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February 17, 2015

UChicago team wins CIE challenge

Motherhood Savings Today (MOST), a project designed by UChicago students to help low-income expectant mothers save money during pregnancy, was one of the two winning projects at the Healthy Chicago Innovation Challenge at the Chicago Innovation Exchange on February 9.

The team of students working on this interdisciplinary project include Kunmi Sobowale, a fourth-year medical student; Sneha Elango, a researcher at the Center for the Economics of Human Development; Anne Knapke, a master’s student at the Harris School; and Sebastián Gallegos, a Ph.D. candidate in economics.

The other winning project, designed by students from the Illinois Institute of Technology, is called Foodborne 2.0, and aims to decrease the number of food poisoning cases in Chicago by using data from Twitter to flag potentially dangerous restaurants. The two winning teams now have the opportunity to work with the Chicago Department of Public Health on their projects for a three-month period, and will present their results at the Innovation Champions Day event in May.

Kunmi Sobowale came up with the idea for MOST in order to address health-care disparities.

“The group we want to target is low-income women because children growing up in low socioeconomic backgrounds have health care disparities in terms of their physical and mental health. So these children are more likely to have mental health and behavioral problems, more likely to have physical health and disability problems, as well as poor academic outcomes,” he said.

“All these different things hinder their life trajectory, and so we are interested in whether saving some money during the prenatal period dedicated to early childhood could potentially mitigate some of these negative effects of poverty and low income,” he added.

Studies have shown that teaching people about finances is not particularly effective in changing people’s actual saving behavior, so the MOST project aims to use insights from behavioral economics, like simplifying personal spending records and setting up default saving strategies, to help families save.

The interventions the MOST team plans to test out are Mint.com and SavedPlus. Mint.com is a budgeting website that exemplifies “simplification” because it helps users track how they are spending their money, and helps users set budgetary goals. SavedPlus, on the other hand, exemplifies “default saving strategies” by helping users automatically transfer a certain amount from their checking accounts to their savings accounts for their child whenever users make a purchase.

Sobowale and his team members will work with Women Infant Children (WIC) Clinics in Chicago to see which intervention—if any—will help expectant mothers save more for their children. The hope is that if mothers are able to save more before their child is born, they will be able to help reverse the negative effects associated with being born into a low-income family.

“I think in the future, if it does work, there will be chances to make it better, to figure out how to help people save more, to think of other ways we can do this—like maybe women instead of paying a sales tax, should pay a tax that would go into an account for their child,” Sobowale said. “There are different ways you can think about how this would work. Let’s see, at least on a small scale, if it has some positive effect.”

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