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An Inside Look at the Financial Literacy Pandemic

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz discusses how financial literacy could fix America’s social issues.

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It goes without saying that there are more than enough issues plaguing America right now. One such issue that has been becoming more and more realized, and exacerbated due to COVID, is that of financial literacy. A recent survey Charles Schwab conducted in June found that 63 percent of American adults want financial education to be a priority in schooling—even over health and wellness education.

“We’re in the middle of a health crisis, yet Americans prioritize financial education over health and wellness,” says Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation. “But if you think about it, where we are today, so many more Americans have been affected economically than physically right now.”

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What’s more, 89 percent of respondents said that they think a lack of financial education contributes to some of the major social issues we’re currently facing.

“I was really, I guess, pleasantly surprised that so many Americans—basically 90 percent of Americans—say that financial literacy contributes to many of America’s social issues, such as poverty and lack of job opportunities, wealth inequality, and that they’re recognizing the power of financial literacy and how it can be a great equalizer for our society,” Schwab-Pomerantz says. “And that the lack of financial literacy takes away opportunities for people from all walks of life. I mean, that’s how I see it, and that’s how Americans see it.”

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Schwab-Pomerantz is a big advocate for improving financial literacy in the U.S., and if this pandemic has proven anything on the financial front, it’s the importance of having money management skills, especially in preparation for a crisis. The survey found that over half of Americans wished they had a better hold on these skills and wished they would have learned the value of saving money and how to set and achieve financial goals earlier in life.

“I’ve been studying attitudes and behaviors of Americans, adults, all ages, and every time, those basic money management learnings or skills always rise to a priority or a wish for Americans, a wish that they had or a wish that they were taught as young people,” Schwab-Pomerantz says. “It comes up all the time. And that’s why I’m such a big believer in the need for financial literacy, because it affects people from all walks of life.”

“As we know, so many Americans lack the basics of money management,” she adds. “And so, it’s difficult for, say people, adults, to pass on that knowledge to their children when they don’t really have the knowledge themselves.”

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Schwab-Pomerantz notes that while standalone courses can be helpful to build a foundation of financial knowledge, financial literacy is a skill that we should always be honing as we go through life.

“It is a lifetime pursuit of knowledge,” Schwab-Pomerantz explains. “And as your life changes and potentially becomes more complicated, staying on top of the basics and how to manage debt, how to build wealth, is what’s going to give more people more opportunity.”

And with this knowledge in tow, most Americans would be in better financial shape to weather crisis situations not unlike the one we’re currently in.

“Financial literacy would give people, again, the foundation, the padding, to ride through this pandemic, which is lasting longer than we all thought,” she says. “Had people had financial literacy, they would have, more likely, had an emergency fund to protect themselves against these unexpected issues that come up. People would understand how to live below their budget and live below their means and set money aside for their future. Financial literacy would teach people about debt management. Now admittedly, all these things existed before the pandemic. It’s just the pandemic exposed the vulnerability.”

But the desire for better financial education in America is not solely related to the economic issues brought on by COVID, something Charles Schwab was able to confirm by conducting its financial literacy survey twice this year—once in February and once in June.

“I think Americans have been wanting financial literacy pre-COVID because we did this survey that you’re seeing in February, and then the pandemic happened,” Schwab-Pomerantz says. “We thought, well, certainly people have changed their minds or that number’s going to look different. And they were not. So, people had these attitudes. They were not significantly different, which we were very surprised by.”

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Due to the lack of financial education that American adults have experienced, many are hoping the next generation finds themselves more financially prepared. Luckily, there are a lot of options out there for teachers and parents.

“There’s a lot of organizations that do educational workshops specifically to teach teachers about personal finance and how to teach it,” Schwab-Pomerantz says. “So, take advantage of some of the nonprofits that are out there helping teachers become better at financial content.”

One of these organizations is DonorsChoose, a program founded by teacher Charles Best to crowdsource the materials that teachers need. Charles Schwab works with DonorsChoose and matches all requests for financial program projects to further financial education in schools.

“And then, in terms of parents, I mean, there’s so much that parents can be doing right now,” Schwab-Pomerantz explains. “And that is just, even with an allowance, teaching your kids. Allowance can teach kids, little kids, the value of money. And as they get a little older and start saving more, helping them open up a savings account and save a portion of their money and make savings a habit for the rest of their lives. And then as they get a little older, start teaching them about investing. And if you don’t know how to do it yourself, certainly there are many experts out there and financial institutions that are glad to help young people. And we have a website, an educational website called Schwab MoneyWise that has all the basics of money management. And it has a section on raising money-wise kids with tools and calculators, and there’s also a section for teachers and educators.”

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With the seismic cultural shift that we’re seeing in America right now, could a reckoning in financial literacy be a part of that?

“I don’t think, as a country, we have made it a priority, and I’m not sure that we will this time, which is really unfortunate,” Schwab-Pomerantz says. “And that’s why I’m out there constantly pounding the pavement, talking to different influencers and civic leaders about the importance of financial literacy and how it is a great equalizer in our society. And that the lack of financial literacy is huge. You can call it a social justice issue, because people don’t have equal access and knowledge to financial education. So, again, going back to the survey, Americans believe that the lack of financial literacy contributes to unemployment and wealth inequality. And that’s what we’re talking about today, really. If we can educate more young people from all walks of life, we can rise all boats.

So, what does Schwab-Pomerantz think it will take for us, as a country, to make it a priority?

“I’m a big believer that financial literacy has to be where all sectors of society come together and make it a priority,” she says. “So, not just the government and schools, but families talking about it, nonprofit, workplace is another avenue for financial education. They call this ‘just in time’ financial education, because people are making money and have a paycheck. So, if we could bring all sectors in—the government, the state, the school systems, families, workplace, nonprofits—we could move the needle.”

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