Starting Over: A Plea for Mandatory Financial Literacy Education

With the nation watching, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ voice bellows out to thousands of his supporters (and opponents) at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. “This election is about the leadership we need to…[make] sure that young people in this country are in good schools and at good jobs, not in jail cells.” The crowd erupts, irrespective of partisanship. “…We have to invest in education!” Sanders shouts over the crowd.

“Invest in education.”  We hear this exact or a similar term used by American politicians too frequently to quantify, but what does it really mean? In a recent (2016) Gallup survey,  40 percent of parents stated that they have “some” faith in the public school system; additionally, 29 percent of parents answered that they have “very little” faith, the highest this figure has been since Gallup first started recording it in 1973. Can we really throw money at an increasingly unpopular public school system and expect positive results? The American people are making a loud statement that is getting harder and harder to ignore: There is clearly something amiss with American public education.

Although the dissatisfaction with public education in America is nothing to celebrate, there is a silver lining: We have a powerful opportunity to broaden mandatory financial education, a topic that is critical to Americans’ ability to successfully manage the ongoing challenges that the American economy poses to themselves and their families – challenges that top the list of their most worrisome problems today.

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Levels of financial instruction at the public primary and secondary school level are highly uneven across the states, and today, young adults and near-adults have record low levels of financial literacy. In fact, only 18 percent of young millennials (ages 18-26) exhibit high levels of financial literacy.

Financial education outside of primary and secondary school classrooms is available to many young people.  But it is hard to dispute that there are more distractions now than there have ever been in the past and between video games and the Internet, it takes a lot to motivate young people in modern America. Add in the outside cost of most financial literacy classes (like this one in Oklahoma) and any sensible parents would struggle to rationalize sending their children to a financial education program.

A logical first step to mend these issues is requiring financial literacy education in all public schools; there is a direct correlation between mandatory financial education and improved consumer behavior. Take three states (Georgia, Idaho, and Texas) that have already implemented mandatory financial literacy education for example. Within three years, credit scores of young adults who had participated in such instruction improved by 11 points in Georgia, 16 points in Idaho, and a whopping 32 points in Texas.

Some other states, like New York, require “personal financial instruction incorporated into other subject matter.”  Though this may sound convincing, it is basically a bunch of buzzwords.  How do I know? Well, I attended New York public schools for 14 years and could not come up with one instance of infused “personal financial instruction.” In fact, few students in these particular states receive any kind of financial tutoring, exemplified by the fact that these students perform no better on average on a financial literacy test than students in states with no legal requirement. It is hard to ignore how poorly implemented the current system is and there is no doubt that a significant reformation is needed.

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Some companies like ING are taking financial literacy education into their own hands. Through their Girls Inc. program, ING offers cost-free financial literacy classes and workshops for girls between the ages of six and eighteen.  Nonprofits like Cornell University’s Act for Youth program engages teenagers, both male and female, in activities like lecture circuits and collaborative seminars designed to improve future consumer knowledge.

Though free programs like these offer concrete community benefits, it is time to finally take a stand and change the economic future of America. If we do not require financial education in all American public schools, we as a nation and more importantly in our communities are missing an opportunity to change our economic future.

– Sam Blunt, University of Michigan, Intern

Making New Citizens: Bermuda Searching for a “Pathway” Too

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Between Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US, the global discussion about immigration rights and border control has made us all want to double check our passports.  Interestingly, those issues have been vigorously debated just off the coast of the USA for much longer than the existence of Trump hair memes. Bermuda, a picturesque 21-square mile island about 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina, has been struggling with its own understanding of immigration and the implementation of immigration reforms.

In many ways, the conversation about immigration in Bermuda mirrors that in the US and in Europe – heavily focused on how to address and balance the interests of both long-time residents as well as newer arrivals.  With increasing globalization, greater ease of travel, and economic and social pressures compelling individuals to range far beyond their home countries for greater opportunity – or even basic security – the conversation is not likely to abate any time soon.

The immigration issue in Bermuda is complex, and revolves around the inability of long term residents to apply for or receive Bermudian citizenship, or “status.” In 1989, the existing pathway to status was eliminated, leaving a gaping void in immigration policy. Bermuda is one of the few places in the world where such a void exists.

The process of creating a pathway to status has remained stagnant, resulting in tensions among citizens and non-citizens. Some non-Bermudian residents can become permanent residents (PRCs) and do enjoy certain freedoms that other non-citizens do not – such as working on the island without a work permit.  But PRCs are still denied rights that should be granted to them as long standing members of the Bermudian community; they cannot vote, must pay a higher tax to purchase land, and their children have no long-term rights on the island. They are, in effect, second class citizens.

I have an Irish father and an American mother, and citizenship in both countries. I am Bermuda born and raised – and proud of it.  Yet I remain unable to obtain status myself. I have always considered Bermuda to be my home, but it is hard to think that I will never be a citizen in the nation I call home nor truly a national in the countries to which I have citizenship. My children will have no rights to Bermuda, and it is sad to consider that I might not be able to raise them in the beautiful island that I call home.

I do understand the sensitivity surrounding immigration reform. Bermuda is a small island with limited resources and jobs available. It makes sense that people are very protective of who has a claim to the island and all that comes with it.

However, many of the people fighting to improve their legal standing are not strangers to Bermuda. In many cases, they are people who have become engrained in Bermuda, its culture and community over decades – like my father, who has now lived more of his life in Bermuda than in his native Ireland – and they deserve the chance to have the security that status provides.

And what’s more, in Bermuda, an independent, international Fiscal Responsibility Panel has produced an Annual Assessment of Bermuda suggesting that a more liberal immigration policy would help to boost the growth of Bermuda in terms of population and economy.

Again, I am struck by the similarities in the discussions in Bermuda, the US and Europe.  The absence of a pathway to status in Bermuda is like building a wall between citizens and non-citizens. The economic benefits of providing “non-native” residents with status and security should encourage countries – Bermuda and the US alike – to welcome immigration reforms and to also encourage people to come to their country as a place of opportunity. Indeed, in a more connected world, people will remain inclined to move for economic opportunities or to escape political unrest. I don’t believe that stopping the flow of immigration matches the reality of the world we live in today.

I think that Bermuda, the US and the world at large, need to have an honest and educated discussion about the realities of globalization and the implications of providing long term security to a country’s long term residents who are not yet citizens.  We need long-term solutions that are careful to respect the interests of the citizen population, while also respecting the rights of the newcomers.

I cannot help but notice that granting long term residents of Bermuda status is not a one-way street. There is so much more that comes out of being a citizen than just owning a passport. The implications range from improved human rights to a stronger economy to a more stable population, marked by more citizens, more people with rights, and more people with the freedom to exercise these rights within the Bermudian economy. In Bermuda, such solutions won’t help only one group or one side, but all of us – we are one Bermuda.

Perhaps, by addressing its own immigration problem, Bermuda can become a model for successful reform, and teach a lesson to the rest of the world. If Bermuda can achieve this, then maybe there is hope for similar changes to occur on a larger scale across the world.

– Aisling Gorman, University of Richmond, Intern

To Pee or Not to Pee – and Where? That is the Question.

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In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12, gunman Omar Mateen entered a gay club in Orlando and perpetrated the largest mass murder in American history. It was a tragic day for America and for the LGBT community.

And yet, in the days afterwards, the mass outpouring of support from across America was somehow hopeful and encouraging. And maybe not entirely unexpected.

Support for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community is sky-rocketing. From 1999 to 2015, support for same-sex marriage spiked 25 points, reaching an all-time high in 2015 with 60% of Americans in support. And in 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage and in 2015 the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country.

Twenty years ago, very few people would have ever thought the gay community would be this open, public and accepted. But today, celebrities and athletes alike are using their fame to raise awareness for the gay community as well as becoming role models for adolescents who struggle with these hardships.

But in the LGBT alphabet, not all letters are created equally. There is one community for which understanding and public acceptance has been slow to emerge: The Transgender Community – individuals whose gender identity (a personal conception of oneself as male or female) is not aligned with their biological sex (male or female identification at birth).

Hard to say how many individuals we’re talking about.  The US Census Bureau does not ask for gender identity and therefore the official population of transgender individuals in the United States is unknown. But according to data from the Social Security Administration, since 1936, 135,367 people have changed their name to one of the opposite gender and 30,006 also changed their sex accordingly. The vast majority of those –  89,667 and 21,833 respectively, as measured by the 2010 Census —  have done so in recent years. These are numbers that can only continue to grow as more light is shed on this community and more members feel free and safe to self-identify.

Ironically, much of the public unease with the transgender community has revolved around, of all places, the bathroom.

Here is the straightforward but difficult question everybody is trying to unravel: Which bathroom should transgender individuals use if they are biologically male but identify themselves as female and vice versa? Should they use the restroom that corresponds with their sex or their gender?

Unfortunately, as this issue unfolds, there have been cases of violence in public bathrooms involving transgender individuals and as a result many transgenders are feeling ostracized and in fear for their safety. One additional complication with loosening of bathroom rules is the risk of female safety. In early March, Christopher Hambrook claimed to be a transgender woman named Jessica to gain access to a women’s shelter. He was sentenced to jail for sexually assaulting several women. Women have been exploited, sexually assaulted and raped due to these “fake transgender women”.

In efforts to take control of this bathroom situation, North Carolina quickly approved its House Bill 2, also known as the “Bathroom Bill,” on March 23. Governor Pat McCrory refers to the bill as “common sense” while the White House called North Carolina’s law “meanspirited”. Part I of the bill states: Individuals must use the bathroom that corresponds with their “biological sex” stated on a person’s birth certificate.

But the exceptions the “Bathroom Bill” supposedly protects against are few and far between.  The Obama Administration, a longstanding supporter of the transgender community, responded to a recent case at a high school in Reuters, Virginia that demonstrated gender discrimination against a transgender male student, sending a letter to all public school districts in the country telling them to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.

To me, the issue is straightforward: the transgender community needs the same rights and support the gay community receives. Support comes from acceptance and acceptance begins with education and awareness. It will take time, but we will get there.

Often times there is a gap between what people think they know and the reality.  We thought women were not responsible enough to vote, or that African Americans couldn’t fight for their country, or that an African American or woman could never serve their country as president.  I have full confidence that the transgender perception gap will close as well. The nation will soon realize that female or male, black or white, gay or straight, everybody falls under the same umbrella. We are all human and deserving of respect.

– Diana King, New York University, Intern

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan

Child-Size Technology Supports a Global “Library For All”

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Sometimes a path through a seemingly intractable societal problem is right in front of us – with the most straightforward tools at our disposal making all the difference.

Consider the problem of the persistent illiteracy plaguing children in emerging nations – a slow- moving tragedy that is forcing millions of people to the margins of global society, for want of adequate education.

Yet, every developing nation now has an opportunity to make a profound dent in its illiteracy problem – because of one person’s insight about the untapped potential of one of the world’s most accessible technologies.

Here’s the issue: Globally, 250 million children are not learning to read and write – even though 130 million of them have spent at least four years in school. Research shows, in fact, that the developing world is about 100 years behind developed countries in terms of kids’ education levels.

These children are literally a lost generation, with emerging yet still needy regional/national economies and societies unable to tap their desperately needed participation – a loss to the beneficial development of global society as well.

Multiple forces are impeding the development of strong educational systems in developing nations – but a particularly big factor is simply lack of access to good learning materials.

In 2010, Rebecca McDonald observed that reality first-hand – and her observation sparked an emerging global solution. In that year, Ms. McDonald, an Australia-based property and construction industry professional, and her husband moved to Haiti to help in the effort to rebuild following that nation’s devastating earthquake. There, she discovered schools with fewer than 30 books for hundreds of students, books considered so precious that they were kept under lock and key, rarely viewed and never taken home.

Ms. McDonald dove into the problem – and realized that mobile information technology could help fill the information void holding back so many kids. Thus was born New York City-based Library For All (LFA), which is now successfully offering a truly innovative, highly elegant solution to the global illiteracy problem – leveraging the fact that of the world’s 6 billion mobile phone users5 billion live in the developing world.

With no low-cost, flexible approach available to address the lack of access to books, Ms. McDonald’s inspiration was to develop a customizable digital library – globally scalable yet readily tailored to local realities – that takes advantage of online technology’s reach to deliver carefully selected learning materials to students and educators on mobile devices they already use, such as phones and tablets, virtually anywhere in the world.

Today LFA, with Ms. McDonald as CEO, serves thousands of students in Haiti, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cambodia and Mongolia – and offers the potential for nearly limitless growth in the years ahead. In fact, LFA wants to reach 5 million users globally by next year.

LFA is now looking to enlist more on-the-ground partner organizations to help bring its resources to their nations, with a strong commitment to leveraging its global platform in literally any country that wants it – and fast tracking toward its goal of educationally empowering many more millions of kids in the developing world.

Theodore Roosevelt famously counseled his fellow citizens to “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” It’s all too easy to despair of addressing a big problem for the perceived lack of a correspondingly big solution. Yet, a big lesson of Library For All is how much incremental progress against a problem we might achieve just by taking a fresh look at some of the tools we already have – and thinking about how to put them to work in a new way.

If all students in low income countries had basic reading skills by the time they finished primary school, 171 million people worldwide could be lifted out of poverty. For more and more of those students – thanks to Library For All – the way upward begins with just a few taps on a screen.

– Jim Marren, President

Photo Credit: Library for All

“Green:” An Issue with Only “One Side”

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“Green” issues – and, more specifically, the societal discussion around the prospect of climate change – have at times been intensely polarizing.  But the green landscape is fast shifting, and there’s been plenty of evidence recently that green is moving to a different place – a place where increasingly it will be untenable to sustain “two sides” on the issue.

Witness the “green encyclical” issued by Pope Francis in mid-2015, the first in the Catholic Church’s history to focus on the environment, which laid out a moral case for taking on the issue of climate change – raising concern for the environment to the level of an overarching spiritual value.  Even more dramatically, the global effort to address climate change took a major step forward in December 2015 when nearly 200 nations meeting in the UN Climate Change Conference agreed to take sweeping long-term steps to ratchet down global carbon emissions.

It’s clear that a consensus is emerging about the need to meet the realities of a changing climate (even if the “how” remains sharply debated).  That consensus will only help support positive, mitigating action – and raise the stakes in terms of the opportunity for business to get involved.

And yet – what’s striking is that, in many significant ways, business is already leading the way when it comes to mounting a meaningful response to climate change.

Consider the following (as reported recently by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait):  In 2014, the world’s economy grew without carbon emissions also growing – the first time that has ever been recorded.  The use of coal is down by 21 percent since 2007. The price of solar generated electricity per watt was $101 dollars in 1975; today, it’s 61 cents. There were 10,000 solar panel installations globally in 2009; in 2015, 65,000. There were 200,000 electric cars in the world in 2012; in 2015, 750,000. In the U.S., 125,000 clean energy jobs have been added since 2013.

As it often happens, business and capital are finding their way to the economic opportunity that a social issue – in this case, the green issue – can generate.  But there’s even more that business could be doing.

Business has an opportunity to support the emerging consensus around global environmental protection from the bottom up as well as the top down – and there’s no question that individuals are looking for this kind of support for their own environmental passions.

When we polled Americans nationally on this topic, 85 percent said that leaving their children a cleaner, more sustainable world is one of their greatest responsibilities as a parent.  Eight in 10 Americans said they were looking for more opportunities to grow green, and nearly eight of 10  said that corporations have a responsibility to adopt green behaviors.  The same number said it’s important for them to buy products from an environmentally responsible company.

Make no mistake:  Consumers want to do business with green companies.  For corporate America, this represents the very essence of enlightened self interest.

So what can – and should — businesses do:

  • First off, walk the walk. Be a true green business.  Every company has an opportunity to do it.  And the planet needs it.
  • Communicate your commitment to green behavior to customers.
  • Most importantly, understand what environmental concerns are embedded in the business you do with your customers – and then empower them to use your products and services in truly environmentally responsible ways.

When it comes to green, doing good by the world and doing well as a business couldn’t be more closely aligned.  Every business has its own unique “green opportunity” – it’s time to look for it, understand it, and act on it.

– Jim Marren, President

Photo Credit: Mathias Rodriguez

Title IX: Not Equal for All

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It has been 43 years since the inception of Title IX, a law which has enabled huge advances in the struggle to gain equal funding and opportunities for both sexes within federally funded programs. While the legislation covers all educational activities, it has most typically been applied with regard to men’s and women’s athletics.

To be sure, Title IX has changed the lives of millions of women by providing them with access to athletics, but millions more have fallen through the cracks due to societal conditions and inequalities that Title IX didn’t take into account.

For example, schools with high concentrations of minority and low-income students tend to have fewer resources for extracurricular activities and larger gender disparities in sports participation than schools serving majority-white populations. To be more specific, girls at heavily minority high schools have only 67 percent of the number of athletic opportunities as minority boys, and only 39 percent of the opportunities as girls at suburban schools. I may not be great with numbers, but I’m pretty sure that’s not equal.  Title IX, the very law that was supposed to lift up girls, has left an extremely large group of them behind.

Why should we care? Studies show that participation in sports is a critical driver of earning power and professional status over time.  Former high-school athletes’ wages are between 5 and 15 percent higher than those of people who participated in other extracurricular activities, and they also go on to have higher-status careers than non-athletes. That’s why it is hardly surprising that 94 percent of executive women surveyed in an international Ernst & Young study participated in sports. Clearly, providing minority girls with equal access to athletics is essential for their future success – not to mention their long-term health.

Compounding the in-school problem is the fact that minority girls are also less likely than white girls to participate in sports outside of school. Neighborhoods where minorities are disproportionately concentrated have higher crime and traffic rates, and fewer public facilities (parks, fields, trails). These neighborhoods also tend to have lower household income levels, meaning there are fewer resources for funding community-based activities. The lack of opportunity for minority girls outside of school makes it all the more essential for public schools to get their Title IX act together and provide minority girls with the equal access to athletics they are entitled to by law.

But lackluster attention to Title IX isn’t confined to minority and low-income high schools. The fact is that over the past five years, the gap in male and female athletic participation at the high-school level has widened. Female high-school athletes receive 1.3 million fewer athletic participation opportunities than their male counterparts, and continue to lag behind males in the provision of equitable resources such as equipment, uniforms and facilities.

Currently, 4,500 public high-schools across the United States have large gender inequality in sports and could be in violation of Title IX – that’s one quarter of the country’s public high-schools.

After forty-three years, it’s time to take a critical look at Title IX and see what’s really going on beneath the headlines and on the nation’s courts and fields. The fact is that compared to boys, girls – minority girls in particular – are not on a level playing field and are not fully benefiting from the health, life skill, and career benefits proven to be associated with athletic participation.

– Lucie Dufour, Associate

Photo Credit: Finishing Last