Ask a Genius: José Quiñonez on why poverty is a 'human construct'



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published December 12, 2017 | 3 min read

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Welcome to the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of interviews with brilliant people. Today we're featuring José Quiñonez, founder and CEO of the Mission Asset Fund and the recipient of a 2016 MacArthur "Genius" award for his work helping low-income people gain access to credit. MAF has helped more than 7,000 people build credit scores and access zero-interest loans.

Describe the work you do briefly.

At MAF, we work to help low-income individuals realize their economic potential by transforming invisible financial practices into credit-building and savings opportunities. One example is MAF’s Lending Circles program based on the time-honored tradition of people coming together to lend and borrow in small, informal groups. Through Lending Circles, MAF transforms this invisible activity into a credit-building opportunity that is helping participants increase credit scores by an average of 168 points, lower high-cost debt, saving money in fees and interest.

What problem are you trying to solve?

We are helping people in the financial shadows access basic financial products like checking accounts, small-dollar loans and credit reports. Without basic tools, it is virtually impossible to build a stable and secure financial life.

What led you to tackle this problem & not something else?

There are a lot of problems in the world. I focused on tackling poverty because as a kid I was poor. I lived and experienced that reality. But even though we were poor financially, we were not poor spiritually. Early on I knew money did not define who I was as a person, despite the negative stereotypes and demeaning attitudes in society toward struggling families. We knew we were not less than — nor better than — anyone else in the world. We just happen to live a life with a different set of challenges than other people. We confronted those challenges with the resources we had at our disposal, sought help from others when we needed and kept moving forward in our lives. I was fortunate to have had opportunities to further my education which led my professional life to founding MAF, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those living in poverty now.

How does what you do help people?

Through Lending Circles, we’re helping people build and improve their credit scores so they can have access to a world of possibilities in the financial marketplace. Without a credit report, for example, people can’t get loans to buy cars, or invest in businesses, or even to rent apartments. Without good credit scores, people are relegated to fringe, high-cost loans (payday or car title loans). Debt traps like these strip people of their hard-earned money and make it that much harder to climb out of poverty.

How would you spend $1 billion?

With that much money, I could immediately start providing 0% loans to anyone facing financial hardship in the U.S. I’d help more people get out of the grasp of payday lenders. I’d help more people become citizens. I’d help more families stay together. I’d help more young immigrants stay in college. Because often a little amount of money (and a good credit score) can make a huge difference in the short-term and save tens of thousands of dollars for someone in the long-term.

What's one fact or idea you think more people should know?

Poverty is not a God-given condition. It’s not a biological or culturally determined trait. Poverty is a human construct. It’s a decision we make as a nation, and thereby it’s within our power to end it.

What's one thing you want to accomplish in the next month? Year? Decade?

I want to inspire others to innovate and do good in our world. I want to challenge the way most people think about those living in poverty. I want them to know they’re financially-savvy. They’re wise. And we all have a lot to learn from them.

Who do you think is a genius & what’s one thing you would ask them?

Genius is all around us. I would ask people that see the world not as it is but as how it could be and ask them how they balance their optimism against their defeats. I’d ask how they feed their energy to keep working towards a better reality for themselves and for all of us.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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Image: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation