‘Genius grant’ goes to group that helps immigrants build credit history

The World
Jose Quinonez (center) and his staff at Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco

One of this year's recipients of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants" is Jose Quinonez.

He's being recognized for his work connecting low-income immigrants to mainstream financial services.

Sounds a little bland, but it's an absolutely critical service, and his is an absolutely genius solution. (Disclosure: The MacArthur Foundation also funds PRI.org reporting.)

Quinonez's nonprofit organization, the Mission Asset Fund, tracks informal loans and helps new Americans build credit history.

"Not having a credit score is sort of like not having a passport to enter into the financial mainstream,” Quinonez says.

“Without that credit score, or credit report, they’re denied at every turn,” he explains. “Without a credit report nowadays, people can’t get apartments; in some cases, can’t even get a job.”

Without a formal credit history it can be impossible to live and thrive in society.

So Quinonez hit on the idea of documenting the informal lending circles that exist in almost every immigrant community, whereby small groups of people pool money and lend to each as needed on a simple honor system. Mission Asset Fund notarizes these loans, has the borrower sign a promissory note, monitors the servicing and submits reports to mainstream credit bureaus.

“By reporting to the credit bureaus,” Quinonez says, “we’re helping people establish or improve their credit scores so that they then have the ability to do whatever they need to do in their lives, whether it’s rent an apartment, or buy a house, or buy a car, get a loan to start a business, or whatever it is they want to do. Now they have the tool to actually become economic actors in our system.”

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