LeAna Powell considered buying life insurance for her first-born son because she had seen too many black males killed in Oakland and didn’t want to be among the countless mothers she knew who struggled to pay for a funeral.
It never occurred to her to plan for his college education, his future — a reflection of how opportunity can feel confined for many low-income families in Oakland, Powell said.
“We have to navigate loose pit bulls in the hood and sidewalk memorials where someone was killed,” she said. “This is my reality.”
City leaders want to shift that mind-set, offering the prospect of a better future for Oakland youth by opening a $500 college savings account for every baby born into poverty. They will officially kick off the program Saturday at Children’s Fairyland, announcing that 500 families will receive Brilliant Baby college savings accounts in each of the next three years.
After her second child was born, Powell, 33, was among the first to sign up for a pilot program initiated last year that provided the savings accounts to 82 newborns.
“I’m actually thinking about my kids going to college,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it, giving so many families hope.”
Families, which can sign up through a variety of pediatric clinics and infant support programs, will be eligible to earn another $500 if they enroll in a financial coaching program. Ultimately, the idea is to scale up to provide the savings accounts for each of the 2,200 babies born into low-income families each year in Oakland.
“This is really about putting in place support systems and resources to support the hopes and dreams of parents for their children,” said Amanda Feinstein, project director for the program.
The coaching and savings accounts for 500 families for each of the next three years will cost about $1.5 million. The city is contributing roughly $200,000 per year from the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth, with the rest coming from philanthropic donors, including $3.4 million over four years from Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and his wife, marketing consultant Lynne Benioff.
The savings accounts are part of the Oakland Promise initiative, a “cradle to career” plan to boost the number of children completing a college degree. The goal, city officials said, is for 30 percent of Oakland’s students to graduate college by 2025, compared with about 10 percent now.
The initiative includes the baby savings accounts and a $100 college scholarship for every public school kindergartner, regardless of family income.
Oakland Promise also offers increased college counseling and support in high school and, through the East Bay College Fund, pays up to $16,000 to eligible high school seniors to help them afford books, tuition or other higher education needs while connecting them with mentors to navigate college life.
So far, the program has provided 700 high school seniors with mentors and funding.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said she’s working on securing the resources needed to offer Oakland Promise to a generation of public school children.
Powell signed up her daughter, who is now 2, for the pilot program and is seeking another account for her baby son, which will come with another round of financial counseling. Her older son, who is 14, will be eligible for the high school support and scholarship.
The accounts have helped Powell focus on the future, she said, something that can be difficult for people like her and her husband who live paycheck to paycheck.
“When you’re thinking about keeping the lights on, you’re not thinking about 20 years down the road,” she said. “I don’t really know a lot of people who have savings.”
City officials said the college savings accounts can be an ever-present reminder to families that even in hard times they’re invested in a better future.
Schaaf believes the program is creating a college-going culture, with parents wondering where, not whether, their children will pursue a college education.
“This city is standing up and wrapping its arms around our children,” she said.
Oakland is among a growing number of cities and states depositing money into college savings accounts for low-income children, a practice that research suggests can make a big difference in elevating college completion rates.
According to a 2013 University of Kansas study, children from low-income families with at least $500 in a college savings account are three times more likely to go to college and four times more likely to earn a college degree.
Oakland’s program is unique in offering a financial coaching component, which officials believe is critical.
“Instead of thinking about how she can get an insurance policy to cover her baby’s funeral, LeAna is now thinking about where he’s going to go college,” Schaaf said. “That is not just creating a different school culture, a different child identity, but it’s creating this powerful idea of hope.”
This story was originally published in the SF Chronicle November 17, 2017 here.