Elderly woman talks to financial adviser in her home.
Elderly woman talks to financial adviser in her home. - 
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TESS VIGELAND: Losing a job can be the tipping point that drops people into poverty. And on that front there is nothing good to report. The unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent in December. That's a 16-year high.

So it's likely that hundreds of thousands of people will be looking for help with food and rent and medical bills. Social workers are there to provide resources. But a growing number want to tackle money issues head-on. We asked reporter Cathy Duchamp to look into the idea of financial social work.

CATHY DUCHAMP: If you want to know what a financial social worker does, talk to Robin McKinney.

She runs a nonprofit called Maryland CASH. It helps people do everything from opening checking accounts to applying for tax credits. The mission: help families get financially stable.

ROBIN MCKINNEY: I think it's the root of everything. I think if you have financial problems, then you're more likely to be depressed, you're more likely to have relationship problems, job instability. To me it just gets at the core of all of it.

Social workers usually refer people with money problems to experts: credit counselors, volunteer tax preparers, or the occasional financial planner who does pro bono work.

But McKinney kept seeing the same people coming through her door. She realized it was because no one was talking to them about underlying values and beliefs around money.

MCKINNEY: If someone has the underlying belief that I don't deserve to have money, it doesn't matter if you find 10 extra dollars in their budget to go to their credit card. That's the underlying issue.

McKinney is now part of an emerging field of social workers taking the lead on money matters.

MCKINNEY: We might not be comfortable in the budgets, creating spending plans, helping someone with their credit report. But we know how to help people, support people around self-esteem issues.

But where are social workers learning about personal finance? McKinney didn't study it when she got her Masters in social work. Finance isn't part of the regular curriculum.

McKinney is changing that at her alma mater, the University of Maryland. The classes will incorporate lessons from the Center for Financial Social Work in North Carolina. It's the first in the country. Right now, the Center offers its own online certification.

Danielle Martinez got hers last summer. She's a case manager at Goodwill Staffing Services, a temp agency in Austin, Texas.

DANIELLE MARTINEZ: Hi, Sherry, this is Danni at Goodwill Staffing. Just calling to get in contact with you, specifically about your request and some financial counseling we should begin.

Martinez introduced the idea of financial counseling sessions to make her clients face their money demons.

MARTINEZ: Every financial counseling session I have, the lightbulb goes on. They're saying, "Wow, this is how I can change and I'm gonna get there. I'm gonna get to that spot."

But it's emotional. Especially for people who face barriers with the basics, like a bank rejecting you as a customer.

Martinez brings in a banker for especially tough cases, like people who are afraid to step into a bank.

MARTINEZ: For some reason, when the banker sits next to me, comes in and volunteers their time, they bring some sort of credibility that I don't have.

That's good news to certified financial planners, who might be concerned about social workers dispensing money advice.

Tim Mauer directs financial planning for the Financial Consulate. It's a firm in suburban Baltimore.

TIM MAUER: It's important that those people who step into that gray area do have some backing, some knowledge, some education, so they're actually not creating worse problems.

Mauer says the same goes for financial planners, who are also stepping into that gray area. He wants to see social work and personal finance converge.

MAUER: I think that the best financial planning programs already have begun to bring behavior economics and more of that social worker/counseling element into their curricula. And I think that's the next level, something we'll see over the next decade, these two groups coming together.

Prompted by the faltering economy, where emotional support could help everyone with money woes.

I'm Cathy Duchamp for Marketplace.

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