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José Cisneros


David Kidd

San Francisco’s treasurer is elected to act as the city’s banker, tax collector and investment officer. Yet in the last eight years, the office has become a laboratory for creative ideas to help families break the cycle of poverty. The man behind those efforts? José Cisneros.

This year Cisneros worked with the San Francisco school district to open college savings accounts for every kindergartner entering the public school system, with $50 in public funds deposited up front. The policy incorporates a cocktail of public and private funds meant to encourage parents to set aside money for their children’s higher education costs. It’s also supposed to have an aspirational effect: If children know their family is saving for college, then they might be more motivated to attend college (academic research backs this up). A handful of jurisdictions across the country are already looking at replicating Cisneros’ model.

That’s merely the latest of the treasurer’s antipoverty initiatives. The first was the city’s working families tax credit launched in 2005. The goal was to increase local participation in the federal Earned Income Tax Credit; some 9,500 families have signed up for both tax credits as a result. Then there’s Bank On San Francisco, Cisneros’ innovative idea to work with banks to make it easier for low-income residents—people who typically would resort to predatory payday lenders and check cashers—to maintain checking accounts. To participate, banks waived overdraft fees and other charges. Since it launched in 2006, Bank On has helped more than 90,000 San Franciscans, and it has inspired a national trend: Today more than 100 cities across the country have adopted their own Bank On programs.

Cisneros has become a national leader on financial inclusion, says Reid Cramer, director of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s been inspiring to see a public official expand the mandate of his office in such a productive way. He’s taken ideas that were incubated in the stale halls of think tanks and academia and made them a reality.”

How did the treasurer transform his office into a shop for antipoverty initiatives? “It’s a really unusual combination of creativity and willingness to take risks,” says Cliff Johnson, who oversees education and family policy for the National League of Cities. “Most treasurers wouldn’t think this was part of their job at all.”

But Cisneros says his office is the perfect place to think up policies that help low-income families move up the economic ladder. Ultimately, San Francisco’s campaign against poverty is about addressing financial matters, he says. Because he regularly interacts with all of the city’s major financial institutions, Cisneros was able to convince banks to offer safe, low-cost services for the Bank On program. At the same time, because his position is elected, he’s positioned to communicate to low-income families the importance of saving. “Going through the election process gives me as a city leader a different kind of visibility,” he says, and “a voice that is able to reach the people who need to hear this message.”

By J.B. Wogan

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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