CDA Beginnings, Middles, and Bends: A developing story on Child Development Accounts in STL

Elaine Cha
Oct 2, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo credit: Missouri CDA Coalition website

Were you born yesterday? If it happened in St. Louis — or anywhere in Missouri — there’s one thing you probably don’t have that your Maine- and Pennsylvania-born birthday twins got: college money. And that’s because Maine and Pennsylvania are currently the only two in the country with policies that automatically open (and seed) 529 college savings accounts for each of its newborns.

Although Missouri doesn’t have a similar policy now, the concept’s birthplace is none other than St. Louis. The Ferguson Commission’s call for statewide Child Development Accounts (CDAs) could be considered a sort of homecoming; and last year’s State of the Report score, a reminder of hometown challenges to meeting #STL2039’s Racial Equity goal.

As we examine how far we’ve come #FiveYearsLater, here’s a look back — and ahead — at the ‘evolution’ of work around CDAs in St. Louis.

Where did it all start?

Margaret Clancy, Policy Director with the Center for Social Development, Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, has spent over 15 years working directly on CDA research with the originator of the concept, Dr. Michael Sherraden. Clancy says accounts for post-secondary schooling, home ownership, or new-business start-up was originally proposed back in 1991 as a way to start building assets for children at birth.

Center for Social Development Policy Director Margaret Clancy; Photo credit: Center for Social Development

But testing this idea for kids wasn’t a priority then. Much of that had to do with precedent and practice.

“Social policy at the time focused on income maintenance rather than asset-building,” says Clancy. “Many years later, the concept of wealth inequality has become more common not only among policymakers but in the media, too. Bipartisan policymakers are beginning to embrace this concept of assets for children.”

Where did it go?

It took until 2005* for research and policy work on state-level CDAs to begin with the SEED for Oklahoma Kids experiment. (*In other words, a whole 8th grader’s lifetime.) By the time 2015 arrived, there were promising findings from the SEED OK study; the results Clancy shared at a public Ferguson Commission working group meeting reflected gains that met the Commission’s #OpportunityToThrive and #YouthAtTheCenter goals and ultimately helped put Universal Child Development Accounts among the Commission Report’s calls to action.

When the Ferguson Commission Report was issued in September 2015, programs like Viking Advantage (Beyond Housing), as well as Focus on College! (United Way, Wells Fargo Advisors, and Missouri MOST), had already been established as opt-in plans for some students in St. Louis County and City. The College Kids Children’s Savings Account program was officially launched by the City of St. Louis Treasurer’s office to join that number in December 2015.

Cynthia Crim, the Charitable Contributions Grants Manager for Commerce Bank, joined a group that first met in 2016 to strategize around making Child Development Accounts for St. Louis youth living in the City and County’s highest-need zip codes viable. Energy and focus were very much local.

It took reams of easel paper, a feasibility study, a whole lot of frustration, and seeing other states (like Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Nebraska) passing or at

least working on CDA policy at larger scale to rethink that close focus. And by 2018, that group — now known as the Regional Child Development Account Collaborative, convened and facilitated by Health Equity Works and the Center for Social Development — decided to go where the Commission Report and SEED OK had gone.

“We redirected our focus from small programs and the regional for statewide,” Crim says.

Where’s it going?

To take on that broadened scope and add new partners and support, the Missouri CDA Coalition website is now live — a resource meant to inform, engage, and enlist more people all over the Show Me State to advance implementation of CDAs for all children born and residing in Missouri.

Health Equity Works Research Assistant Anne Milne; Photo credit: Washington University

Anne Milne is part of the team that’s built that site and serves as Health Equity Works’ coordinator of the CDA Leadership Committee. One beauty she sees in efforts around Child Development Accounts is all the paths people have taken to get into the work.

“When I first started, I didn’t understand immediately how everybody fit in,” Milne recalls, “but the more I spent time with the Leadership Committee and my CSD counterpart at the Center for Social Development, I learned about the broader reach of CDAs and why it’s CDAs are important for a lot of different people.”

“One of the big things I think CDAs have the capacity to do is strengthen and bring together our urban and rural communities and position Missouri’s state identity,” Milne continues. “In order for CDAs to work, we need state leaders and politicians, we need banks and financial institutions, we need the public and private sectors, research entities, and non-profit organizations. It’s really this unification of these different disciplines that will make CDAs work on a statewide, community level.”

For Crim, whose way in was curiosity — “a local family foundation wanted to know more” — a Missouri CDA policy could help bring the St. Louis region closer to Racial Equity in 2039 by shifting “them” vs. “us” thinking so that policy can focus on human potential instead of human problems.

529 College Savings Plans differ state-to-state. Maine, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska (starting 1/1/2020) use their respective 529s as investment vehicles for their statewide CDAs.

“Margaret [Clancy] is constantly reminding us that CDAs are a policy, so how do we take it as a road map to do some other things?” she says. “I think there are several new initiatives in different stages and phases that are coming along — like the early childhood initiative, and post-secondary and literacy initiatives. So there’s momentum. We just hope at the state level, we can have at least one win that’s going to help shepherd some of this other work along.”

Commerce Bank Charitable Contributions Grants Manager Cynthia Crim (right); Photo credit: Diane Anderson via Ladue News

Crim pauses.

“I love this work. I love learning. I love hearing about what’s going on in the region. I entered the nonprofit world in 1993, and what saddens me is that we are tackling some of the same problems and raising funding for many of these issues today. There has been new thinking about how to handle some of these challenges, however.”

“One of the ideas that is so captivating,” adds Milne, “and I can’t get out of my mind is the idea that we need to intervene upstream; that it’s all about prevention. CDAs are truly a preventative approach, for both individuals and communities.”

“This concept of development accounts has always given me hope because it’s not meeting issues at [the] crisis,” says Crim. “It’s really saying to families, ‘You can do this. This is a mechanism that can turn your life in a real positive direction.’ So for me, it’s always been one of those tools that I’ve thought — and have seen — can really make a difference on the front end. It just seems like a better place to make an investment.”

Photo credit: Pexels

To learn more about CDA policy for Missouri, or to join the Coalition, visit

Forward Through Ferguson

Anchored in the collaborative, unflinching, and…

Forward Through Ferguson

Anchored in the collaborative, unflinching, and community-driven principles that guided the Ferguson Commission, Forward Through Ferguson serves as an catalyst for leading the St. Louis region on a path toward Racial Equity.

Elaine Cha

Written by

Storyteller/Journalist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern MO. Public media-educated; engagement-informed; collab-driven.

Forward Through Ferguson

Anchored in the collaborative, unflinching, and community-driven principles that guided the Ferguson Commission, Forward Through Ferguson serves as an catalyst for leading the St. Louis region on a path toward Racial Equity.