End Our Other Pandemic
There really is “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” thanks to the rollouts of the vaccines for Covid-19. If most of 2020 had not been such a dark time for far too many Americans that would just be another often overused phrase. However, now there really is hope for both a return to the “better aspects” of the lives that we enjoyed before last March, as well as for us to make changes to the “need work” aspects that have been highlighted during the pandemic.
Another hope is that the Biden Administration will guide us through the end of the pandemic and restore our economy, and then address some of those much needed changes, including social justice, income and opportunities disparities, climate change, healthcare, the continuing annual deficits, the national debt, and more. We all must come together, wish the new Administration the best, and, when possible, do our part.
While the Biden Administration refines its goals and objectives, and decides what issues it will attack and promote first, I would, humbly, encourage it to put eliminating our National Epidemic of Financial Illiteracy high up on its “to do list”.
To begin another much needed “project warp speed” the Administration just needs to immediately point out and promote the need for every American high school student to be required to take a one semester course on personal finance in order to graduate. Our soon to be First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, as an educator, is no doubt among the vast majority of teachers who endorse this need, so it should be a natural for her to take a lead on it.
The last ten months has shown us the need for Americans to be more financially literate. Too many Americans did not have that always recommended six to eight months of expenses saved for an emergency or adequate savings for retirement, in case you are forced to retire early, two things that required course would emphasize. Further, the Administration has been recently talking about student loan debt forgiveness, and that required course would provide students from all demographics with important information on how to minimize college costs and avoid unaffordable student loan debt.
Even before the pandemic our personal finances epidemic was severe. As a society, Americans from all demographics carried extreme levels of household debt, including auto loans, credit card debt, and student loan debt, much of which was unaffordable. Poor credit impacted millions of Americans, limiting their ability to find work or have access to a car or a house. Even today, studies on the impact of financial stress conclude that it results in decreased productivity at work as well as increased strain on family relationships and mental health. The recession caused by the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated these unfortunate realities.
As a U.S. Bankruptcy judge, I saw these and many other disastrous scenarios ruin the lives of individuals and families in my courtroom every week. As a result of those experiences, over 23 years ago, I started going into middle schools, high schools, and colleges in my community to share the unique knowledge, experiences and stories of the bankruptcy court, as well as relevant personal finance lessons, tactics, and techniques. When so many students said that, all young people need to hear this because their futures depend upon it I was inspired to create the Credit Abuse Resistance Education (CARE) Program, which, by 2009, was sending bankruptcy professionals into schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia with those unique experiences and lessons.
With that background, is incredibly disheartening for me to continue to see and hear about young people who lose out on jobs, don’t always have a realistic and appropriate financial plan for where they are in life, so they can meet all their financial and life goals, are unable to buy a home or have children, and have mental and relationships problems due to financial strain. As a society, we can do better, and, in my opinion, required financial education in our schools is the best path forward.
The “gold-standard” of financial education is a required one semester course on personal finance in high schools. While some six states have implemented this requirement, not including Delaware or Connecticut, we must do more. In my time advocating for the “gold-standard,” I have heard two consistent, universal themes. First, every adult I have asked has said, “Obviously we need that graduation requirement. Young people need that information.” Second, everyone whom I spoke with, who had taken a personal finance class in high school or college, recommended the course as one of the best things they had ever done.
The bottom line is that we need to ensure that students know the fundamentals of personal finance, like budgeting and saving, as well as the financial issues of employment, including salary, taxes, employment benefits, insurance, and investing, for retirement and otherwise. They must also learn about the responsible use of credit, including understanding the costs and risks of borrowing money, and, for some, the ins and outs of student loans. In addition, we need to insure that more Americans are financially prepared for the fallouts from what some have predicted will be the next pandemic, the next recession, or the effects of climate change?
Here is my call to action for a Financial Project Warp Speed. With children spending more time at home, now is the perfect time for families to talk about personal finances. Structure time each week to explain budgets, talk about money management, and encourage saving. There are many online resources to help frame those discussions. We must also speak now with our lawmakers, school officials and fellow community members about the importance of required financial education. If your district doesn’t have the requirement, reach out to your superintendents and principals about adding this to your child’s school.
I also hope that Commissioner Miguel Cardona when confirmed as Secretary of Education will take up this important cause.
About the Author
Judge Ninfo, in addition to serving as a United States Bankruptcy Judge for 20 years, and as a United States Marine, founded the CARE National Financial Literacy Program in 2002. In retirement, he still does over 200 CARE presentations annually, and volunteers for a number of not for profits, including as an outreach educator for a Birds of Prey Sanctuary, a trail guide at a Native American National Historical Site, and a House Manager for various performing arts organizations, including The New York State Ballet.