"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
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
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
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.
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
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."