That is what we are all learning as a result of a global economic crisis. It is what what comes to be obvious, when you recognize that the U.S. economy, the largest in the world, is 70% driven by the consumer. The capital markets may be driven by what is called the "big money," but our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is driven by consumer spending, and that means you and me. If you thought the banking crisis was bad, wait until you experience a full blown crisis of consumer confidence. If the American consumer zips their wallets shut, we are all in for a mountain of economic pain.
The reality is that our economy, here and around the world, is driven by a combination of (rational) leverage, and confidence. Well, we have too much leverage (debt) at every level — from the household to Wall Street and capital markets around the world, to government, to individual households in developed countries –and much too little confidence. When the consumer is over confident and lacks financial literacy, you end up with an over leveraged economy and a credit bubble that pops, taking real and perceived value alike along with it. And when the consumer lacks confidence and financial literacy too, they stop making critically important financial decisions and can become like "a deer caught between headlights." That is the next crisis that America and nations the world over may face. A crisis of personal consumer confidence. One look at the dismal auto sales this year compared to last, and you begin to get the picture.
That said, we need both a recognition that financial literacy is a critically important new hard economic tool for the future, even requiring financial literacy to be taught in our nation's schools, as well as a fundamentally new approach to financial literacy itself. Many have been approaching financial literacy as if it is an extension of math. Respectfully, it is not.
Math is formula driven, almost scientific. Financial literacy is not. Financial literacy, or the language of money, is about as personal as something not a physical part of your family gets. We love sex and money, and don't seem to understand either. They are the great taboos. You want them, but you are for some reason not allowed to talk about them. The shame of not understanding money and talking about it either, is a big part of the problem. Fully 50% of those in mortgage crisis today (foreclosure) never picked up the telephone to call their lender.
Money is personal, emotional, psychological, and is tied to culture, habits and self-esteem. If you have a low opinion of yourself, often spending money seems to make you feel better. Or worse, "trying to keep up with the Jones," as it is referred to, is an issue of identity (valuing oneself as a comparison with others), and self-esteem. We need to recognize all of this as we seek to teach anyone about financial literacy. This I know; if you want to put a child to sleep, offer them a course in financial literacy.
No one wants a mortgage, they want to become a homeowner.
No one wants an auto loan. They want a cool car, or an efficient automobile.
Respectfully, no one wants an education, maybe other than an academic. They want what education can get them. In other words, it is aspirational. Hope, dignity (inner self-worth), discipline, education, opportunity, and a belief in the future is the key.
Financial literacy as currently articulated and taught is certainly better than nothing, but it is not going to be very effective as a meaningful and practical tool in one's economic tool box in the 21st century; be they struggling families we are trying to help and empower, today the youth whose future we want to help shape and mold for tomorrow, the middle class that now sees how financial illiteracy impacts the quality of their lives, or policy makers, to market participants.
The future of financial literacy must be "aspirationally relevant," and I believe, rooted in the following 8 practical principles:
1. It must be aspirational. No one wants a mortgage loan or a bond (if you live in a country like South Africa), they want to become a homeowner. If you want to put a child to sleep, offer them a course in financial literacy. Respectfully, no one cares about an education in and of itself, other than an academic. Even education must relate to ones aspirations in life, in order to have relevance in their life. We must connect financial literacy to the hopes, aspirations and dreams of people. Like Operation HOPEs new 5 MILLION KIDS initiative (www.5MK.org), we must show young people how to do well, and get rich even, legally.
2. It must recognize the very personal and emotional role that money plays in peoples lives. Teachers, volunteers and advocates promoting financial literacy, should not approach financial literacy education as if it is a simple math equation. It is not math. Money is highly personal, and emotional, and math is not. No one is shame to admit they do not understand calculus, but most people around the world are shame to admit they dont understand money, or their own household finances. Most domestic disputes are about money.
3. It must be taught differently. Traditional education around the world is based on a 20thcentury agrarian model, and centered around a teacher in a classroom talking to students. Basically, a one-dimensional model. But this generation has grown up on the Internet, with message texting and social networks, and is accustomed to learning in a more interactive and personal environment. The only real way to reach and teach people about financial literacy in the 21st century will be through a strategy of engagement and empowerment. Really connect with those you want to reach and teach, by being vulnerable, sharing your own personal story and the challenges and disappointments you have met along the way in your own life. Tell them they can make a mistake, and not be a mistake. Understand that while you have been broke financially in your life, you are not poor, and neither are they. Make the experience interactive and empower those you speak to.
4. It must be seen in the broader context of real life experience in order to have power. In the 21st century financial literacy must become a localized civil right, or the first in a series of empowerment based global silver rights, in order to have power. The 20th century was dominated by the global discussion of democracy and freedom, and gave birth to civil rights movements from America to India to South Africa. This important conversation continues here in China today. In the 21st century we increasingly live in a global free enterprise democracy, but billions of people who now have the right to vote, do not have a basic bank account, an understanding of how the system works (aka financial literacy), or basic access to the levers of free enterprise, capitalism, or entrepreneurship. Without these new tools for the 21st century, individuals are not free.
5. It must lead to an increase in global stakeholders and local taxpayers. Financial literacy should lead to the emergence of a new stakeholder class of global depositors, new clients and customers, and owners and stakeholders, and ultimately, new taxpayers too. Poor people cannot hire anyone, as a friend once told me. A robust and growing tax base is the only way to raise democracies, insure safe streets, provide for a progressive social safety net, improve the standards of living, and stabilize communities long-term. The world needs a global generation of new entrepreneurs and innovation, which will lead to new jobs, and a growing tax base. The door to entrepreneurship is financial literacy empowerment.
6. It must ultimately make a business case. Financial literacy should help to make a business case for the future. If we can find a way to bring 4 billion of the poor into the financial mainstream, to move individuals from the working class into the middle class, and help the middle class to grow assets, and over time to remain middle class, and to pass down those assets from generation to generation, everyone wins. Prosperity is the ultimate partner to peace.
7. It must be rooted in dignity and self respect. The civil rights movement was not about a black man sitting next to a white man at a lunch counter in the southern states of the United States of America. It was about respect and dignity, and hope. It was about empowering people to participate in the system, to see their stake in that same system, and to build a society where everyone has an opportunity to live out their dreams in relative peace, security and a sense of shared prosperity. The goal of financial literacy, if it is to have a broader relevance and a future, must be the same. It is the door that allows people to live out their dreams, with dignity and respect, in a world seemingly driven by money. It is about a hand up, and not simply a hand out.
8. It must be based on hope. Financial literacy empowerment allows individuals, from urban cities to the most rural parts of our world, and from the minority poor in Americas inner-cities and Europes poor suburbs, such as those struggling with the basics of life just outside the bright lights of Paris, France, to the emerging economies of China and other Asian countries, Africa, India, the Middle East and Latin America – to learn to do for themselves. It gives them confidence in themselves, and a hope for the future. It allows them to place their foot on the first step of the prosperity ladder in life. It gives them a hope for the future based on love and not fear. It gives them a voice in the global conversation called prosperity.
A focus on the future
From south central Los Angeles, to southern China, to the south of France, to southern India to South Africa, the impact of not endowing our young people with what I call the language of money, or financial literacy, and with it an understanding of free enterprise and how capitalism works (and can work for them) is apparent, and the results are not good.
In schools from Los Angeles to New York City, in the US dropout rates among all young people is alarming at 30%, but increases exponentially for young people in urban communities, hovering between 50% and 70% young people who, unfortunately, dont see education as relevant to their futures. The best way to make education relevant to youth is to show them how to get rich responsibly and legally. Thats financial literacy, free enterprise and capitalism, ownership, opportunity, and for those with public record, entrepreneurship.
Additionally, when you teach a young person about the value of savings and investment in and for themselves, you open a door of opportunity centered around that same young person becoming an investor in his or her own life and future; versus them simply living for today, and not seeing much of a future or a reason to work towards one. Through that open door educators can then step through other important messages and lessons, centered around the value proposition called education. That is an aspiration, empowerment and hope based approach to learning.
There simply is not enough police in the world capable of controlling a large portion of any population that has convinced itself that the system doesnt work for them, no matter how hard they work or try.
New Orleans, Louisiana, has approximately one police officer for every 350 or so residents, compared with Los Angeles, California, with no more than one police officer for every 700 or so residents (less police officer-to-resident ratio in Los Angeles).
In this example, one should be able to conclude and assume that New Orleans would be approximately twice as safe as Los Angeles, but such a thing is very far from the truth.
In fact, the truth is almost wholly an inverse of this model assumption. New Orleans is far more dangerous a place to visit for tourists, walk the streets for residents, shop or live, than Los Angeles. Why you ask?
Its the HOPE factor, thats why.
If you look at Rwanda and South Africa, these democracies have gone from genocide and apartheid to relative peace and prosperity in less than 15 years. The challenge in both places is very simply the same; the challenge of poverty and opportunity.
The question becomes, how do we move a level of individual prosperity for people at all levels, as soon as humanly possible, without engaging in a wholesale give-away program (which, by the way, never works in the long term. People want dignity and self-reliance too). How do we do this?
At Operation HOPE it starts with giving individuals the tools to understand self-sufficiency and choices. It starts with financial literacy as the door into a much broader and deeper conversation around opportunity. Operation HOPE has served more than one million people since its inception this way, since 1992.
No community survives without hope. And in a capitalist society and a system of free enterprise, financial literacy and a basic understanding of the language of money is the very first silver right.
The model of capitalism and free enterprise we have been using is not working for the majority of people, and maybe not even for the rich anymore either. We need a new capitalism, or what I call "good capitalism" (more on this in my book on leadership, due out by Jossey Bass mid-2009).
I want to empower people with a hand up, and not simply a hand out.
I see a new generation of dignified young African, Asian, Indian, Latin and West Asian entrepreneurs.
I see young people who understand the language of money and use it to empower themselves with choice in life.
I see a global silver rights movement where capitalism and free enterprise will overcome the obstacles of being poor.
As we move to restructure our global economy, we need to make sure that the conversation has a long-range vision, is based on a love leadership model, and that we are preparing and empowering people to participate and to become legitimate stakeholders in the system.
We must make capitalism and free enterprise relevant to the poor, and finally work for the poor.
We must launch and sustain a global silver rights movement.
We are all in this together.
Onward with HOPE
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, the vice chairman of the U.S. Presidents Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, and the chairman of the Council Committee on the Under Served. Bryant is also a financial literacy expert for the Global Agenda Council of the World Economic Forum. Bryant is the innovative behind of the global silver rights movement.