Faculty Spotlight

Professor Callahan

Financial social work research helps empower low-income families to work toward their goals 

University of Maryland School of Social Work Research Assistant Professor Christine Callahan, along with Financial Social Work Initiative (FSWI) Chair, Associate Professor Jodi Jacobson Frey, are on a mission to build economic strength within vulnerable communities. 

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Celebrating its upcoming 10th anniversary, the FSWI works to “advocate for greater financial and social stability and social and economic justice for individuals and communities” by educating and training social work students and practitioners in the field of financial social work.


“Finances are a huge part of all of our lives,” says Callahan, who spent 20 years as an oncology social worker helping patients in serious medical circumstances deal with their financial situations while coping with their illnesses and treatments. She was inspired early on by her work with one patient with cancer who was dealing not only with a recurrence of his cancer but also with a lack of health insurance, work uncertainties, little social support, and depression. This experience helped her to see how people struggle with financial distress, especially when they are dealing with other stressors at the same time. This passion led her to pursue her PhD in social work at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, with her dissertation entitled “Cancer, Vulnerability, and Financial Quality of Life:  A Mixed Methods Study.” This work was also supported by the American Cancer Society through a generous doctoral training grant in oncology social work. She dedicated her dissertation to the patient who helped her start on this journey.

The initiative also focuses on contributing research and evidence-based practice to this growing area within the profession. When the FSWI was launched in 2008, the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Recession, and countless numbers were struggling with job loss, foreclosure, and drastic loss of income, to name just several problems. People talked about the impact of the economy on individuals, families, and communities, and social workers, in particular, recognized that financial realities had enormous consequences in people’s lives and that social workers needed to include financial well-being in their practices. While this is not new to social work at all, the emphasis emerged in new ways and approaches, including in the areas of financial stability and inclusion. Callahan looks forward to even greater growth in financial social work and financial capability in the next 10 years.  

In a recent study, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Callahan and Frey assessed the feasibility of the $tand by Me financial empowerment intervention implemented in Head Start in Lower Delaware. The program, available to anyone living in Delaware, offers financial coaching services in a variety of social service, employment and community settings. They collected data from participants to evaluate how the empowerment coaching model was working and what developers and facilitators could do to strengthen the program.

 “We found that people overwhelmingly had goals that they cared deeply about and were working hard toward meeting,” says Callahan, remembering one interviewee who went from being a homeless parent of six, to a renter saving for her own home. “People are struggling in terrible situations,” says Callahan. “We need to ask if it’s possible for folks to have a good quality of life with what they bring in,” she adds. “Many times, they simply can’t.” One of the strengths that financial empowerment programs bring—along with the skills of financial coaches and others—is the commitment to helping people find greater financial footing through a variety of direct and macro approaches that target problems across the spectrum. Financial coaches in $tand By Me work closely with people and with families on tough problems, and even in this small study, the impact on people’s lives was profound. Callahan, Frey, and the research team documented how people used strengths-based financial coaching to progress towards cherished goals, including career advancement, education, homeownership, and resolution of legal, credit, debt, and tax problems. “Financial coaching can be a powerful approach and intervention in any number of settings in which individuals and families are served,” says Callahan. “Problems can seem chronic and intractable, but with the helping hand of and in collaboration with the financial coach, step by step, problems can be addressed and solved, or at least ameliorated,” she goes on to say. The findings from the $tand By Me study provided valuable information to Annie E. Casey, such as recommendations for additional ways to tailor the program to the individual needs of clients, as $tand by Me prepared to expand its services to other states.

Callahan has also served with Frey as co-editor for special sections on financial capability in the Journal of Social Work Education and Social Work, as well as a special issue of the Journal of Community Practice. Additionally, she and Frey are co-authors of a working paper on the “Financial Capability and Asset Building for All” Grand Challenge for Social Work—one of 12 challenges that make up a ground-breaking national initiative tackling the U.S.’s most pressing social problems.