David Damschen: To tackle America’s debt crisis, we must improve financial literacy

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Utah State Treasurer David Damschen speaks in the Gold Room of the Utah State Capitol on Jan .13, 2016.

Consumer debt in America now stands at more than $13.8 trillion, $1.2 trillion higher than its previous peak of $12.6 trillion reached in 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis.

While current rates of delinquency are lower than levels reached during the crisis, there are signs of growing distress.

Student loan debt now totals a staggering $1.48 trillion, and over 10% of that aggregate debt is 90+ days delinquent or in default.

These trends are driven by a variety of causes, but one thing is clear: Americans are not as financially literate as they should be, and when it comes to principles of sound financial management what they know – or don’t know – is reflected in their choices and behavior.

Currently, 41% of adults have nothing saved for retirement, and one-third of them said it would take at least three years to pay off their credit card debt. According to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, only 34% of Americans can pass a basic financial literacy test. And that translates into bad consumer behavior, with 20% of Americans spending more than half of their monthly income on debt repayment.

Clearly, consumers are struggling to effectively budget, save, invest and manage debt in an increasingly complex marketplace. This should not be the case for future generations. We must improve and expand financial education, with particular focus on our public school system. That’s why, during my tenure as president of the National Association of State Treasurers, I and my fellow state treasurers have made improving financial literacy education at the state level a top priority.

States are taking action and achieving results. Kentucky passed legislation requiring completion of a financial literacy course as a high school graduation requirement and directing its board of education to establish standards for the financial literacy course. Iowa added a one-half unit of personal finance literacy requirement as a condition of graduation.

In Utah, a General Financial Literacy graduation requirement was established over 10 years ago. Along with Utah State Auditor John Dougall, I co-sponsored a review of Utah’s program last year. That review revealed that Utah students who completed the GFL course demonstrate greater financial knowledge and better financial behaviors.

Last April, NAST passed a resolution proclaiming support for financial literacy graduation requirements for high school students in all states. We as state treasurers are working to help solve America’s financial literacy problem. This is one reason we gathered for the 2019 NAST Annual Conference, during which we reaffirmed our commitment to promoting sound consumer financial knowledge and behavior.

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” We must understand the importance of this issue and make greater investments in financial literacy education.

Young and working people who will carry America into its next era of prosperity must be provided the education and skills needed to manage their own financial affairs in a healthy and productive way.

States, the federal government and the private sector must come together to prioritize financial literacy education in our schools.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune State Treasurer David Damschen speaks in the Gold Room of the Utah State Capitol Wednesday January 13, 2016.

Utah State Treasurer David Damschen is president of the National Association of State Treasurers.

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