The Obama White House is evidence of the latest political strides of black Americans. Very recent history in the form of the mortgage crisis is evidence of just how far we have to go economically and financially. And the conversation about economic equality requires a fundamental change in the conversation.
"Rights imply that somebody has something to give us, and they're not giving it to us,” observes former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young. “When you switch from politics to finance, that doesn't apply anymore. You must work, invest, think, dream and create for yourself."
Young’s declaration came in response to a question from D.C. councilman and former Mayor Marion Barry at the first Global Financial Literacy Summit held recently in Washington, D.C. Barry was concerned that Obama’s economic stimulus package will not trickle down to the people who need it most. Young’s point was that in terms of economic progress, African Americans need different tools than what was used in the fight for civil rights and political enfranchisement.
At the top of the list is expanded financial literacy, or simply, understanding how money works. The event felt reminiscent of the civil rights era with Young and Barry, and long with the chair emeritus of the National Council on Negro Women, Dorothy Height. And it took place outside of the usual power corridors of Washington, in Anacostia, a neighborhood in D.C. that includes some of the city’s most economically distressed residents.
But clearly this was different. Among the more than 700 delegates and economic leaders from six continents and more 30 countries, was Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior adviser. And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, maybe the most powerful central banker in the world, gave the keynote address. Also present was FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who has introduced legislation to make a financial education program mandatory for student borrowers.
Financial literacy is finally on the radar of those in the highest levels of government. “When a top adviser to President Obama, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the FDIC chair, a civil rights icon and four members of Congress all … spend the day making a strong business case for … financial literacy … it sends a loud message indeed,” said John Hope Bryant, vice chairman of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy.
But as necessary and as welcomed as this new focus on literacy is, it’s only part of the solution. After 20 years as a financial journalist, I have observed that one of the biggest problems in trying to teach people about financial matters is the constant failure to take human nature into consideration.
It’s important for people to know the basics of saving, investing, mortgages, debt management, etc., but that knowledge alone rarely puts us on a path to financial well-being.
Money is one of the leading causes of divorce for a reason. The reasons people stop talking to friends and family over financial disputes is far more complicated than dollars and cents.
As lawmakers and policy makers in the non-profit and private sectors set out to make us all fluent in the language of money, it is imperative that they also make the public aware of the real factors that drive financial behavior.
Research has shown that early role-modeling, social pressures—keeping up with the Joneses, in effect—and messages from advertisers are among the primary drivers of financial behavior. Race and gender also play a role in our financial experience.
At one point during the D.C. event, Jarrett observed that “today’s consumers have a bewildering set of choices … and they all create an environment where consumers feel at-risk.” Financial literacy educators need to remember that the way people “feel” about money is as important as the financial decisions they make. We have to bring the human side of money into the dialogue. And there we’ll find the jackpot.
Stacey Tisdale is a veteran on-air financial journalist. She's the author of The True Cost of Happiness: The Real Story Behind Managing Your Money. She is also a board member of nonprofit financial literacy organization, Operation HOPE.