Literacy I can't believe we're still debating the merits of requiring our schools to teach personal finance. There should be no debate at all. Make it mandatory. Now.

Financial illiteracy has infected the young. A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs found that only 27 percent of people between the ages of 23 and 28 can answer basic questions about interest rates, inflation, risk diversification and other important financial concepts.

It has infected the not-so-young, too. A Gallup poll found that fewer than half of Americans believe they will have enough money to live comfortably in retirement. Even those who are saving are in trouble. According to another study, the average American worker who contributes to a company retirement plan will have saved about 13.3 times their final pay when they retire — but they'll need 15.7 times their final pay “to maintain their pre-retirement lifestyle.”

It has even infected retirement-age folks. A study by the Society of Actuaries has found that, despite savings shortfalls and a major economic crisis, most Americans are no more concerned about retirement than they were before the recession. “When making important financial decisions, most retirees say they look just five years into the future. For pre-retirees it’s 10 years,” writes Gail Buckner. “Both ignore the fact that retirement can easily last 30 or more years.”

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot took steps earlier this year to try to remedy the situation when he supported proposed legislation that would have required financial literacy to be “taught and tested in Maryland high schools.” Inexplicably, that legislation never came up for a vote in the General Assembly.

Still, I see more and more evidence that the movement to mandate financial literacy is catching on. In addition to Franchot's crusade, there are these examples:

  • “If we do not address financial illiteracy among young people through high school literacy classes, we will fail to equip young people with the tools they need to make financial decisions, and we may pay the cost down the road,” said Dr. Annamaria Lusardi, who led the research cited in the Journal of Consumer Affairs.
  • “Many of us in the non-profit field believe personal finance education should go along with (a home loan),” Karen Wallensak, director of the Catholic Charities Housing Resource Center, recently told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “There were many, many people who took what their lender had to say to them hook, line and sinker.”

In other words, our own financial illiteracy is among the causes of the financial crisis.

Here's hoping we can push through mandatory financial literacy education in Maryland next year. Sometimes, after all, you have to give people less of what they want and more of what they need.

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