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Financial Literacy through Economic Narratives (August 2015): Financial Literacy and Other Resources

By Roark Mulligan

Financial Literacy and Other Resources 2002, the U.S. Treasury established its Office of Financial Education, and in 2003 Congress created the Financial Literacy and Education Commission, under the Financial Literacy and Education Improvement Act.  In 2011, that commission published a sixteen-page booklet titled Promoting Financial Success in the United States: National Strategy on Financial Literacy.  In 2008, the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development created International Gateway for Financial Education, a website that serves as a clearinghouse for financial education programs in more than one hundred countries.  And in 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is tasked with promoting financial education through its Consumer Engagement and Education group.  In 2012, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—conducted its first study of financial literacy, testing fifteen-year-olds in eighteen countries on their knowledge of personal finances and their ability to apply knowledge to financial problems.  This was the first large-scale, international study to assess the financial literacy of young people.  Of the eighteen countries tested, the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, ranked ninth, about the same as Croatia, France, Israel, Latvia, the Russian Federation, Slovenia, and Spain.  Teenagers in China scored the highest.  PISA’s website is informative.

The United States boasts a wealth of educational resources—for teachers, parents, and students—many developed within the last decade.  For example, the Financial Literacy and Education Commission, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, developed a national strategy to promote financial literacy and education titled Promoting Financial Success in the United States: National Strategy on Financial Literacy, which is available as a PDF online.  The Department of the Treasury also sponsors an educational website titled MyMoney.Gov, which offers a range of resources (including a section of “money quizzes”).  A coalition of more than 150 public and private agencies formed the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, and they promote financial literacy through their website Jump$tart! Financial Smarts for Students.

Numerous state governments have developed financial literacy programs, offering resources through web portals.  For example, North Carolina, through its Secretary of the Treasury, has a program called Futures, featuring a website with an excellent bibliography.  For sixty-five years, The Council for Economic Education has offered support to teachers throughout the United States.  Its website features lessons that align economic literacy with Common Core standards.  A partnership between Consumer Action and Capital One has resulted in a national financial literacy program; the website for the joint project, MoneyWi$e, offers free, multilingual financial education materials, including curricula and teaching aids.

Through its divisions and partnerships, the American Library Association (ALA) has made financial literacy a priority.  ALA’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) has published guidelines that aid librarians in promoting economic knowledge: Financial Literacy Education in Libraries: Guidelines and Best Practices for Services.  And in partnership with FINRA: Investor Education Foundation, ALA offers grants for the development of financial literacy programs.  Individual colleges have also developed excellent resources for scholars and educators.  For example, Rutgers University’s School of Arts and Sciences created the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children.  Its website, EconKids, offers a bibliography of children’s literature; the site also provides teachers with ideas for using children’s literature to introduce economic principles.  Sponsored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the website Feed the Pig offers resources for teens, including brief YouTube videos on topics such as saving.  Financial firms too have gotten into the game; at Charles Schwab’s website, one can find Money Basics for Kids and Teens, which offers advice on such things as budgeting and saving and also provides parent/child activities.

In the world of print, a growing number of scholars have researched financial literacy, publishing their findings in books and scholarly journals.  In an article titled “Measuring Financial Literacy” published in Journal of Consumer Affairs, Sandra Huston surveys studies of financial literacy programs, finding a strong correlation between reading competence and financial literacy but mixed results when schools attempt to teach financial literacy as an isolated subject.  Huston’s findings and those of others suggest that financial narratives may be the ideal pedagogical tool for introducing students and adults to economic concepts.  A study by Yana Rodgers, Shelby Hawthorne, and Ronald Wheeler titled “Teaching Economics through Children’s Literature in the Primary Grades” appears in The Reading Teacher.  It describes the symbiotic relationship between reading and economic knowledgeSuggesting both the benefits and limits of financial literacy programs, Lewis Mandell has published a number of works on economic education, among them Improving Financial Literacy: What Schools and Parents Can and Cannot Do.

A number of scholars have taken on the subject of financial narratives within the literary canon.  For example, Walter Taylor’s The Economic Novel in America presents and analyzes financial narratives.  Though written in 1942, this work includes an excellent bibliography that remains valuable.  Wayne Westbrook’s Wall Street in the American Novel focuses on literary works that take high finance as their subject matter.  Harold James’s article “The Literary Financier” (published in American Scholar) examines the role of the financier in the nineteenth-century novel.  More recently, Edward Younkins’s volume Exploring Capitalist Fiction: Business through Literature and Film presents and analyzes novels and films that could be used as pedagogical tools to teach economic principles in colleges.  Of the bibliographic resources, David Zimmerman’s contribution to The Cambridge History of the American Novel is the most eclectic.  His essay, “Novels of American Business, Industry, and Consumerism,” presents a diverse selection of financial novels, including less-known works.

More theoretical studies have analyzed literature, revealing the extent to which various works represent or counter the economic systems of the period in which they were written.  Noteworthy is Philip Gerber’s “Dreiser’s Financier: A Genesis” (which appeared in Journal of Modern Literature); Gerber assiduously traces the similarities between Theodore Dreiser’s fictional financier (Frank A. Cowperwood) and his real-life counterpart (Charles T. Yerkes).  In his influential study The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century, Walter Benn Michaels questions previous interpretations of Dreiser and other novelists, suggesting the extent to which the literature participated in the economic system that produced it.  Brook Thomas, in American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract, compares contract theory and literary realism, tracing the cultural disruptions caused by corporate capitalism.  María Sánchez’s Reforming the World: Social Activism and the Problem of Fiction in Nineteenth-Century America connects social reform movements and the rise of fiction during a time of great economic change.  Finally, David Zimmerman, in his Panic!: Markets, Crises, and Crowds in American Fiction, offers a cultural analysis of how fictional works have attempted to represent financial markets, especially economic disruptions.