Friday, February 22, 2013

Vote for financial education

The Economist posted a recent “Where Do you Stand?” feature that goes like this:

Here is a question: Suppose you had $100 in a savings account that paid an interest rate of 2% a year. If you leave the money in the account, how much would you have accumulated after five years: more than $102, exactly $102, or less than $102. . . . A survey found that only half of Americans aged over 50 gave the correct answer. . . .  The solution seems obvious: provide more financial education. . . . A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reported that: 'Unfortunately, we do not find conclusive evidence that, in general, financial education programmes do lead to greater financial knowledge and ultimately to better financial behaviour.'  So should we give up on financial education? Please vote.

A friend had forwarded me the link to this feature (, and when I read it, I had a good laugh. What a way to frame a question: Here is some medicine that does not work. Would you take it? Please vote, because we are really interested in publishing your opinion.

I was nevertheless very pleased with the feature. The question that was cited was one that I designed (with Olivia Mitchell) for the Health and Retirement Study, a US survey that covers respondents 50 and older. However, it appears that whoever authored the feature forgot to read my paper because the statistic that is reported is, in fact, wrong. Not half but 67% of older Americans gave the correct answer. This does not mean that financial literacy is high. Nevertheless, it is good to check sources.
I went and searched for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland survey to check it out. The link to the survey report is noted below. I mean this in a friendly way, but it’s worth noting that the Economist’s citation is from an unpublished paper written five years ago and covering only a handful of financial education programs. While the title of the paper may look attractive, I am not sure I would consider it the authoritative source on financial education. (I Googled the authors and it appears they have not written any other papers on this topic nor published that paper.) There are more recent and published papers, some of them pointing to the same result. I would have quoted those.

I voted, of course. (In case you want to know, I voted that we should not give up on financial education; I have read a lot more papers on financial education than the one reported here.) After casting my vote, I was able to see percentage of votes in favor of and opposing financial education. Even before seeing the result, however, I could have made an educated guess as to the outcome. The ING Financial Competence Survey asked “Do you think financial education should be taught in school?” In all of the 11 countries that were surveyed, about 90% of respondents answered yes (the report’s link is noted below). Notably the UK ranked second, with 94% of respondents answering yes. After I voted on the Economist’s question, I could see that 84% had voted in favor of financial education.

By the way, methodologically it is not very useful to ask about choices without mentioning costs. Decisions depend both on preferences and budget constraints. Would I give up cable? No. Would I give up a land-line phone? No. Would I give up on financial education? No. Why should we give up on anything without knowing the costs of doing so? We cannot learn much from asking these types of questions. It is Economics 101.

1 comment:

Elisabeth Donati said...

The basic question, "Does financial education work?" is wrong because anyone who is considering the question must ask the question on the same level as this question, "Does math work?" or "Does English work?"

Since the answer to the last two question is also based on a whole lot of parameters starting with 'depending on...' the whole conversation, well, doesn't work.

The FACTS are that financial education DOES work IF it's taught over and over and over again, like math or science or whatever else a student takes year after year.

If DOES NOT work if it's slapped into the 5th grade or 9th grade or even 12th grade for one semester.