The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently conducted a study, presenting a financial literacy test to fifteen-year-olds around the world, and has now published the group’s findings. The sample included 29,000 teens from eighteen countries (or, in the case of Belgium and China, two communities, Flemish and Shanghai). The test is designed to determine financial literacy and capability, with questions pertaining to income, taxes, borrowing, and money management.
Results show that only ten percent of the students taking the test can handle complex financial tasks. The results go much deeper, and show, like other studies before, that socioeconomic status of a community correlates strongly to financial literacy. While news outlets will certainly play up the international competitiveness — “Chinese teens are more financially capable than American teens,” for example — some of these differences disappear when taking socioeconomic opportunity into account.
In the case of China, the only city included in the survey was Shanghai, while the sample from the United States should be representative of the entire country. Even within the United States, financial literacy is biased towards economic opportunity, more than performance in other areas. The test results indicate that the strength of the correlation between socioeconomic status and financial literacy was stronger than the correlation to mathematics performance. That means that the performance gap between the wealthy and poor is wide, and the community-reinforced setbacks are harder to overcome in financial literacy than they would be in other subject areas.
Comparing the United States with the other countries studied, fifteen-year-olds in the United States are less likely to hold a bank account than the average. That is what is illustrated by the chart above.
In general, performance in math is correlated to performance in financial literacy, but that may be due to the types of questions asked in the test. Money is math, as the questions illustrate. But the design of a test can subtly benefit some cultures over others.
The skills addressed in the test, reading an invoice, basic investment knowledge and chart comprehension, reading a paystub, and a high-level evaluation of a loan offer, are all important skills from our perspective — a middle-class head of household with a job. And designing a test around these competencies shows that these are the financial skills we value.
It’s not clear whether the five financial literacy questions available online constitute the entire test given to the fifteen-year-olds in the study, but I would think it’s hard to draw conclusions from these data alone. Perhaps they measure something like “suitability for living a financially middle-class life,” which I think is something we tend to mistake for “financial literacy.”
At fifteen years of age, I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to deduce the correct answers to the questions in this test, but I didn’t have a bank account. I didn’t even have a joint bank account with my parents yet. I think I was sixteen when that day came. And when that day came, that’s when I was introduced to bank accounts.
Had I been required to take a class in elementary school about balancing a checkbook, I expect that information would not have helped me much. Anything I needed to know about the difference between gross pay and net pay would become clear with my first paycheck from Radio Shack, the first company clever enough to hire me. Unfortunately, or perhaps just differentially, many teenagers throughout the United States and the world will never see a paystub. Even among those who do work for a living, there is a vast cash-only economic society.
Who is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?
Here’s the organization’s mission statement:
The mission of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.
The forerunner of the organization was founded in 1948 to run the Marshall Plan, using United States resources to help Europe rebuild its countries after World War Two. In the 1960s, the organization expanded in size and scope.
The OECD is funded by its member countries, with the United States leading the way by providing financial support for 21.2 percent of the organization’s budget. There doesn’t seem to be much corporate or capitalist interests, but the organization does have partnerships with the Business and Industry Advisory Committee and the Trade Union Advisory Committee. Unlike most financial literacy proponents and advocates, this mission does not seem to be spearheaded by the financial industry, who has their own goals in mind.
Is financial literacy education the answer?
The organization reviewed the data collected from the financial literacy study (which was only one part of the test) and is offering several recommendations or observations. All revolve around the recommendation that all countries provide better access to financial education to its students. According to the OECD, access to education is how countries will overcome gaps due to socioeconomic deficiencies.
Countries seek to improve financial literacy skills among students through various approaches. Some incorporate specific financial literacy content into the curriculum, either by identifying how it fits within existing subjects within the curriculum or – less frequently – by creating a stand-alone subject; others focus on helping students to develop a deeper understanding of mathematics concepts. As dedicated financial literacy approaches are relatively new (where they exist), the PISA 2012 financial literacy assessment cannot provide conclusive evidence on which of these strategies, or what combination of them, yields superior outcomes in financial literacy. The next PISA survey of financial literacy, scheduled for 2015, should provide further insights for policy.
Yet, the report does admit that incorporating financial education into school curricula is still inconclusive (although there have been studies showing that financial literacy courses are actually detrimental to long-term financial capability). Perhaps more research is needed.
Also, the organization does recognize that dealing with financial issues involves more than just cognitive processes; it’s important to be able to manage emotional and psychological factors. Students who are more inclined towards perseverance, problem solving, and having parents involved with education are perhaps more likely to succeed financially over the long-term, according to the report’s recommendations. Once again, these traits are going to naturally be more common within communities or households that are distinctly middle-class; see any article I’ve written over the past few years that deals with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, survival mode, the urgency matrix, or realities of poverty to understand why.
Are there any other options?
For a few years, I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do after inevitably moving on from Consumerism Commentary. Regulars readers are mostly aware that I sold this website a few years ago, although I’ve continued to manage it and serve as the editor and chief (and for the most part, only) writer. There is no pre-determined amount of time for which I’m obligated to stay, but I enjoy the audience here, and I’ve seen how difficult it is to start a new website from scratch and have fans continue to the new site.
In the last year, I’ve done some initial research into starting a non-profit organization with a mission similar to what financial literacy advocates are going for — and similar to the mission of Consumerism Commentary. (Readers should be aware of the mission, and I try to keep that mission in mind when I write, choose guests to appear on the podcast, and otherwise make day-to-day editorial decisions.) I have some interesting ideas, based on lots of reading about financial education and community-based projects that have been proven to change lives for the better, about how an organization could meet goals related to the mission more successfully than financial education (or at least more successfully that financial education alone).
At the same time, the prospect of spending the rest of my life fundraising (begging for money) and being the public face of an organization and missing (I prefer not to be the center of attention) are not ways of living my life that I would look forward to. So this plan is on hold, at least in the form of a non-profit organization under my leadership.
The least I can do is discuss some of these ideas more, and maybe that is the first step towards building something (else) with the potential of changing lives for the better.
Published or updated July 11, 2014.