In one of Jack Benny's radio routines, he descended into a vault for periodic visits with his money -- not to spend any, just to maintain a cherished relationship. In those days, listeners could relate to the classic comedian's gross exaggeration of an experience with which they were familiar.

Not today.

"When I was growing up, we often went to the bank with our parents. That doesn't happen any more. Many people, in fact, very seldom see the inside of a bank," said Ronni Cohen.

Paying bills by mail or even electronically may be a good deal more convenient than going around town to settle accounts in cash. But that convenience comes at a price. Although everyone has some sort of monetary experience virtually every day, familiarity with how the system actually works is sorely lacking, she said.

For many years, economic education has been something of a cause for her.

She capped a 33-year teaching career by establishing and conducting a popular hands-on economics program at Burnett Intermediate School and, when that school closed, moving it to Claymont Intermediate. Retirement in 2002 did not end  that sort of involvement. Cohen simply took it up in a

different venue -- as executive director of the Delaware Financial Literacy Institute.

The institute is one of those 'this is a good idea, let's keep it going' things.

Its roots go back to a 1998 'Every Woman's Money Conference', which was convened by State Treasurer Jack  Markell and attracted about 1,000 participants. That led to a continuing-education effort under the auspices of Markell's staff until Cohen came along.  It's now an autonomous organization, but Markell is still very much involved, serving as its president.

The institute has two principal activities -- Delaware Bank At School, something of a continuation of what Cohen did at Burnett and Claymont, and Delaware Money School, which offers some 300 money-related courses, classes and programs conducted by volunteers for adults.

Ronni Cohen

Although largely dependent upon word-of-mouth promotion, both activities, like the original conference, engender a good deal of enthusiasm once participants get there, Cohen said.

Illustrative is a recent experience at Caravel Academy. Wilmington Trust, in cooperation with the institute, offered students the opportunity to open savings accounts. About 200 youngsters got in line to take advantage of the offer.

There's a downside, however. "Some of those kids were the first one in their family to have a savings account," she said. "We're no longer a nation of savers."

Another anecdotal experience: A child whose father had lost his job was worried about the family's expected lack of money. A friend told him there shouldn't be any problem -- they could just go to the supermarket and get some.

While it's doubtful any adults would be that unawares of how the cash-back feature of debit-card transactions works, Cohen said that, in general, financial literacy is sadly lacking.

The extent of credit-card debt and the growing number of people coming to recognize they have gotten in over their heads is strong evidence that is so, she added. Rescuing victims has become a large business. And, in some instances, victims have to be careful to avoid being further trapped by terms of their rescue.

Nor is that the only area where education is needed, she said. A random sampling of Delaware Money School course offerings illustrates how wide the issue is: consumer economics, asset management, mutual funds basics, retirement planning, family budgeting, financing education, certificates of deposit, and so on.

Cohen is quick to squelch any suggestion that the course offerings are intended to create an impression of arming little folks to battle a monster financial services business. On the contrary, she said, the Money School can function only because that business's local participants furnish the expertise.

"We've had incredible support from the Delaware Bankers Association, the major banks and credit card [companies] and the investment community," she said.

On the other hand, the volunteer instructors are pledged to avoid anything that would equate their presentations with a sales pitch. "They agree to provide general information. We've only had a few times where that has been violated and we don't find it's a problem," she said.

Cohen traces the roots of widespread economic illiteracy to failure to put children at a young age on a path to learn how money works. "Money is something we don't talk about in our homes and we don't teach about it in school," she said.

As a public school teacher, she herself was an anomaly, she said. "Teachers aren't prepared to teach economics and economics is a very small part of the social-studies curriculum." Although money skills are obviously important for the rest of a youngster's like, "very few high schools make [economics] a required course and many don't even offer it as an elective."

In a way, she added, that is surprising. "I've found that almost all children are interested in money -- even when they learn that wanting something doesn't mean you'll be able to get it."

Posted on November 22, 2003

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