New American Financial Perspectives: In Conversation with Dilun Wu, Andy Toy and Gretchen Shanfeld

With foreign-born residents making up 15% of Philadelphians, immigrants and refugees are a vital part of our community. In honor of World Refugee Day, we wanted to share perspectives on how new Americans navigate our often-complex financial systems. Since this population and their needs are so diverse, we spoke with several leaders from varying backgrounds including: Dilun Wu, Vice President and Senior Branch Leader at HSBC in Philadelphia, Andy Toy, Development and Communications Director at SEAMAAC, and Gretchen Shanfeld, Senior Director of Program Operations and Strategic Growth at Nationalities Service Center.

We first spoke with Dilun Wu, who provided a perspective on Asian immigrants settling in the United States. She told us that the majority of HSBC’s clientele in Philadelphia are Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), or immigrants from Asia. “We have a very diverse community of clients, from those that have 10 million dollars and upwards of savings, to those who are working with us day-to-day to get by.” Dilun explained.

Dilun spoke to how HSBC’s clients might have trouble navigating the United States’ credit-oriented landscape: “North America is the only continent with credit reporting in place as a main fixture of financial life. As a result of this uniqueness, immigrants may lack awareness and education of how to navigate these systems.” Dilun also highlighted the generation gap that’s formed because of these factors: “Older generations don’t know anything about their credit reports” she said. “Because of this, these folks can be exposed to credit frauds and similar scams, since their credit scores are so high, it makes for a great potential scam.” She emphasized the importance of younger and older generations coming together to take advantage of impactful and vital resources. Over a long period of time, services like Clarifi’s, can help people build financial literacy and take control of their financial lives.

Next, we spoke with Andy Toy from SEAMAAC. SEAMAAC has been an active organization in Philadelphia since the mid-1980s, providing resources to immigrant and refugee communities across the city. “The communities we work with are super diverse” Andy proclaims, “we have Korean immigrants and their families, as well as immigrants from southeast Asia, including Taiwan, and refugees from places like Cambodia, Burma, Butan and Indonesia.” He reflects on the employment of the clients they work with: “lots of the people we serve are small business owners, A lot of what they struggle with financially is access to capital, just making sure things balance out. They’re being left out of the opportunity to build their credit as a result. Their children and grandchildren might have office jobs and are able to get by, but making this connection between the generations, bridging that gap, is the biggest thing.”

Andy continued to elaborate on the work SEAMAAC does, and the population they work with. “The lowest income community we serve is in South Philly, east of Broad Street. A common occurrence we’ve noticed is people are working to find stable housing, so they don’t get priced out. Most folks we work with are chefs and entrepreneurs in the communities.” Andy stressed the importance of communication to help make a difference in these people’s lives: “As the pandemic has worn on, the biggest obstacle we’ve faced is getting the word out about relief efforts. It helps that we have so many bilingual and multi-lingual staff on hand, since the language barrier can be a big issue”.

Lastly, we spoke with Gretchen Shanfeld. Gretchen has been with the NSC for over 10 years. NSC itself has been around for nearly 100 years, helping new Americans reach their educational, economic, and personal goals. She explains that most of the people NSC works with are low-income, who are 90% below the federal poverty line, and are primarily new to the country, with all identifying as refugees or immigrants.

Gretchen emphasized the importance of financial support for new Americans: “We look at economic empowerment as a springboard to stability. We try to emphasize the idea of upward mobility, which can be achieved through programs like earning credentials, as well as furthering education and learning. Folks are always striving and thinking about the next goal to reach, which could include investing in savings, homeownership, or improving their employment situation. Where we step in is to help them get to work, get appropriately trained and educated, and see if homeownership is a desirable goal for them. The real appeal for a lot of our clients is for putting down roots. Sometimes a stable home life is something that’s been taken from them, and they want to strive for community stability.”

Gretchen points out barriers that NSC’s clients must deal with, and the support that could help them along: “There can just be a basic lack of knowledge on how systems in this country work, how to navigate them, and also operating around a language barrier.” She does suggest there are solutions “I think it would help people that are settling down to have things provided to them at an individualized pace. This could include things like knowing how to avoid scams, having someone who speaks their language, and just building up trust overall. I think a powerful financial policy that could really make an impact is investing in more mid-to-long term support. Right now, a lot of immigrant and refugee policy is focused on short-term help, with the hope that one will eventually become self-sufficient. However, as our work proves, this isn’t a short-term investment or project, a lasting impact is made when we invest in people’s lives.” It’s clear through our conversations with Dilun, Andy and Gretchen, that stable, healthy and happy lives come from committing time and effort to establishing relationships with the diverse communities around us. With our services such as Financial Empowerment Counseling, working with someone every step of the way to improve their financial life, will also benefit every other aspect of their life. Clarifi is so excited to be working with these great organizations to offer our services to those most in need.