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Public Understanding of Science | 04.01.15

Does literacy improve finance?

Martha Poon, Helaine Olen

Abstract: When economists ask questions about basic financial principles, most ordinary people answer incorrectly. Economic experts call this condition “financial illiteracy,” which suggests that poor financial outcomes are due to a personal deficit of reading-related skills. The analogy to reading is compelling because it suggests that we can teach our way out of population-wide financial failure. In this comment, we explain why the idea of literacy appeals to policy makers in the advanced industrial nations. But we also show that the narrow skill set laid out by economists does not satisfy the politically inclusive definition of literacy that literacy studies fought for. We identify several channels through which people engage with ideas about finance and demonstrate that not all forms of literacy will lead people to the educational content prescribed by academic economists. We argue that truly financial literate people can defy the demands of financial theory and financial institutions.

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