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The missing literacy link

4 min read


“In the 20th century, the issue around the world was democracy, with Dr. King marching in the southern states, Nelson Mandela marching in South Africa, and Gandhi before them marching for justice in India. The issue was democracy, and without the vote you were a slave. Today, in the 21st century, the issue is global economics, and without an understanding of the language of money (financial literacy), and a bank account, you are still a slave. Today financial literacy is a global civil rights issue, and the first 21st century silver right.” — John Hope Bryant, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and chairman of the subcommittee on the Underserved and Community Empowerment and U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability

I am honored that John Hope Bryant took the time to provide his personal thoughts to this blog post, as he is one of the nation’s most respected financial literacy leaders. A couple of months ago, he tweeted that financial literacy is the civil rights issue of our time. There is strong quantitative support for this point of view.

Visit this website for a history of illiteracy from the National Center for Education Statistics. Visit this website for the current state of financial and economic literacy in our K-12 education system. Visit the website for the current state of personal financial education in our K-12 education system.

Literacy refers to the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently and think critically about the written word. Critical thinking is a way of deciding whether a claim or opportunity is always true, always false or something in between. As it relates to making financial choices, lacking the critical thinking skills necessary to making understood financial choices in a capitalistic society suppresses the opportunities to flourish in a free enterprise system.

Financial contracts, such as mortgages and credit card solicitations, are often complicated and misunderstood. The newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is working hard to construct suggested financial contracts that are more understandable, but this is not enough if consumers are foreign to basic financial vocabulary and concepts. Yet, there is a big gap in our K-12 education system in preparing future consumers, a gap leading to economic inequality. Read “Optimal Financial Knowledge and Wealth Inequality,” which quantifies a connection between unequal financial education opportunities and economic inequality.

States do not have to mandate a course for a school to offer it. Our school administrators can commit to offering and encouraging every student to take a semester-long personal finance class. As you can see in this compelling four-minute video, there is a clear need for meaningful financial education in our schools, and our communities are ready for us to commit to providing one.

For teachers and administrators who believe in the importance of financial literacy, there are plenty of ways to integrate financial literacy into classrooms, including the following resources.

This post is a call to action. Broadly speaking, financial literacy is the missing literacy link of the 21st century. Use these resources to make sure financial literacy is not the missing literacy link for your students, and share this post with your colleagues so they can work to make sure it is not for their students.

Brian Page (@FinEdChat) received the Ohio Department of Education Milken National Educator Award in 2011 and was a 2012 Money magazine “Money Hero.” He currently teaches financial education and economics at Reading Community City Schools and serves as an outreach director with Cincinnati United.