 

Of course! I work at an organization called the CASH Campaign of Maryland. CASH stands for Creating Assets, Savings, and Hope—and is focused on improving the economic security of low- to moderate-income individuals, families, and communities in the area.

So what does that really mean?

We help people in a variety of ways. We offer direct services to clients, like free tax preparation and financial coaching for the community. We also lend our expertise to other organizations. For example, we help other groups organize Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) across the state to get more people free tax prep.

And we do public policy work, which is the side I’m most involved in. And it all really does have a huge impact: Last year, we secured $30 million in tax refunds for low-income families, and on the policy side we helped pass a ban on payday lending in Maryland!

Amazing. Tell me more about what you do.

I am the first full-time policy person at CASH, which means that on any given day I could be lobbying legislators, dropping off testimony, or meeting with anti-poverty advocates and organizations. I am also working on a pilot program for children’s savings accounts to create a college-going mindset. We hope that once the program is implemented in Baltimore, it could expand statewide.

That’s fantastic! Research shows that if a parent has a dedicated college savings account—no matter how much money is in it—it will increase the chances of their kid going to college.

Yes! And our data shows that just $500 in a savings account will triple their chances of going to college.

Wow. So what got you interested in financial social work?

I went into law school with an accounting background from undergrad. While at law school, I couldn’t help but feel that they weren’t talking about individuals—the human side of cases and laws. That’s when I went across the street to the UMD School of Social Work and basically begged them to take me! I ended up getting the dual JD/MSW degree.

While I was at the School of Social Work, I heard about the Suntrust Foundation Fellowship in Financial Social Work (FSW). I had never heard of financial social work before, but since I had an accounting background, I thought it was worth looking into.

Why was this fellowship worthwhile?

Among other things, we had to pull our own credit reports, create our own budgets, and—this was where it got stressful—hand over our own monthly budget to someone else. We had to do an analysis of what it felt like being in the shoes of your clients. I think that was the most important thing—understanding their experiences and developing a sense of empathy.

Speaking of understanding what my clients are going through, one of the big things we do at CASH is help low-wage workers get a tax break through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). When I was a part-time worker doing my internship while finishing law school, I actually received the EITC myself and used that money to study and pass the bar exam.

Holly Mirabella speaking with Maryland State Delegate Robbyn Lewis of Baltimore City.

Has there been one case that’s been especially meaningful to you? 

A woman once called our office and was completely overwhelmed by her payday loans. We were already working on payday loan legislation for Maryland that would cap interest rates, but online lenders were taking advantage of a loophole and charging fees that brought interest rates up to 300% or 500%, while calling their rates 24%.

My client, an older woman, had no idea what to do. She had taken out a loan for $2,500, and it had quickly become unmanageable. So she came into my office, and we went over her contract page by page. And there, on page 11, was an interest rate of 700%. Yes, 700.

I referred her to Neighborhood Housing Services, a community-based organization that was able to lend her money to get out of the predatory loan at much more reasonable interest rates. They also provided her with financial education to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

 Do these client experiences ever lead to policy change? 

Yes, actually. Last year, a woman called us with $8,000 in debt—for tolls. She was an elderly woman and only drove to go to church. But she had an electronic toll pass and didn’t know you had to link it to a credit card. She thought she was going to get the bill in the mail. She was charged all kinds of fees and compound interest, and her driver’s license was even suspended. It was an enormous financial blow for such a simple matter: Her original toll debt was only about $150.

So we took action and worked on a bill to change the process of video tolling in Maryland and make it more transparent. Folks need to be aware of how tolls work and how to deal with them.

I had no idea that toll debt could be so devastating. What do you think is missing when it comes to financial education?

Financial literacy is not equally accessible for different populations. If you have communities coming from generational poverty, they aren’t going to have the same access to tools, resources, and education that middle-class families do. So financial capability is both an equity issue and a generational issue. 

[This conversation has been edited for clarity.]

economic justice financial capability financial education financial literacy financial policy financial social work Maryland CASH Campaign social work UMD University of Maryland

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