Opinion

The Need for Financial Education Is Urgent

The current economic and health crisis has not only created many new challenges, but has brought to light the severity of a major existing problem that affects everyone. There is a lack of financial education in America. And yet research shows that helping people develop the skills and knowledge they need has long-term, life-changing positive impacts. In order to work towards meaningful and lasting economic recovery, we must equip Americans of all ages with the education and resources they desperately need.

In the midst of our current economic downturn, the implications have become even more apparent. A September 2020 National Endowment for Financial Education survey revealed that 84 percent of people stated the COVID-19 crisis was causing instability and stress.Amid record levels of unemployment and underemployment, Americans are faced with severely challenging decisions made even more difficult due to lack of education, understanding and guidance.

While the current situation seems bleak, increased efforts to promote access to tools and resources are promising. A total of 32 states have made financial education a high school graduation requirement, an increase of 13 states over the previous year. At the same time, programs are becoming more tailored and widely available. Just this year, the National Association of State Treasurers released the Financial Wellness Education and Support program, a suite of free digital tools for public sector workers. And these offerings are becoming a standard workplace benefit, as a growing number of employers are implementing financial wellness programs for their employees.

It is well-documented that these efforts are impactful, leading to improved rates of savings, lower levels of debt and increased rates of asset accumulation. In fact, they have even been found to be a strong indicator of positive financial outcomes.

As Massachusetts state treasurer and receiver general, I have seen firsthand the positive results of providing education and access to these essential skills. When elected in 2014, I launched the Office of Economic Empowerment, the first of its kind in the country, dedicated to creating pathways to economic security and economic stability for all Massachusetts residents. I immediately convened a Financial Literacy Task Force, whose report recommended 22 action items that would ensure people had access to critical information relevant throughout their lives.

After the release of the Financial Task Force Report, working with state and local partners, the implementation of all recommendations was done by 2019. We offer specialized programs for women, veterans, and seniors among others. We have reached over 50,000 high school students with experiential learning, helping them understand in real time, the financial implications of their decision-making.

And to address attainment of post-secondary education, after a multiyear pilot, this past January we launched our BabySteps Savings Plan. BabySteps is a seeded savings account program available to every baby born or adopted in Massachusetts. It can be used for college or vocational/tech training and its unique feature is that it wraps financial literacy services around the children and their families.

Knowing that wage equality is an enormous barrier to economic stability for families, we created resources for both employers and employees on how to overcome it. We launched EqualPayMA.com, which provides information on how to comprehend and address this, often misunderstood, problem. The web site has been viewed all over the world. Additionally, we have related programming such as our Women’s Economic Empowerment series and wage negotiation workshops.

Early on we learned to meet people where they are on their phones, at home and at all times of day, allowing us to quickly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had recently updated our MyFinancialLifeMA.org website, which includes learning labs with individualized curriculums, so we were able to immediately offer Money Talk Tuesdays. This webinar series has been highlighting experts on various financial topics relevant to people today. And to ensure we reach everyone, our programs and information are available in multiple languages and dialects.

Most importantly, we know our programs work. Our data shows that 88 percent of the women who took our Empowerment Series stated they will apply the lessons learned to their daily lives, and 40 percent had increased self-confidence gains. Forty-one percent of veterans who participated in our “Veterans Benefits” webinars said the program enhanced their knowledge on various benefits and 91 percent are likely or highly likely to use the presented resources. And 92 percent of all senior citizens that participated in our scam and fraud prevention workshops report increased knowledge gain of the subject matters presented.

Each day, Americans make financial decisions about a range of issues from everyday purchases to student loans, buying a home or how to prepare for old age and retirement. Without the financial tools necessary to navigate these issues, it is too easy to take a wrong step. We live in difficult and unpredictable times. By empowering people through financial education and knowledge so they can make well-informed decisions, we will help our country move forward into recovery.

 

Deborah B. Goldberg is the president of the National Association of State Treasurers, as well as Massachusetts state treasurer and receiver general.

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