By Mathieu Despard

This is the second in a series of blog posts related to our work around housing and opportunity. To learn more about this project, check out the first blog post, the full report, the Executive Summary, or our interactive StoryMaps. The views and opinions expressed in the report and this blog post are those of the Center for Community Capital and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of JPMorgan Chase & Co. or its affiliates.


In conducting our assessment of the intersection of housing and opportunity, supported by JPMorgan Chase & Co., in the St. Bernard Area of New Orleans and the Potrero Hill neighborhood in San Francisco, we heard residents talk a lot about how opportunities are offered, not just what opportunities were available. In these conversations, we heard that attitudes, expressions of care and concern, and empathy affect residents’ attempts to access and use services and resources in their communities.

Opportunities are accessed through human interactions. We need to interact with other people to access a service or resource we think will improve our quality of life. The nature of this interaction can influence whether someone is successful in obtaining services and resources or not.

It’s hard to ask for help. It may be especially hard for people who may find it challenging to express themselves because of past trauma, mental health or health challenges, or a lack of self-confidence due to the constant beat-down of social and economic marginalization, as explained by one of the residents we interviewed in Potrero Terrace in San Francisco:

“A lot of people feel really alone…. There’s a real great need for the [public housing] community to feel like their voices are being heard, that someone is listening, not only to kind of a collective voice, but [to] individuals that have really complicated needs [that] have built up over a lifetime, if not generations. [Now] people feel like they’re doing it alone…. People [feel] like their lives and their livelihood doesn’t really matter to the wider community….”

In the field of psychotherapy, common factors such as therapist warmth, empathy, and ability to engender trust are far more important in determining outcomes than whether clients receive a particular type of therapy.

Image from Potrero Hill Housing Development in San Francisco. Credit: Kate Medley

Perhaps there are common factors for opportunity-related services like job training and financial counseling. It’s not just about the training curriculum, or a financial counselor’s command of credit reports. It’s also about warmth, patience, concern, and empathy. As another resident of Potrero Terrace and Annex explained:

“There’s certainly a lack of trust, which is a huge barrier. I think usually services are delivered in culturally inappropriate ways, or in really stigmatizing ways, or in really paternalistic and punitive ways…. That creates a huge barrier to using those services.”

Behavioral economics is all the rage in economic empowerment work these days, and rightfully so. People don’t save because of procrastination and present bias; interventions incorporating commitment devices and defaults help overcome these biases.

Yet, consider the experience of Sharon (not her real name), a resident of Cleveland who is enrolled in a lease-purchase housing program:

“Yeah. I get some advice. Right now basically, they tell you, ‘You need to save. You need to save.’ I can’t save right now. I live paycheck to paycheck right now because of school and the situation that I’m in. Sometimes I feel embarrassed going to the counselor, like they’re gonna check. It’s like you feel naked. I’m like, I understand that I need to save. I know, but I can’t right now.”

Maybe a “nudge” or incentive will help Sharon save. But maybe we should take Sharon at her word – that she really can’t save. This is where common factors come in. A financial coach’s ability to help Sharon may depend on an ability to empathize with her situation – to overcome an empathy gap – a different type of cognitive bias that discounts the structural factors (e.g. lack of living wage jobs for people with high school educations) that limit opportunities for lower-income people.

Acknowledging that people struggle in this economy due to factors outside of their control can go a long way toward helping people avoid the shame and embarrassment of struggling financially and asking for help. It helps for counselors, trainers, and other service providers to incorporate warmth and empathy in their interactions. But it’s also important that organizations, not just individual staff members, cultivate a culture of warmth and empathy in work with marginalized people.

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