Why Apple should fight childhood hunger and poverty

This is a discussion post that I completed on 2018-01-11 for the class, EDF 6855: Factors Affecting Equitable Educational Opportunity and Life Chances: A Cross-National Analysis, taught by Judit Szente, Ph.D. at University of Central Florida.

Please reflect on the possible cause and effect of a specific issue and how it affects children’s life chances (e.g., reasons of poverty and hunger, effects of poverty and hunger, how poverty and/or hunger may affect children’s life chances).

The UNICEF (2016) chapter on children and poverty repeated emphasizes the need for multidimensional measurement of child poverty. In Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, even a household making more than 5.00 USD per day may still be poor in terms of their access to education, sanitation, electricity, et cetera. Infrastructure and access is critical to combating child hunger and poverty. For instance, many Chinese rural–urban migrants are denied access to education and other services in their new cities of residence (UNICEF, 2016), meaning their children are still experiencing poverty on many critical dimensions.

Last month (December 2017), I visited family in Shenyang, Liaoning, China for three weeks, which included a 10-day road trip visiting many tourist sites such as the Great Wall, Beijing Palace Museum, Yellow River, Longmen Grottoes, and Terracotta Army. Although the opportunity to visit such tourist sites is restricted to the relatively wealthy, with admission fees ranging from 50–150 RMB (7.50–22.50 USD) plus costs of travel, around such sites it was clear that many sellers of fruit, trinkets, and “tour guide” services are poor or at least struggling. At the Yellow River (Hukou Falls), a woman trying to sell a bag of a dozen apples for 10 RMB (1.5 USD) followed us. Although my family protested, I tried giving her one USD as a gift, but due to the language barrier, she placed the apples in the trunk of our car and accepted the dollar bill as payment. I felt bad, but my family assured me that at 10 RMB she was over-charging compared to other apple sellers and that one USD (6.5 RMB) was sufficient. Regardless, it is clear that many of these sellers are part of the “informal” economy (UNICEF, 2016), along with the associated disadvantages. Occasionally, I would even see children working with their parents to sell fruit or package incense sticks—time the children could be using to complete homework or play with friends. Although children may enjoy selling items, for poor families, child labor often becomes a necessity that inhibits educational progress and subsequent life chances. In fact, a recent longitudinal study of poor U.S. children showed a lack of brain and cognitive development stemming from poor nutrition and lack of cognitive stimulation (Hair, Hanson, Wolfe, & Pollak, 2015). Poverty is more likely to persist across generations when from an early age, poor children are malnourished and suffer wasting, stunting, rickets, and other maladies and disadvantages.

The United Nations (2017) first two Sustainable Development Goals focus on ending extreme poverty and malnutrition by 2030. These ambitious targets are unlikely, yet their promulgation stimulates public interest and support. However, they are simultaneously quite restrained. Individuals making more than 1.25 USD per day are not considered “extremely” poor, yet over a billion of them are actually still quite poor (UNICEF, 2006). While we often look to governments and NGOs to fight childhood hunger and poverty, it can easily be argued that corporate citizens should also play their part. Yesterday (January 17, 2018), Apple Inc. announced it will be repatriating its vast overseas cash hoard under the newly reduced U.S. tax rates. Their press release says they will pay $38 billion in tax, which means at the new 15.5% rate they will bring $250 billion home—a massive, almost incomprehensible sum. Sadly, in their press release, there is no mention of hunger or poverty. The only mention of education is computer programming (“coding”) and science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) in the US. While many excuse public corporations from charitable responsibilities due to the supposedly preeminent responsibility to provide maximum profits to their shareholders, this may be misguided or even ridiculous. In China, iPhones have a following despite being more expensive than in the US when considering exchange rates—and several times more pricey when considering relative wages. Arguably, Apple should be investing heavily in Sub-Saharan Africa for future profitability via sales there. However, chasing inflated quarterly earnings and higher stock valuations in the short-term often inhibits corporations from long-range planning—such as developing the South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa markets by confronting childhood hunger and poverty head-on.

References

Apple Inc. (2018, January 17). Apple accelerates US investment and job creation [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2018/01/apple-accelerates-us-investment-and-job-creation/

Hair, N. L., Hanson, J. L., Wolfe, B. L., & Pollak, S. D. (2015). Association of child poverty, brain development, and academic achievement. JAMA Pediatrics, 169, 822–829. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1475

UNICEF. (2016). The state of the world’s children 2016: A fair chance for every child. New York, NY: UNICEF. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/publications/index_91711.html

United Nations. (2017). Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals to transform our world. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

School attendance in Sub-Saharan Africa

This is a discussion post that I completed on 2018-01-11 for the class, EDF 6855: Factors Affecting Equitable Educational Opportunity and Life Chances: A Cross-National Analysis, taught by Judit Szente, Ph.D. at University of Central Florida.

What is your reflection on the goals of the Education for All initiative? What are some major areas in which we urgently need some growth internationally?

The goals of the Education for All (EFA) initiative (World Bank, 2014) revolve around equitable access via a focus on disadvantaged populations, such as girls and women, minorities, the poor, and those living in war zones and other conflict-stricken areas. Although females earn a majority of high school diplomas and postsecondary degrees in the United States (Kirst, 2013), in developing nations females’ access to education is impeded by many factors. Despite the costs and challenges, improving education and access is a moral imperative that produces great human and economic gains. While the EFA does little without practical action from signatory nations and organizations, it sets the tone, and the accompanying analyses and policy work guide funding priorities and debates.

One area where growth is needed internationally is in school attendance (UNESCO, 2014). From 2007 to 2012 the global rate of primary school attendance (Ages 6–11) has not increased beyond 91%, although great gains were made prior to 2007. The 9% of primary-age children not in school is a considerable figure—58 million, 43% of which have not and will probably never attend school. The lack of growth in school attendance is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, where slightly more than half (29.6 million) of non-attending primary aged children reside. While in 2000–2012, the proportional decline in primary out-of-school rate was the same in sub-Saharan Africa (39% to 21%) as in the rest of the world (10.5% to 5.5%), in the same timeframe the primary school age population increased by 35% in sub-Saharan Africa as compared with a 10% decrease elsewhere. Based on 2012 data, UNESCO (2014) expects this population explosion to continue in sub-Saharan Africa, which means this region will continue needing urgent attention.

References

Kirst, M. W. (2013, May 28). Women earn more degrees than men; Gap keeps increasing [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://collegepuzzle.stanford.edu/women-earn-more-degrees-than-men-gap-keeps-increasing/

UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Education for All Global Monitoring Report (2014, June). Progress in getting all children to school stalls but some countries show the way forward. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002281/228184E.pdf

World Bank (2014, August 4). Education for all. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education/brief/education-for-all

Qualitative Research Proposal on Attitudes Toward the Working Poor

This is a research proposal that I completed on 2017-12-06 for the class, EDF 7475: Qualitative Research in Education taught by David Boote, Ph.D. at University of Central Florida. Note that I do not intend to conduct this research.

EDF 7475 Qualitative Research Proposal on Attitudes Toward the Working Poor
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida

Financially, many Americans are not only unprepared for retirement, but also the day-to-day surprises of life. When Americans are asked whether they can “come up with” $2000 within 30 days, nearly half say they could “probably not” or “certainly not” do so (Lusardi, 2011). While this is troubling, one way we can shed light on this phenomenon is to research Americans’ approach to saving and perceptions toward others who are financially struggling.

Purpose

My proposed study is to conduct semi-structured interviews with working-class and privileged Americans about their approach toward saving and their perceptions of others who are struggling financially. My interest here was crystallized from analyzing employee–employer reviews of Rent-A-Center (Glassdoor, 2017) that I selected for complaints about taking advantage of customers (e.g., repossessing children’s beds). However, to my surprise, when coding these interviews, there were more statements deriding the customers as “liars and thieves,” the “worst specimens of humanity,” and as deserving their fates due to their lack of personal responsibility. While in part, this may be due to racism toward African Americans (Gilens, 1996), surprisingly, welfare recipients themselves may tend to consider other welfare recipients “dishonest and idle” (Bullock, 1999). The purpose of this study is to learn, via qualitative methods, about attitudes toward people with financial difficulties from individuals of two socioeconomic strata. A semi-structured interview approach will yield richer data and useful insights that would not appear in a simple questionnaire.

Research Questions

1. What are privileged and working-class Americans’ thoughts toward others who are financially struggling, and how do these attitudes differ between group?
2. How do privileged and working-class Americans differ in their approaches to saving?

Significance of the Project

This study will contribute to research on financial psychology, such as with respect to spending behavior (e.g., Soman, 2001). A wealth of survey data shows a lack of financial literacy in the United States, Europe, and beyond (Lusardi & Mitchell, 2014). Educators and policymakers erroneously presume that financial education is efficacious (Fernandes, Lynch, & Netemeyer, 2014). Meanwhile, inequity in the United States is growing at a breakneck pace, which financially disenfranchises a large proportion of the population (Lusardi, Michaud, & Mitchell, 2017). Looking at differences between the rich and poor in their beliefs about the financially downtrodden may yield useful insights.

Literature Review

When comparing the working poor to the financially privileged, it is important to recognize the two groups are not at all on equal footing. For instance, while using a tangible or immediate payment method like cash or a debit card results in reduced spending (Soman, 2001), the tendency for the working poor to use debit cards, rather than credit or charge cards, engenders delinquency and overdraft fees. Stango and Zinman (2009, 2014) lament that consumers pay an annual average of about $150 per checking account in overdraft fees, and more than half of these are “avoidable,” meaning the consumer has funds available elsewhere that could have paid for their purchase. Moreover, the working poor are disproportionately affected, which may be due to a lack of attention due to many other pressing financial concerns (Stango & Zinman, 2014), and because a $35 overdraft fee does not scale with financial privilege. In fact, banks may be more willing to refund such a fee for those who need it least.

Lusardi and Mitchell (2014) discuss a saddening finding from the U.S. Financial Capability Study (www.usfinancialcapability.org): While 70% of Americans rate their financial knowledge highly, only 30% can actually answer a small number of quite basic financial questions correctly. Less education and being in a vulnerable group, such as African Americans, women, young or old, and rural residence, are all correlated with less financial literacy and by consequence, financial struggles. At a macro level, this undermines American economic stability and perpetuates wealth inequality, including the subjugation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable and protected groups (Lusardi et al., 2017).

Sadly, financial education courses, at least in their present form, do not have lasting beneficial impact on financial behaviors (Fernandes et al., 2014; Mandell, 2012). On the other hand, regulatory reforms (Grubb, 2015) and “nudging” the working poor toward better choices (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008) have merit. However, a complete analysis of the plight of the financially disadvantaged must include our attitudes and attributions. Financial education may implicitly embody these perceptions, thereby patronizing and alienating its intended population, or at the very least, lacking relevance.

Americans tend to have negative attitudes toward the poor. If they believe in the Protestant work ethic or the “just-world” hypothesis, which claims that good and evil actions are eventually rewarded or punished, they may be more likely to blame the poor for their situation (Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, & Tagler, 2001). Individuals who are homeless have been shown to be stigmatized as much or more than the mentally ill, with a general attitude that they should blame themselves for their situations (Phelan, Link, Moore, & Stueve, 1997). “Black welfare mothers” are stigmatized and derided far more than their white counterparts, in part because of availability bias due to politicization (Gilens, 1996). While welfare recipients tend to blame structural rather than individual factors for poverty, they surprisingly view other welfare recipients as dishonest and lazy to a greater extent than middle-class respondents (Bullock, 1999). This finding is in line with my observation of Rent-A-Center employees’ (Glassdoor, 2017) derogatory views toward customers, given Rent-A-Center is not a high-paying job and thus most employees could be classified among the working poor. Attitudes toward poverty, including differences between the poor and financially advantaged, deserve further inquiry.

Research Methods

My research will be organized around in-person semi-structured interviews from purposefully sampled participants who volunteer for this research by responding to solicitations.

Research Site

The research site will be my office, Education Complex, Room 123L, at the University of Central Florida. I share an office with other doctoral students, but will coordinate with their schedules to conduct interviews when I have the room to myself. Because personal finances can be a sensitive topic, this setting may be preferable to a public setting (e.g., a cafeteria) because it offers more privacy. In the office, I will interview participants across a small desk. I will use an audio recording app on my smartphone and a printed interview protocol attached to a clipboard, with space to jot down notes with a pen. This is much less intrusive than taking notes on computer or mobile device during the interview.

Researcher’s Role

I will be interviewing the participants using a semi-structured interview protocol that I developed, conducting brief follow-up contacts with participants for member checking, and conducting analysis and interpretation of the data which will include my rough notes, field notes, and audio recording of the interviews (Creswell & Poth, 2017). Overall, my positionality is as a financial expert and researcher who advocates for educational interventions and industry reforms that benefit the working poor. One weak spot is that I am not personally familiar with having financial difficulties, so it is somewhat challenging to relate to the working poor.

Sampling Method

I will solicit participants via advertisements posted in the Education Complex at UCF and at a nearby country club or other place where privileged people congregate. I may also use email or web solicitations. All solicitations will funnel prospective participants into a Qualtrics questionnaire which will use deception (with approval from the UCF Institutional Review Board) to hide the primary purpose of the research; namely, searching for differences in attitudes toward the financially disadvantaged between working class and privileged individuals. The Qualtrics questionnaire will frame the purpose of the research in general terms about Americans’ attitudes toward saving. Several questions about prospects’ financial and work situations will be included, ostensibly to gauge the financial situation of Americans. I will use responses to these questions to select a number of privileged and working-class participants to contact.

To define the construct of privileged versus working class, I will ask these questions:

1. What is your annual income?
a. $1 – $29,999
b. $30,000 – $74,999
c. $75,000 – $149,999
d. $150,000 or more

To what extent do you agree with the following statements? [Each question will be on a 1-5 Likert-type scale from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree]

2. I could come up with $2000 within 30 days (Lusardi, 2011).
3. I could stop working for a year and live comfortably on either accumulated savings or income from a pension, gifts from family, et cetera without going into debt.
4. I have not had significant financial difficulties in life.

Participants who have higher incomes and agree who tend to agree with the latter three questions will be considered privileged, while others will be considered working class. Participants may be any age 18 or older. I may aim for rough parity in age between groups, but am not specifically interested in age differences (nor gender, ethnicity, etc.) so this would not be preeminent.

Data Collection Methods

When contacting prospects, I will offer participants an incentive of $20 to participate in a 30-minute face-to-face interview at my UCF office. This will be explained as furthering research on financial literacy, education, and attitudes for the public’s benefit. I would likely invite 10 participants per group (privileged and working class) with a goal of five final interviews per group. Because these would already be “warm” prospects who completed a Qualtrics questionnaire that mentioned an in-person interview, conversion rates should be relatively high. For certain participants on an as-needed basis, I may conduct some interviews via recorded telephone call or Skype video chat.

Interviews will be semi-structured, first with the icebreaker question, “what would you do if you received $10,000 unexpectedly right now?” There may be interesting differences between groups in their approach to handling a small windfall. The remainder of the interview will use these guiding questions:

1. Tell me about your approach to saving money.
2. Have you had significant financial struggles in your life?
3. How do you feel about others who are financially struggling?

I will listen carefully to what participants say. Although my research questions are the primary interest, if the interview diverges, this may also be of interest. At the conclusion I will ask them to verify what I have written down (member checking) and I will take notes or make corrections as appropriate. Immediately after I will write up field notes. Later, I will transcribe the audio recording. Subsequently, I will perform thematic coding on the interviews. I anticipate an emergent coding process whereby one or several interviews are coded prior to conducting the rest of the interviews with an interview protocol that may be revised based on prior findings.

I will also be asking participants if they are interested in an optional follow-up interview which can be in-person, by phone, or Skype. Then, I hope to conduct at least one follow-up interview per group to collect more data based on findings that emerge from initial interviews.

Analysis and Trustworthiness

Data analysis plan. I will set the stage for data analysis with detailed field notes and transcripts. Then, I will code the interviews iteratively for meaningful and noteworthy statements. These will be clustered into themes regarding participants’ attitudes toward the financially struggling, in–out group bias, approaches to saving, feelings of self-determination or external locus of control, et cetera. The goal will be to reach thematic saturation, thereby exhaustively describing the phenomenon and enabling analysis of its structure (Creswell & Poth, 2017). This will be an iterative process with revisions between interviews, as I do not expect to conduct all 10 interviews at once.

Establishing validity and trustworthiness. These will partly be established from member checking at the conclusion of interviews, iterative revisions between interviews to address shortcomings, and in at least one follow-up interview per group (privileged and working poor). Conducting interviews in a private, in-person setting may enable trustworthiness by encouraging participants to be frank about their attitudes toward the working poor. Participants will have already completed a sorting questionnaire via Qualtrics, and will be assured their responses will be kept anonymous by use of aliases and, when published, masking or alteration of information that might give away their identities. In particular, this may be important for privileged participants who may be community figures. Overall, the insights from this qualitative investigation should be both practical and entertaining, with a level of validity and trustworthiness comparable to or exceeding that of similar qualitative research.

References

Bullock, H. E. (1999). Attributions for poverty: A comparison of middle-class and welfare recipient attitudes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 2059–2082. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1999.tb02295.x

Cozzarelli, C., Tagler, M. J., & Wilkinson, A. V. (2001). Attitudes toward the poor and attributions for poverty. Journal of Social Issues57, 207–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/0022-4537.00209

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2017). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fernandes, D., Lynch, J. G., Jr., & Netemeyer, R. G. (2014). Financial literacy, financial education, and downstream financial behaviors. Management Science, 60, 1861–1883. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2013.1849

Gilens, M. (1996). “Race coding” and white opposition to welfare. The American Political Science Review, 90, 593–604. https://doi.org/10.2307/2082611

Glassdoor (2017). Rent-A-Center Employee Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Rent-A-Center-Reviews-E3914.htm

Grubb, M. D. (2015). Consumer inattention and bill-shock regulation. Review of Economic Studies, 82, 219–257. https://doi.org/10.1093/restud/rdu024

Lusardi, A. (2011, December). Why are Americans so bad at saving? Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2011/12/19/143961175/why-are-americans-so-bad-at-saving

Lusardi, A., Michaud, P.-C., & Mitchell, O. S. (2017). Optimal financial knowledge and wealth inequality. Journal of Political Economy, 125, 431–477. https://doi.org/10.1086/690950

Lusardi, A., & Mitchell, O. S. (2014). The economic importance of financial literacy: Theory and evidence. Journal of Economic Literature, 52, 5–44. https://doi.org/10.1257/jel.52.1.5

Mandell, L. (2012). School-based financial education: Not ready for prime time. CFA Institute Research Foundation, 2012(3), 107–124.

Phelan, J., Link, B. G., Moore, R. E., & Stueve, A. (1997). The stigma of homelessness: The impact of the label “homeless” on attitudes toward poor persons. Social Psychology Quarterly, 60, 323–337. https://doi.org/10.2307/2787093

Soman, D. (2001). Effects of payment mechanism on spending behavior: The role of rehearsal and immediacy of payments. Journal of Consumer Research, 27, 460–474. https://doi.org/10.1086/319621

Stango, V., & Zinman, J. (2009). What do consumers really pay on their checking and credit card accounts? Explicit, implicit, and avoidable costs. The American Economic Review, 99, 424–429. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.99.2.424

Stango, V., & Zinman, J. (2014). Limited and varying consumer attention: Evidence from shocks to the salience of bank overdraft fees. The Review of Financial Studies, 27, 990–1030. https://doi.org/10.1093/rfs/hhu008

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Millionaire Planning, Not Retirement Planning

Black Branch in Smoke

One of the big problems I have been pondering lately is that people just don’t understand that “saving for retirement” should start NOW not later, because of the incredible tax advantages of Roth IRAs (which have been around since 1997), et cetera. If you haven’t started, you don’t ever get that chance to have contributed $5500 per year for prior years back. Secondly, people don’t realize these accounts are just wrappers for many types of investments. A Roth IRA in a “safe” money market fund, T-bills, et cetera is a terrible loss. These accounts provide a rare, easily accessible form of lawful tax sheltering by which no capital gains tax are assessed when withdrawals are made at Age 59.5 or older. The way to maximize capital gains over long periods of time (e.g., 15+ years) is to invest your Roth IRA in the stock market (e.g., an S&P 500 index fund). Thirdly, you can start very young, and the additive and compounding benefits are both incredible. Even a 14-year-old working at Publix can lawfully contribute to a Roth IRA, up to his/her total IRS-reported gross income for the year or $5500, whichever is less. How many parents encourage or set something like this up for their children? One broader principle here is that, for tax reasons, years where income is low are missed opportunities (e.g., the college graduate’s “late start” earnings disadvantage).

Additionally, I think financial education has so butchered the topic of “retirement” that people do not understand what they are missing out on. Looking at retirement planning as something nebulous or that something one can “catch up” on later, after their immediate financial challenges are overcome (news flash: never), is common among American young and middle-aged adults. This perception is atrocious and must be eradicated. Perhaps we should call it “millionaire planning” or “the guaranteed path to being rich” to capture people’s attention. Secondly, people are living longer, and many will keep working past 59.5, 65, 70, et cetera. We could reasonably replace the idea that you are planning for retirement with the idea that you are planning to be wealthy, free, and financially independent at a time when you might still have 30–40 good years left.

To facilitate this change in perception, we need to stop calling the Age 50+ IRA contribution limits “catch-up limits.” Unless the U.S. government is going to start letting people contribute for prior missed years (and even then, lost capital gains would be enormous), there is NO catching up, because you could have contributed the maximum in all prior working years PLUS the catch-up maximum each year after Age 50. A simple change wording change to “increased limits” might suffice. Behavioral economics shows us that people, including even experts, cannot reliably assess opportunity cost. We need to get people picturing tax-advantaged retirement contributions visually as buckets for each year where the lid for the 2017 bucket gets permanently sealed on 4/17/2018 and whoops, you just lost $50K+ by not contributing $5500 to your IRA for 2017. Simultaneously, we must convincingly convey that the optimal solution is to contribute the maximum this year and every year going forward—prior missed opportunities should not be an excuse to throw one’s hands up in defeat, nor to say things like “you’ve got to live your life sometime” or “I deserve a new car” rather than contributing to one’s tax-advantaged retirement account. Sadly, the phrase “retirement planning” and even the word “retirement” itself have been poisoned in the minds of many Americans—forever consigned to the status of should-but-won’t-do.

Photo by Richard Thripp, © 2012. Every year you do not contribute to a tax-advantaged retirement account is akin to money going up in flames.

Consumer Susceptibility to Bank Overdraft Fees: Evidence and Implications

Consumer Susceptibility to Bank Overdraft Fees: Evidence and Implications
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida

Even in 2001, Soman noted the dizzying array of payment mechanisms available to consumers. While traveler’s checks have vanished, many more mechanisms have emerged—near-field communication (NFC) payment methods like Apple and Android Pay, mobile apps, Bitcoin, PayPal, and digital gift cards, to name a few. Nevertheless, the factors that Soman (2001) experimentally substantiated remain—the “learning and rehearsal of the price paid” and “immediacy with which wealth is depleted” (p. 466). Cash has both, paper checks have the former, and credit cards and many emergent payment methods have neither. The presence of these factors makes spending painful, while their absence encourages buying by making it less real, including by bundling the purchases together to be paid at a later date. However, a consideration Soman (2001) did not examine is that debit cards’ direct connection to one’s bank account engenders delinquency and overdraft fees—a fee of about $35 a bank charges for your account going negative. At times, immediacy can do this—a credit card is paid monthly in a lump sum, which gives just one opportunity for overdraft. At other times, delayed or recurring debits, due to their lack of immediacy and/or variability in cost, can cause costly overdraft fees.

Stango and Zinman (2009, 2014) lament that consumers pay an annual average of about $150 per checking account in overdraft fees, and more than half of these are “avoidable,” meaning the consumer has funds available elsewhere that could have paid for their purchase. They recruited panelists who not only completed questionnaires, but also provided access to their transaction-level checking account data. Their 7448 panelists participated for a median of 16 months, with over 95% reporting having only one checking account. A majority (52%) incurred an overdraft fee during the panel or in the past. Questionnaire responses revealed that 60% attributed overdrafts to mental overestimation of available balance, while the remainder generally reported deposit holds or other unexpected liquidity irregularities. An economist who erroneously models humans as rational maximizers might surmise that consumers pay overdraft fees because the marginal utility of the debit exceeds the sum of the debit amount and overdraft fee—but Stango and Zinman’s (2014) data and questionnaires point toward a limited attention model, meaning consumers simply are not paying close enough attention to their checking accounts. However, drawing consumers’ attention to overdraft fees via questionnaires was found, by examination of their transaction-level bank data, to result in fewer overdrafts in subsequent months.

Employing the inattention model, one is empowered to advocate for regulatory reform to improve social welfare (Grubb, 2015). The Federal Reserve took an important step when they required banks to make opting in the requirement for overdraft protection on debit cards. This nudge (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008) prevents many overdrafts, and the requisite fees, at the point of sale. However, it does nothing for recurring intrabank transfers, automated clearinghouse transactions, or checks, all of which may still trigger overdraft fees. Notably, in addition to attention, quantitative literacy and numerical skills have been shown to positively correlate with financial behaviors that are future-oriented, rather than impulsive (Nye & Hillyard, 2013).

Lusardi and Mitchell (2014) discuss a saddening finding from the U.S. Financial Capability Study (www.usfinancialcapability.org): While 70% of Americans rate their financial knowledge highly, only 30% can actually answer a small number of quite basic financial questions correctly. Less education and being in a vulnerable group, such as African Americans, women, young or old, and rural residence, are all correlated with less financial literacy and by consequence, susceptibility to overdraft fees. At a macro level, this undermines American economic stability and perpetuates wealth inequality, including the subjugation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable and protected groups (Lusardi, Michaud, & Mitchell, 2017).

Implications and More Evidence

Here is a simple inductive leap: If consumers cannot even manage their bank accounts prudently, how can we expect them to accumulate wealth judiciously and copiously? “Retirement”—which might be characterized as a prolonged period of reduced earnings subsidized by decumulation of capital—is a pricey proposition. Financial literacy education (FLE), or, providing students and consumers with general-purpose instruction on relevant financial topics, intuitively appears to be a practical and effective solution.

However, L. E. Willis argues, with astonishing prolificacy, that financial literacy education (FLE) is misguided and pointless (e.g., Willis, 2008). A law professor, she paints personal finance as a fast-moving river where yesterday’s advice—and regulations, for that matter—are soon stale and even detrimental, in part because the financial services industry prospers on complexity and chaos. For example, adjustable-rate mortgages were rare before the mid-2000s, and sadly, homebuying education only warned strenuously about such mortgages after the crisis. Of course, mistaking your mortgage broker for a fiduciary (i.e., Ross & Squires, 2011) transcends FLE—avoiding confidence tricks requires a different set of psychosocial skills that only partially overlaps with financial literacy.

While it would be disingenuous to depict Willis’s dourness as more than a fringe view, the coalition behind FLE can rightly be depicted as Pollyannaish—or even, in certain quarters, diabolical (cf. English, 2014). When Fernandes, Lynch, and Netemeyer (2014) completed their meta-analysis of FLE interventions, they found FLE curdles like milk—even sprawling, semester-long courses do nothing to improve behavior two years in the future. In fact, complementary to Willis (2008), they propose to disembowel FLE right in their abstract— “just-in-time” FLE is their neutered, potentially-useful alternative. Even Lewis Mandell, professor emeritus, at the forefront of financial education and research for over 40 years, in 2012 called for a moratorium on mandatory financial literacy courses in secondary school, because “successful implementation of [financial] educational programs has not occurred” (Mandell, 2012, p. 107)— they simply do not work as presently conceived.

What We Can Do

In the field of instructional design, there is a widely voiced reverence for principles over technology. While technologies are like rapids, principles—such as the alignment of assessment tools with learning objectives—are timeless. In a similar vein, to encourage avoidance of bank and credit fees, we might focus on teaching strategies rather than financial content. For instance, numeracy and quantitative literacy are important (Nye & Hillyard, 2013), yet distinct from FLE and perhaps not actually taught in most FLE programs.

Ironically, Willis (2009) proposes a promising yet untested alternative: financial norms education (FNE). FNE principles, or benchmarks[1], are more accessible, memorable, and require less cognitive load (e.g., Drexler, Fischer, & Schoar, 2014). For bank fees, you could start with a piece of empirical evidence from Stango and Zinman’s (2009, 2014) research: 83% of panelists who incurred overdraft fees regularly let their balance slip below $100, while only 56% of panelists who did not incur overdraft fees did so. Consequently, a teachable benchmark would be to maintain a cushion of at least $100 in your checking account. Instructionally, you could integrate this with stories and videos from individuals who did not keep $100 in their checking account, and suffered the consequences.

The inattention model (Grubb, 2015; Stango & Zinman, 2014) serves as a useful and empirically supported framework for characterizing susceptibility to overdraft fees. In fact, it could be applied to many other personal-finance issues such as late payment fees, not knowing terms of loans or interest rates, failure to shop around for insurance, and misplaced priorities when acquiring income, making purchases, or paying debts. Surprisingly, if we compare to Fernandes et al.’s (2014) findings, salience—merely bringing a matter to the student’s attention—may be more important than education when it comes to overdraft fees.

Finally, credit unions—which are widespread, not-for-profit alternatives to banks—might borrow a page from Thaler and Sunstein’s (2008) “nudge theory” by displaying members’ checking account balances in red with a warning message when below $100. We can expect Bank of America to continue their Better Money Habits educational program—corporate citizenship has little cost if Fernandes et al. (2014) holds true. However, being that bank overdrafts are a $30–40 billion annual industry (Stango & Zinman, 2014), nudging customers away from making the bank money is a hard sell to executives and shareholders. Thus, we might suggest another benchmark to financial students: Join a credit union. Even if FLE is dead, the outlook for research, innovation, and real progress in financial education are optimistic—but only if effective strategies are employed.

References

Drexler, A., Fischer, G., & Schoar, A. (2014). Keeping it simple: Financial literacy and rules of thumb. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics6(2), 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1257/app.6.2.1

English, L. M. (2014). Financial literacy: A critical adult education appraisal. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2014(141), 47–55. https://doi.org/10.1002/ace.20084

Fernandes, D., Lynch, J. G., Jr., & Netemeyer, R. G. (2014). Financial literacy, financial education, and downstream financial behaviors. Management Science, 60, 1861–1883. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2013.1849

Grubb, M. D. (2015). Consumer inattention and bill-shock regulation. Review of Economic Studies, 82, 219–257. https://doi.org/10.1093/restud/rdu024

Lusardi, A., Michaud, P.-C., & Mitchell, O. S. (2017). Optimal financial knowledge and wealth inequality. Journal of Political Economy, 125, 431–477. https://doi.org/10.1086/690950

Lusardi, A., & Mitchell, O. S. (2014). The economic importance of financial literacy: Theory and evidence. Journal of Economic Literature, 52, 5–44. https://doi.org/10.1257/jel.52.1.5

Mandell, L. (2012). School-based financial education: Not ready for prime time. CFA Institute Research Foundation, 2012(3), 107–124.

Nye, P., & Hillyard, C. (2013). Personal financial behavior: The influence of quantitative literacy and material values. Numeracy, 6(1), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.5038/1936-4660.6.1.3

Ross, L. M., & Squires, G. D. (2011). The personal costs of subprime lending and the foreclosure crisis: A matter of trust, insecurity, and institutional deception. Social Science Quarterly, 92, 140–163. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00761.x

Soman, D. (2001). Effects of payment mechanism on spending behavior: The role of rehearsal and immediacy of payments. Journal of Consumer Research, 27, 460–474. https://doi.org/10.1086/319621

Stango, V., & Zinman, J. (2009). What do consumers really pay on their checking and credit card accounts? Explicit, implicit, and avoidable costs. The American Economic Review, 99, 424–429. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.99.2.424

Stango, V., & Zinman, J. (2014). Limited and varying consumer attention: Evidence from shocks to the salience of bank overdraft fees. The Review of Financial Studies, 27, 990–1030. https://doi.org/10.1093/rfs/hhu008

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Willis, L. E. (2008). Against financial-literacy education. Iowa Law Review94, 197–285.

Willis, L. E. (2009). Evidence and ideology in assessing the effectiveness of financial literacy education. San Diego Law Review46, 415–458.

  1. I refrain from calling them rules of thumb because of the association with domestic violence, even though the tale has been discredited. (Return to text)

Writing on education, finance, psychology, et cetera