The financial literacy level of the average person isn’t very high, which means many Americans are woefully unprepared for the current economic times. But while it might be too late for some adults, a class of fourth-graders at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet Elementary School is receiving lessons about money.
“How many of you have heard the word ‘entrepreneur?’” Mary Nunnery-Williams, a volunteer with Junior Achievement, asks Rose Hatcher’s social studies class on a recent morning.
“It sounds like a French word, but I don’t know what it means,” says one child. “It means you start your own business,” another adds.
Nunnery-Williams will visit this class once a week over seven weeks. At this age, key subjects include supply and demand, how a business turns a profit and basic budgeting. In its next lesson, Hatcher’s class will learn about scarcity, a concept many parents are becoming more familiar with.
“Children, you think they’re not in touch with what’s going on,” Nunnery-Williams says. But even fourth-graders can intuit the impact of rising prices and stagnant wages on mom and dad’s pocketbook, even if they don’t quite understand why.
It seems at least once every year, someone surveys Americans’ financial knowledge, and the results are seldom encouraging. A 2008 report by Princeton Survey Research Associates International shows, among other disturbing findings, that only 59% of adults age 18 to 29 pay their bills on time, while the previous generation “does not appear to be modeling good financial behavior.” More than one-third of adults admitted not having any nonretirement savings, and more than one-quarter aren’t even saving for retirement. Americans learn the gospel of self-gratification pretty early in life.
“I became concerned when I saw a trend of us moving away from a saving society toward a credit society,” says Linda Hyatt Babin, a CPA with Wright & Percy Insurance.
Babin serves on the Society of Louisiana Certified Public Accountants financial literacy committee, which supports Junior Achievement’s second annual Financial Literacy Day in April, an event that, unfortunately, is only able to reach two elementary schools. Babin has worked with students as young as first-graders on the difference between needs and wants.
“It’s amazing how many of them say a TV is a need,” she says.
East Baton Rouge Parish Schools spokesman Chris Trahan says a number of local organizations are showing an interest in financial education. In October, JA and Capital One played host to Finance Park, a mobile education program for eighth-graders at the Mall at Cortana. Four credit unions now are open on public school campuses, where students can work and teachers and students can open accounts.
East Baton Rouge will likely be among the first participants of the National Black Chamber of Commerce Financial Scholars Program. Harry Alford, NBCC’s CEO, says the current economic crisis highlights the lack of financial education at the high school and college level. The program features software by educational gaming developer EverFi, in which students walk through a virtual financial world where students learn about banking or how to trade a stock. Students who complete the course will be “EverFi-certified” in financial literacy. Eric Lewis, president of the Baton Rouge Black Chamber of Commerce, says a lack of financial know-how can be particularly crippling early in life.
“I think it’s huge,” Lewis says. “Many times, as kids are coming out of college, their credit report can have an impact on their job status. From a community perspective, when people start off on the wrong foot financially, then we start to see some of the social problems that we’re dealing with.”
Layne McDaniel, LCPA Baton Rouge Chapter president and a frequent classroom guest speaker, has been involved in financial education efforts for nearly a decade, spurred partly by opposition to proposed legislation that would have, for example, limited solicitation by credit card companies on college campuses, or prevented companies from reporting bad credit histories in certain cases. McDaniel and others are committed to “combat the problem through education, not legislation.” Teenagers typically don’t have basic financial life skills, but colleges assume they do, and so don’t teach the basics, he says.
Currently, the state requires 10 hours of financial literacy in high schools, but McDaniel says the concepts need to be introduced much sooner. The work by Junior Achievement and other groups helps, but he advocates making financial literacy a larger part of the regular curriculum.
“Most high school kids, when you start talking about this stuff, they get that deer-in-the-headlights look, because no one’s ever talked to them about it,” he says. “I would consider this part of your life skills … I don’t know that they can do it today, but I think it’s worth challenging what the priorities are as it relates to math, and considering including financial literacy, beginning at a very early age.”
The LA DOTD held a grand opening last month for its branch at Scotlandville Magnet High School. The student-run Hornet’s Nest Credit Union is open two days a week and offers services such as savings and checking accounts, check-cashing and debit cards. School officials say they established the credit union as a way of teaching financial literacy. This is the fourth financial institution to set up branches in an East Baton Rouge Parish public school, joining an LA DOTD location at Staring Education Center, a Neighbors Federal Credit Union branch at Lee High School and an in-school credit union at Capitol Middle School.