Brandi Stone-Miller never had a permanent home as a child. When she wasn’t living with her mother on public assistance, she was bouncing from one foster home to another. After leaving high school, she and her children lived in low-rent apartments while she eked out a living in menial jobs she hated. She knew she could do better, for herself and her children. After earning her GED, she struggled through five years of college and then set her sights on another goal — owning her own home. She realized her dream in less than a year with help from the Institute for Social and Economic Development.
Family stability is also important to the Institute for Social and Economic Development (ISED). For 15 years, ISED has worked to help 8,000 low-income Iowa families become economically self-sufficient by starting their own small businesses and saving for the future. John F. Else founded ISED after spending two years in Zimbabwe, helping development agencies establish microenterprises in rural areas. He learned firsthand the power of microenterprises as an avenue that families could take to increase their financial security. He returned to Iowa, committed to testing microenterprise development in the United States, and won a state contract to use the same techniques to work with welfare recipients from 12 of the state’s 99 counties. His success led Iowa to become the first state to obtain waivers from federal laws that made it difficult for welfare recipients to start small businesses.
ISED’s microenterprise classes guide prospective entrepreneurs step by step through writing a business plan, conducting feasibility studies, learning management skills and developing marketing and sales expertise. These entrepreneurs can then turn to ISED for seed money and ongoing advice as their businesses get started. With an unusually high success rate, almost 60 percent of the businesses supported by ISED are still generating family income and pride today.
Founded in 1988, ISED has expanded to five offices in Iowa and one in Omaha, Neb. ISED fans out to reach Iowa families living in rural areas as well. Through its consulting and research division, ISED is also helping government agencies and nonprofit organizations create effective economic and asset development programs in other communities nationwide.
Building on the success of its microenterprise program, ISED’s staff looked for other tools they could offer families to increase their financial assets. Families can now use ISED’s free tax assistance to avoid the high cost of tax preparation and get help claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit. With the income they gain from these financial supports, they can then open an individual development account (IDA). ISED’s Iowans Save! program matches a family’s deposits in an IDA and strengthens participants’ budgeting and other financial skills through program classes. Stone-Miller, who recently married, considered herself financially savvy before starting the classes, but she found herself learning valuable information.
The Institute for Social and Economic Development is a 2003 Honoree of Families Count, the national honors program that recognizes organizations that are making a difference in the lives of families struggling to survive in tough neighborhoods.