• Malek: Financial literacy critical issue
    May 05,2014

    Last Thursday’s Times Argus editorial “Crunched by numbers” addressed the issue of Vermont’s “financial literacy” and praises a task force of 19 people seeking to help policy makers address a chronic problem that is adversely affecting people’s lives.

    Well it should; the magnitude of the problem can hardly be overstated.

    Data cited in the editorial were stunning: 62 percent of Vermonters have no “rainy day funds” to deal with an emergency, 46 percent have a sub-prime credit rating, and 63 percent of 2012 Vermont college seniors graduated with student loan debt that averaged more than $28,000.

    The data were provided by Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy.

    The director of the center, John Pelletier of Stowe, states that lack of financial literacy was a key factor behind the recession.

    He says, “Some of our economic problems were created by bad actors, focused on personal gain, but so many others were created by good people making poorly informed personal financial decisions.”

    Numerous studies have found financial issues are a frequent contributor to difficulties in marriage and a major cause of divorce.

    Debt and delinquency destroy individuals and families every day.

    The task force has taken on a monumental task.

    Sadly, one can make a case that policy makers have contributed to a financial literacy death spiral that is already out of control.

    Christine “Kit” Ardell of the University of Vermont noted at the 2012 Common $ense Conference that one shade of financial illiteracy is a belief that money isn’t that important and one shouldn’t fret about it.

    She identified the following characteristics of these people:

    They “expect others to come to your rescue when faced with a financial problem.” They “think problems will work themselves out,” and they “do not see value in planning ahead.”

    Consider the following:

    To help those who were unable to save for college, policy makers expanded eligibility for student loans.

    To help those who chose or were unable to save for the down payment on a home, policy makers offered zero-down mortgages.

    To help those who were unable to save for an emergency, policy makers provided food stamps and unemployment benefits.

    For those who are saddled with excessive mortgage payments, policy makers have created refinancing programs.

    For those with college loans, policy makers can now tailor payments to income and forgive balances.

    Is it any wonder that there is an expectation that someone will rescue those who chose or were unable to plan ahead? Are policy makers reinforcing the belief not to fret, somehow things will work out?

    As the national debt climbs to uncharted levels, can the task force convince young Vermonters that saving is better than borrowing?

    Vermont’s image as a state populated by frugal and fiercely independent residents has tarnished.

    Perhaps the task force can apply the right mix of solvent and energy to help Vermont’s youth restore the luster.

    The future will certainly shine brighter for all if they can.

    George Malek is executive director of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

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