Many middle-class families find it difficult to save, but it's especially hard for the working poor. Now there's a special savings program...

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NEW YORK — Many middle-class families find it difficult to save, but it’s especially hard for the working poor. Now there’s a special savings program — called Individual Development Accounts, or IDAs — designed to help poor families accumulate assets to buy a home, pay for a small business or for college.

IDAs were the brainchild of Michael Sherraden, a professor of social development at Washington University in St. Louis. Sherraden argued in research published in 1991 that Americans traditionally have built wealth by acquiring assets, such as houses.

“That meant we had to find a way for poor people to accumulate assets,” he said.

That mechanism was the IDA. The way it works is that community groups set up IDA programs, including financial-education seminars. Foundations and the government kick in funds to “match” what the working families save, a tactic similar to the company matches for worker contributions to 401(k) retirement programs. Local banks manage the accounts.

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From demonstration projects in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana in the mid-1990s, the IDA program has grown to include some 500 sponsoring organizations around the country, and more than 20,000 IDAs have been opened. The Web site www.idanetwork.org lists participating groups.

Under the typical program, families who set aside even $25 a month will see their savings matched 2-for-1, for a total of $75. That means they can accumulate $900 a year, plus interest. Some have parlayed their earnings over four to five years into down payments on their first homes or tuition at community colleges — the first major investments in their lives.