Teaching Financial Literacy in a Credit Card Nation

Friday, November 13, 2009 at 10:28 am

The subprime crisis certainly highlighted the need for American consumers to become more financially literate. But who defines financial literacy? And what makes someone an expert? Mike Konczal at Rortybomb asks these and other questions regarding financial literacy education — a subject TWI has also been looking into lately.

Did you know that since 2003, when the subprime market really took off, April has been Financial Literacy Month? Now you do. But in an age where financial expertise seems so discredited what qualifies someone to be financially literate?

It’s a fair question. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t reassuring. First, as Konczal notes, “financial literacy” as a course of study doesn’t exactly exist in the economics field. There’s no incentive to get published on it; there’s little academic research as a result. What fills the gap? As we pointed out, subprime lenders align themselves with mainstream financial literacy groups and fund their efforts as a way to distract from the controversies surrounding their products. Konczal explains the problem goes even further, with unqualified “experts” dispensing their alleged personal finance wisdom.

There’s little academic backing, there’s no money for journals, research grants, conferences, the development of theory and expertise that is deployable into policy. That leaves the field wide open to be funded by credit card companies, subprime lenders, and others with a vested interest in certain modes of thought becoming the norm. And for expertise to be filled by people who come from motivational speaking backgrounds, and theory to end up as a mess of common-sense adages and low-level morality plays. The theme of Financial Literacy Month for 2008 was “Financial Responsibility Begins with Me”; why didn’t they call it “caveat emptor”?

One of the biggest hurdles facing the creation of legitimate and useful financial literacy programs will continue to be funding for non-biased, professional counselors.  It’s not a great time to push the government to provide more money to the nation’s Cooperative Extension System — but that national educational network remains a valuable source of credible personal finance research. And as we said, some corporations are beginning to incorporate financial literacy into their human resources responsibilities, given the problem of employees burdened with distracting financial problems.

In the end, that may really be what it takes to get untainted financial literacy education going — the overwhelming debt crisis facing American consumers. Maybe the government and the private sector will come to realize that partnering with credit card companies and subprime lenders isn’t going to get the job done. As Calculated Risk has repeatedly asked, why aren’t consumers being educated on the perils of not paying their credit card bills off in full every month? Probably because, in the absence of untainted financial literacy advice, a company like Visa is backing a high-profile financial literacy initiative. It seems unlikely advising people to pay off their credit cards is the focus of that effort.

As credit tightens, so will the need for legitimate financial literacy education. And as consumer debt becomes something harder to ignore, maybe the unholy alliance of creditors with a stake in the game and financial literacy education programs often aimed at younger borrowers in particular, will finally come to an end.



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Comment posted November 16, 2009 @ 8:26 am

Who would teach it? In what medium? And how do you get people to watch? Unless they weave it into the events of American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, how are you going to get people to pay attention?

My gut feeling is that this is something people will go and learn on their own once they've made their One Big Mistake: getting in too deep, missing payments, getting threatening letters etc. And they'll learn it from the hundreds of books and blogs already out there, just waiting to be read by those motivated to do so.

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