Individual development accounts (IDAs) help low-income families save by matching their personal savings for specific investments, such as a first home, business capitalization, or higher education and training. The Assets for Independence (AFI) program, last funded in fiscal year 2016, is a federally supported IDA demonstration grant program authorized under the Assets for Independence Act of 1998. This evaluation of the AFI program uses a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard for measuring program effectiveness.
This evaluation shows that among the full sample of study participants, AFI did not increase homeownership, business ownership, or postsecondary education or training three years after study enrollment. But our findings show that AFI participation had effects on certain subgroups. Specifically, AFI increased homeownership among renters at study enrollment and increased business ownership among non–business owners at study enrollment. The results show two beneficial primary effects:
- A 4.7 percentage-point (52 percent) increase in the homeownership rate among participants who rented at study enrollment
- A 5.1 percentage-point (53 percent) increase in the business ownership rate among participants who were not business owners at study enrollment
Beyond asset ownership, we assess the program’s medium-term effects on participants’ savings, material hardship, use of alternative financial services, and personal outlook, among other outcomes. We also find evidence that AFI affects several secondary outcomes:
- A 25 percent reduction in the number of hardships (0.6 hardships) related to utilities, housing, or health, which suggests that AFI participation improves financial stability and thereby reduces material hardship.
- Examining the specific types of hardship, AFI reduced the number of medical hardships experienced (i.e., could not afford to see a doctor, dentist, or purchase a prescription drug when needed) by 41 percent (0.5 hardships) and reduced the likelihood of experiencing a medical hardship by 29 percent (10 percentage points).
- A 47 percent (3 percentage-point) decline in the use of alternative (nonbank) check-cashing services, which suggests that AFI participation helps people enter and remain in the financial mainstream.
- AFI shifted people’s time preferences so they were more willing to pay a cost today rather than a higher cost later. Specifically, the share of people willing to accept an interest rate of 25 percent or more on a major purchase (e.g., refrigerator) declined 35 percent (5 percentage points). Because high-interest-rate products can cause financial difficulties later, shifting behavior to be more future oriented can lead to long-term improvements in financial well-being.
Although AFI did not result in greater asset ownership among the full sample, these third-year impact findings—that AFI participation results in greater asset ownership among renters and non–business owners, less material hardship, lower use of alternative (nonbank) check-cashing services, and more future-oriented time preferences—provide empirical evidence that savings and wealth-building opportunities can promote economic well-being and personal responsibility. This evaluation provides rigorous results that can inform the next stage of incentivized savings programs that benefit low-income earners. By encouraging low-income families to build assets, AFI eased economic hardship and increased asset ownership while providing a foundation for long-term upward mobility.