Baby Bonds: Why Bold Change Requires Bold Partnerships

Interview with Bruce Adams, CEO of the Credit Union League of Connecticut | April 17, 2024

Credit Union League of Connecticut CEO Bruce Adams (center left) at a press conference with Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn Wooden (center), in April 2022. Photo: Office of Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn Wooden

Baby Bonds are an increasingly popular government policy in which every child born into poverty receives a publicly funded trust account at birth, providing them with “start-up capital” to pursue fulfilling, productive, prosperous, and self-directed lives. Follow our Baby Blogs series to learn about the vision, politics, and people behind Baby Bonds and their transformative impact on the lives of young people, their families, and communities. 

In this installment of Baby Blogs, we spoke with Credit Union League of Connecticut CEO Bruce Adams about the League’s role in supporting Baby Bonds in Connecticut and the importance of working across differences, and leveraging institutional partnerships, to implement big policy change.

Could you talk a little bit about your journey and how you became involved in the world of finance and credit unions?

BA: I had a career in the music business. I was a tour manager and sound engineer for bands and I learned a lot about running a small business. I saw money coming in, money going out, and having to pay salaries and having to buy equipment. I learned to appreciate the struggles of young people trying to make their way in the world of business, and the successes and failures that come with that. 

When it came time for me to “grow up” in my business life, I realized I needed to do something that was more sustainable for the long haul. I decided to go to law school to be an entertainment lawyer but I ended up following a different path. After spending an exciting year as a law clerk for Judge Thomas Griesa in the Southern District of New York, I joined a large law firm and practiced business and financial litigation. A few years later, I left the firm to pursue a career in development as a fundraiser for the University of Connecticut’s law and nursing schools, where I learned a lot about the power of the charitably donated dollar—in addition to the money, people give their heart and their spirit for something that matters to further a purpose. That felt really good to help accomplish the aim of a nonprofit and leverage the impact of those dollars. 

My experience working with musicians on the one hand and working with donors and grantmakers on the other was a perfect marriage for me to get into politics and government—you’re trying to get everybody to say “yes.” So I found my way into the [Connecticut] Governor’s Office, where I was responsible for the money agencies of the Executive Branch (banking and insurance and consumer protection, e.g.).

When the [Connecticut] Banking Commissioner was planning his retirement, he asked me to join him as General Counsel for his last few years. I really enjoyed that space. That’s where I received more exposure to credit unions. 

I jumped at the chance to serve then Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman as her General Counsel. She presided over a tied Senate with 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats. So that was always a study, every day, in balancing competing interests and finding political unity and places of common ground to advance our state forward in ways that not everybody loved. It’s often said that the hallmark of a good compromise is when everybody walks away pissed off. We did a lot of that. 

In some ways, I think that experience set me up for understanding the possibilities of Baby Bonds and the issue from all sides. As Governor Malloy and Lt. Governor Wyman’s terms ended, Governor Lamont appointed me as Deputy Commissioner of Revenue Services. 

Some months later, I had the opportunity to lead the Credit Union League of Connecticut as President & CEO. This is where I really learned the value of a financial institution that cares about the financial health of its members and its community, and one that understands that a person walking in the door comes with a host of human relationships and circumstances that make them unique. 

When did you first learn about Baby Bonds? 

BA: My recollection is that when Shawn T. Wooden was campaigning for treasurer, he was talking about issues like this. He wasn’t explicitly saying Baby Bonds, but he was talking about using his status in office to address intergenerational poverty, and that some kids would have less of a chance at financial success or independence, purely because they were born into harder financial circumstances. 

Shawn saw the power of the Office of Treasurer as a way to break this cycle. And I found that concept very intriguing, that there could be a way to grow the state’s money and manage it. I tucked that away in my head until Shawn was elected and took office. Shawn introduced the embryonic concept of the Baby Bond in deploying state dollars to kids with limited means for them to hold and invest over the course of their childhood so that they would accrue resources with which to start a financially independent adult life. And between those early conversations and rolling out the Baby Bonds initiative in Connecticut, I was ready for it when it dropped. It made perfect sense to me that the state would have the opportunity for 18 years to invest money to cover its administrative costs of that investment and still have dollars with which to give kids a fighting chance.

What was especially interesting to me in this concept was that the money isn’t a handout because it came with conditions. There were eligibility requirements. And that’s good. So not everybody could just stick their hand out. You have a financial literacy education requirement, that these young adults would have to demonstrate some basic financial knowledge, and that’s super important so they can make better choices with their money.

Another interesting condition is that all Baby Bonds money has to stay in Connecticut, which builds our state’s economic foundation. Beyond that, not only do they have to spend it in Connecticut, they have to spend it on things that will advance their own financial independence. That might look like starting a business, attending school, or adding the money to a retirement account. All of that means that those dollars being allocated 18 years prior are still inure to the benefit of the state of Connecticut. This initiative was crafted not only to give individuals with one hand tied behind their back a fighting shot, but it was designed also to shore up the economic foundation of our state from border to border.

Talk about how the credit union league is involved with policy and why Baby Bonds was of particular interest?

As a trade association, the Credit Union League is primarily an advocacy organization, and we’re looking to advance policies that not only allow credit unions to do what they do better, but also advance the financial health, independence, and well-being of our communities of our members, our customers. 

Baby bonds are such a natural fit for this for a couple of different reasons. One, the intergenerational wealth trap is a societal evil that needs to get broken. Just because a parent has challenging financial circumstances is no reason that the child of that parent should have a harder chance achieving financial success. Baby Bonds seek to address that and give every kid a fighting shot at achieving the American Dream. The land of opportunity should be the land of opportunity for all. 

And, secondly, the idea that Baby Bonds can do what it purports to do and ultimately become financially self-sustaining over time led me to conclude that the problem in getting something like this passed was not that it was a bad ideait was a great ideathe problems were the politics of the run up to sustainability. And I’m a political problem solver. So I jumped in with both feet and worked really hard over a couple of years to see this through to reality. 

I will say that I still think a conversation needs to occur about sustainability of these funds. That’s an important thing to talk about when we talk about policymaking in government. We can’t just throw good money at every worthy cause, we have to figure out a way to make worthy programs stand on their own two feet, especially for Republican legislatures for whom the philosophical underpinning is smaller government and wise spending. So if that conversation doesn’t occur out in the open, it’s easy for a Republican legislature to poke holes in it and walk away without deeper exploration of how it actually is a good thing for its state. That doesn’t have to be a Democratic, partisan thing. It can work but we have to talk about that money side in a very rational way. We have to be unflinching in the actuarial view of the Baby Bonds initiative. 

What are your hopes for Baby Bonds? 

BA: Financial disruptions in life can lead to catastrophic ends. The idea that a person might know that if they make it to 18 they’ll attain some skills and support in charting their course to financial independence, knowing that money was out there, seemed like a realistic opportunity to give kids hope. 

Hope, coming with expectation, is what gives people a better chance at achieving success, whatever that is in life. I think that is one of the great benefits of Baby Bonds—that kids under 18 will know that they have somebody putting a vote of confidence in their success. Just having somebody willing to take a chance on them will increase the chances that they will make better choices before they’re eligible to claim their assets. 

What were the key steps in getting Baby Bonds passed?

BA: In the run up to achieving passage of this legislation, not a lot of people focused on the need to actually bond for the money, so obtaining the funding for such a program was a whole separate track. That came with its own political realities. And this is one of the great things about our government, whether you’re in Connecticut or you’re in Washington or you’re in some other state, our democratic system of government has checks and balances for good reason. What that means is that it’s ever more important when you have high dollar legislation to build coalitions across the aisle and across interbranch coalitions. 

My politics involves communicating to my membership about the value of this and how good it was and how important it was for me to continue to fight for it. But at the same time, when I turn my focus externally, I now have to look at whose basket I’m putting my eggs in, politically speaking—the money side and the legislative side of things. If those two things aren’t married together I’m picking a favorite. So from the private sector, that was a real challenge for those of us that came out early and supported Baby Bonds. The minute we see that the money might not be there, we have to decide whether we’re going to double down and try to get it through…Essentially what is the political cost benefit analysis of doing that?

Whether you’re an advocate like me, or you’re an elected official, once you put your statement on the record and your mug on camera, that’s it. That’s a hard analysis and I saw it in action. After standing with the Treasurer at a press conference, I had to have some hard conversations off camera and explain why I did what I did. That was a cost to me, and it was a cost that I was willing to pay. 

I think when everybody lays their head on their pillow they understand that this [Baby Bonds] is a good idea. 

If you’re Treasurer Russell, and you’ve got this legislation, how do you get the funding? I think that Treasurer Russell realized that it was important to share the credit and to build a big tent. This was an initiative that only could happen if everybody held hands and walked forward.

Baby Bonds is a very multifaceted initiative that comes with hard financial and policy decision making. Why does Kid A receive benefits and Kid B doesn’t? How does this cut across racial lines? Poverty hits everybody, it doesn’t matter what skin color you have. 

Recognizing the great benefit of Baby Bonds for a much wider swath of Connecticut’s residents most likely brought this over the finish line. Now we need to bring people in and have a broad-based coalition saying, “Look at what good we did for our state.”

What advice would you give to other states who are looking to implement Baby Bonds? 

BA: Well, I think that they have a shorter runway than Connecticut did. It only takes one state for others to start considering this initiative more seriously. 

Having a roadmap for how to get there at least provides states with direction in proceeding legislatively. The advice I would give to any state is to give yourself two years to get it done. It may be coalition building in year one, going and finding out what problems people have at first, and then maybe holding a public hearing on something and letting it get shot full of holes. Then you come back in year two rock solid. 

If you ram legislation through, resentment grows. If you’ve got a great legislative policy idea, as frustrating as it is to go slow, it’s far better to build a coalition across factions because you stand a better chance of setting that new initiative on solid ground. It’s worth it for the long haul to take the time to do it right.

Bruce Adams is the President and CEO of the Credit Union League of Connecticut, a not-for-profit organization that represents credit unions in the state of Connecticut and beyond. The League additionally provides advocacy and educational resources to help credit unions better serve their members. Under Adams’ leadership, the League provided important public and political support for the recently passed Connecticut Baby Bonds Trust. 

If you missed previous installments of our Baby Blogs series, read them here

Learn more about Baby Bonds in Connecticut.

To share feedback on this blog, or for questions about Baby Bonds, email David Radcliffe at [email protected].

To learn more, explore our Baby Bonds resources.