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Karen Harris

Karen Harris

With this issue’s Interview Afield we begin our second year profiling accomplished advocates through short written responses to a series of questions. To nominate someone you’d like to see on this page—and you may nominate yourself; don’t be shy—contact Marcia Henry.

Karen K. Harris has been Director of the Asset Opportunity Unit of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law since 2008; in that capacity she works to reduce the “asset gap” by advocating policies such as universal children’s savings accounts, improved financial education, and more access to mainstream financial institutions for low-income people and people of color. Karen has organized several Shriver Center–sponsored webinars on various aspects of asset building and has authored several Clearinghouse Review articles, most recently Remittances: A New Market Calls for New Protections in the March–April 2012 issue. She’s also an experienced sailor of thirty-three years. Karen was part of a team that placed fifth in last summer’s 104th Chicago-to-Mackinac Island, Michigan, regatta and was the first black woman to appear on the podium in the race’s history.

What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?

We started a webinar series on asset-building issues when I first came to the Shriver Center, and so far we’ve hosted seven. These webinars have covered everything from integrating asset building into domestic-violence advocacy (since the primary reason a person doesn’t leave or returns to an abusive relationship is financial), to examining whether alternative credit data can effectively bring lower-income individuals into the mainstream credit market so they aren’t forced to use payday loans. Thousands of people from around the country and internationally have attended these webinars and are now starting to work on these issues.

What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?

Every able-bodied, American citizen should have to serve the nation somehow... This would ensure that there are many more people doing this kind of public interest work.

I’d say a couple of new programs we’re trying to implement. One is children’s savings accounts, which would offer every child, at birth, an opportunity to begin saving for college, homeownership, or entrepreneurship when they turn 18—getting future generations on solid financial footing at an early age. Each account would be seeded with an initial deposit by the government, with matching opportunities for lower income children. The other program is automatic IRAs [Individual Retirement Accounts], to promote retirement savings opportunities for workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. That’s more than half of all workers, particular low-income workers and minorities. Employers would automatically enroll their employees in a direct-deposit payroll deduction IRA-type account, which the state treasurer’s office would operate. Employers wouldn’t necessarily contribute to these accounts, but they would help all workers achieve a financially secure retirement. But if Congress doesn’t work together to solve problems like the fiscal cliff, we won’t have the resources to implement such important and impactful policies.

If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?

I’d think about implementing mandatory national service. Every able-bodied, American citizen should have to serve the nation somehow. As a condition of admission to a public college or to receive federal funds to attend a private college, students could be required to spend up to two years in civilian national service programs such as AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. Many professionals have financed their education with federal loans and scholarships, and service could be a condition of receiving these funds. Doctors could, for example, serve in veterans’ hospitals or agree to treat Medicaid patients in underserved areas. Lawyers who receive federal funds could serve for two years in many capacities such as attorneys at legal aid clinics. This would ensure that there are many more people doing this kind of public interest work.

As the Shriver Center’s Director of Asset Opportunity, you rub shoulders with people in the private-sector finance and banking industries, as well as public-sector and not-for-profit industries. Do you end up translating the private and public groups to each other and, if so, how?

This is probably one of the most difficult parts of my job—how to get people mostly concerned with the bottom line to care about societal issues and get public interest groups understand that profit making isn’t a bad thing. Usually, I explain to the private sector how social programs eventually produce big returns on investments. With nonprofit sectors I tend to teach them how to speak in a language that financial institutions understand.

What’s one of your guilty pleasures?

Watching The Walking Dead on TV. It’s about zombies having taken over and the few human survivors trying to stay alive. It’s pretty gory and scary and I can’t believe that I’ve started watching, but I’m definitely addicted!

Karen Harris can be reached at karenharris@povertylaw.org.

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