How to Talk About Financial Insecurity

Conversation Guide


Conversations, a form of civic engagement, about pressing topics are important because they are often the starting point for change. Outlined below is a guide for starting conversations on the topic of financial insecurity in America. Financial security is the peace of mind that comes with being able to meet your expenses every week or month, as well as being able to save money to cover emergencies and eventually meet financial goals. Feeling financially secure is an important component for thriving communities, and affects the health and education of families in our neighborhoods. Yet, financial security is not a certainty for every person in America, and the opportunity for individuals to improve their income is becoming more difficult to attain.

Read. Digest. Discuss.

Great conversations happen when those involved have some background on the topic being discussed. As you review this guide, take a few moments to read excerpts describing how financial insecurity affects families across the United States. Each text is accompanied by discussion prompts to help you start your supper conversation.

This printable conversation guide is one component of a two-part guide, which includes the facilitator’s guide on how to organize and conduct important conversations. You will receive the facilitator’s guide once you have pledged to host your event.


Grounding the Conversation

OUR PAST: Dr. King was a Drum Major for Economic Justice

On Dec. 4, 1967, in his public statement on the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference invited poor people across America to Washington, D.C., to petition the government for “provide jobs and income for the poor.” Dr. King’s statement brought the struggles of low-income families from the margins to the center of our national dialogue: lack of access to adequate food, lack of decent and safe housing, as well as substandard education and health systems. Dr. King remarked that, “America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us, as a nation and a society, to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage.” Today, unfortunately, many families still face the same challenges of economic insecurity.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is one thing you would like to change in your community? What are tangible steps you could take to make that change happen?
  2. What does the civil rights conversation look like today? How do we move forward in our thinking and recognize this new age of civil rights?
  3. How might it take “resolution and courage” to talk about difficult topics such as financial insecurity?


OUR CURRENT REALITY: Coping with the Johnsons

READ this excerpt from The Real Financial Lives of Americans: 1

Based on their annual income, things look promising for the Johnsons. They have multiple sources of income and earn between $55,000 and $60,000 a year, just above the U.S. median. They own a house and two cars, and they have a 401(k) retirement account and health insurance. They have a bank account and credit cards, and they pay their bills online. They spend money on clothes, entertainment, and celebrating important events in their children’s lives. Yet beneath the surface, the Johnsons are struggling. Despite working multiple jobs and receiving college financial aid, their monthly income is volatile and its timing and frequency is irregular. Their expenses fluctuate significantly from month to month. The Johnsons have been unable to put aside even a small cushion of savings for unplanned events, like the leaky roof they had, or the income reduction they faced when [Mr. Johnson] went on short-term disability while recovering from foot surgery. How do they cope? Some months they economize by downgrading the amount and quality of the food they buy. Some months they pay their mortgage and car loan instead of the light bill or phone bill. Some months they turn to credit cards, and as a result they have accumulated more than $3,000 in debt across seven cards. When asked to name their greatest financial aspiration, the Johnsons said, “To be able to pay our bills on time.”


Chew On This

According to a 2015 Pew survey, no matter where respondents lived or how high their income:

  • More than 90 percent of survey participants said financial stability is more important to them than upward mobility. 2

Shifting income and expenses, also called volatility, has financial and non-financial costs with both immediate and long-term consequences: 3

  • Volatility delays and disrupts important household priorities, including paying bills on time and even foregoing necessary medical care.
  • Increases the risk of experiencing food insecurity.
  • Month-to-month volatility can endanger a household’s ability to access safety-net programs.
  • Fluctuation can lead to utility disruptions and housing instability.
  • There are also expenses, such as late fees and higher financial transaction and credit-servicing costs that results from late payments.
  • Economically unstable households tend to use alternative financial services, such as payday loans, at greater than average rates, exposing them to the risks of expensive, sometimes unsafe and predatory credit that leads to their own destabilizing consequences.

Discussion Questions

  1. What would help place families on the pathway to financial security?
  2. What does it mean when more individuals find financial stability to be more important than upward mobility?
  3. Have you seen signs of income instability in your community? How does your community fill that gap?


What Financial Opportunity Means To Us

OUR CURRENT REALITY: Race and Place Matter

READ this excerpt from Urban Wire: 4

Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
Looking simply at the income of neighborhood residents does little to tell you whether the place is a sinkhole that traps generations in poverty, or a springboard that offers opportunity within the neighborhood and connects people to mechanisms of mobility beyond its borders. As we use powerful new research to hone in on factors that seem to best determine the future of low-income children, the stale debate about whether to invest in people or places now seems silly. We need both. We are quickly building stronger evidence in determining the most important individual supports and community investments necessary to overcome trauma and poverty. We are guided by new information around how a network of social supports can sustain families who have moved to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, ensuring that they are able to thrive.


Chew On This
  • Neighborhood poverty has a greater effect on why more black families generate less income than their parents, as compared to white families, than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined. 5
  • Forty-two percent of children born to low-income families will remain poor; another 42 percent will just barely make it out of poverty. Here, again, race is decisive: African Americans are far less likely than white Americans to advance beyond the income level of their parents. 6
  • Given the projected demographic explosion of the same racial and ethnic groups that have been left behind in the U.S. economy, the issue of the racial wealth gap must be a national economic security priority. How can we expect economic productivity to increase and keep pace with the 21st century global economy if the nation’s rising majority isn’t able to fully participate in its economy? 7

Discussion Questions

  1. How might you contribute to building a neighborhood that is a springboard for opportunity, rather than a sinkhole?
  2. What is required to have economic opportunity? How do we know that everyone has the same access to economic opportunity?
  3. What are some barriers to economic opportunity? Can all of these barriers be addressed at the individual level?
  4. Given the Census Bureau projected demographic shifts within racial and ethnic groups that have been left behind in the U.S. economy, the issue of the racial wealth gap must be a national economic security priority. How can we expect economic productivity to increase and keep pace with the 21st century global economy if the nation’s rising majority isn’t able to fully participate in its economy? 8


What's Next

The conversation doesn’t have to stop here. Listed below are some ways that you can move into action, beyond this conversation.

LEAD – Civic Engagement
  • Find Volunteer Opportunities — Find service opportunities in your neighborhood using All for Good, Points of Light’s digital hub for volunteerism and community engagement.
  • Become a Points of Light Volunteer Financial Coach — Points of Light has partnered with local nonprofits to train more than 1,400 volunteer financial coaches, helping almost 1,500 low- to moderate-income individuals improve their money habits, placing them on the pathway to financial stability and financial well-being. Contact our financial coaching team for more information.



Join the Prosperity Now Advocacy Center and learn how to contact your member of Congress to help protect working families.


LEARN – Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources to learn more about the financial security of American households.