Financial illiteracy is a huge problem in the U.S., and one Democratic presidential candidate says a big barrier to improving it is that a lot of people don’t have much money.
Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur running for president in 2020, tweeted recently, “In my experience, trying to teach someone financial literacy is very difficult if they don’t have money.” Yang is also the founder of nonprofit Venture for America, which focuses on job creation in cities hit hard by the financial crisis.
The tweet sparked quite a bit of backlash. People responded calling the tweet “inane,” and that those without much money are the ones who need financial literacy — so that they can change their lives with the lessons they’ve learned. Others also mentioned his proposal for “universal basic income,” which would give every American adult 18 and older $1,000 a month, paid for by a new corporate tax. “You’re exactly right, which begs the question, would most people use the extra $1,000 responsibly?” someone else tweeted.
Yang’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Americans are sorely lacking in financial literacy, especially among young people since the Great Recession. There was an 8% drop in the number of people who could answer questions correctly about interest rates, inflation, bond prices and mortgage rates between 2009 and 2018, from 42% to 34%, according to a three-year study from FINRA’s Investor Education Foundation. Americans also tended to have better self-perceptions of their financial literacy, the study found. Retirement savings is no safer. Many Americans are unprepared for retirement, in part because they did not save enough — or couldn’t afford to do so.
But whether a person needs money to understand it is up for debate.
Some say yes, that how much money someone has does impact how well they retain lessons about money. “You have to have a sense of driving to get on the highway, you have to warm up when you go to the gym before high-intensity training,” said Dan LaSalle, assistant principal at Olney Charter School in Philadelphia, which has one of the most unique financial literacy programs in the country.
Olney pays students who enroll in its financial literacy program up to $5,000 a year to work at the school as a teacher guides them through the importance of budgeting, saving and investing. The school also helps them open up a bank account, something many of their parents don’t have. The median household income in the school’s neighborhood is about $33,000, compared with the national median of $61,000. “So if you want people to be financially savvy and good investors, you have to start early and gradually and they need money to do those things,” LaSalle said.
That’s why Yang’s proposal for a universal basic income could help Americans even more — not only would they receive extra cash in their pockets, but they’d have a foundation when they were taught or did read up on financial education. Yang’s campaign also mentions free financial counseling as a policy, though it doesn’t clarify how that would be provided.
Still, financial education is valuable whether Americans have big bank account balances or not, said Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance, which provides a free personal finance curriculum for high schools. He hears stories from teachers who use this program about the impact these lessons have had on students, and in some cases, their parents, when the students go home and share what they learned.
“So many teens don’t have much experience with money yet when personal finance is taught in an engaging way, with hands-on activities and simulations, these lessons stick,” Ranzetta said.
Part of the problem may be in how society approaches the definition and deployment of financial literacy, said Joyce Serido, an associate professor and extension specialist of family social science at the University of Minnesota. There are two ways to approach financial literacy, and they’re vastly different. For some, it is understanding and using tools, like 401(k) plans and individual retirement plans (IRAs). For others, it could be how low-income families manage money on a tight budget, and stretch their dollars a long way until the next paycheck comes in.
Instead of talking at people who may not have much knowledge of investing and saving strategies, people may need counselors and coaches who can guide them through their own personal situations, she said.
“It’s not that financial education isn’t important — it is very important,” Serido said. “When it comes down to it you have to start where the person is and let them dictate the pace at which they can move forward.”