In the 20th century, a century marked by emerging democracies here and around the world, the issue before those seeking justice, freedom and opportunity for people was that of civil rights. Put simply, civil rights (and the right to vote) was a way that leaders around the world – from Gandhi in India, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ambassador Andrew Young and others from America's southern states, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa – to codify and commoditize democracy in the hands of their people. The right to vote made democracy real, tangible and actionable in the hands and minds of the average person. It was empowerment, plain and simple.
In the 21st century, a century marked in many ways by an economic era, and in the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and the first global economic crisis, I believe that financial literacy must become a new civil rights issue and the first global silver rights issue of our generation. Put simply, if you don't understand what we at Operation HOPE call "the language of money," and you don't have a bank account, you are an economic slave.
From a public policy perspective, I believe that financial literacy will become the new policy portfolio priority for this decade. I have been mentored in my adult life by many individuals who I owe a great deal of credit, but principally Dr. Cecil "Chip" Murray, former pastor of First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, now the Tanzi Chair of Religious Studies at USC, civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young, the principal aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement, and entertainment icon Quincy Jones. Quincy told me a few years ago that "it takes 20 years to change a culture." That really stuck with me, and I began to think that really, over the past 20 years we have made dumb sexy. We have dumbed down (society), and we even celebrated. What I say now is that over the next 20 years, "we need to make smart sexy again." That is my personal mission; to change the debate, to help change the culture, and to make smart sexy again, here and around the world.
Regaining our storyline; a society that actually cares for each other
The Bible says "where there is no vision the people perish." As I have written in a Silver Rights companion piece in July, 2009, and based on my remarks before the OECD Forum in Paris, France, "the world has lost its story line." This economic crisis is as much or more a crisis of virtues and values as it is about economics. In other words, capitalism and free enterprise was and is not in evil, but rather it is the greed, and the abuse of legitimate capitalism and free enterprise that is the problem. A focus on the me, rather than the "we" of life. We need a new idea, and good capitalism that actually empowers people at all levels of our society.
20 years to change the culture
Over the last 20 years or so, those who pursued an environmental agenda were often written off as "tree huggers" or worse, but certainly something less than mainstream and serious. The same was true for those who pursued a focus around HID/AIDS. Well, you cannot think of yourself as a serious or mainstream leader today without a substantive focus on and public policy portfolio around both the environmental agenda, as well as HIV/AIDS prevention. In many quarters of the world, and certainly many quarters of the United States, the environmental agenda is one of the most important public policy priorities facing leaders today period. I believe the same will be the case for and around what many call financial literacy, and what we here at HOPE call "the language of money."
If we want people to succeed in life, to add and to contribute to the national and global public good, and we want to quell the very real potential for public unrest in the midst of economic retrenchment and massive job loss, then we simply must empower people. That begins with giving each and every individual on this planet a fundamental understanding of "the language of money," universal banking access, and then we must help them crack the code on free enterprise and capitalism so they can participate in it.
We must finally make free enterprise and capitalism relevant to the poor, the underserved and even the middle class, and we must make it work for them too. We need all boats to rise, and not just yachts.
What we must do next
There are three things practitioners of financial literacy and the language of money must do, in order to make this movement effective, sustainable and real in the lives of people. They are:
- Make the language of money aspirationally relevant. It must connect with individual's hopes, dreams, desires and aspirations in life. No one wants a mortgage, or in the UK and South Africa a bond, they want to become a homeowner (and sometimes too badly). No one wants a car loan, they want to own an efficient automobile, and for young people, a cool car. Financial literacy and the language of money are no different. No one really wants a course in financial literacy, and if you want to put a child to sleep, offer them one. What they want is what financial literacy and the language of money can produce for them, in their lives. I am convinced that our kids are dropping out of high school because they (kids) don't think it is relevant in their lives. One way to make education relevant, is to show kids how to do well, how to succeed, how to do well, and even how to get rich, if that is what they want – legally. That means financial literacy, free enterprise and capitalism, ownership, opportunity and entrepreneurship.
- Make the language of money practical. People need to be able to use this, now, in their lives. The Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC as it is more commonly known, is an example of this. If you make $32,000 a year, you work and you have 2 children, the federal government could owe you as much as $4000.00. And if you have not filed once, chances are you have never filed, and it is retroactive up to 3 years. That could mean as much as $12,000 for you and your family. That is probably the most money a family making sub-$40,000 a year will ever see at one time in their working lifetime, and it could help both solve a lot of financial problems, from mortgage to credit cards, and place a down payment on a dream too. One out of four Americans who quality for EITC never get it, simply because they don't know about it, and don't ask.
- Make the delivery of the language of money at scale. We have got to stop playing small ball with respect to financial literacy, and make it available, as a requirement, from K through college, and integrated in Human Resource departments for employers too.
There is a great deal of work that needs to be done. Let's get to it.
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, America's first non-profit social investment banking organization. His work and advocacy at HOPE led then President Bush to sign an executive order making financial literacy U.S. policy. Today, Bryant continues to serve as vice chairman of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy as well as chairman of the Council Committee on the Under-Served, in President Barack Obama's Administration. Bryant is also the financial literacy advisor to the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Financial Empowerment, and in 2005 was selected in the inaugural class of Young Global Leaders for the World Economic Forum. In August, 2009, Bryant will publish his latest book entitled LOVE LEADERSHIP; A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World, BY Jossey-Bass.