Buying into Dominant Ideas about Wealth and Poverty: An Examination of U.S. and Canadian Financial Literacy Standards


by Agata Soroko - 2020

Background: In the wake of the 2007–2008 global financial crisis, calls for financial literacy education increased dramatically. In both the United States and Canada, the financial collapse and its aftermath saw a resurgence of personal finance programs and initiatives in schools. While financial literacy education continues to be introduced in U.S. and Canadian high schools through the implementation of financial literacy standards into social studies curricula, few studies have focused on the content and ideology of these standards. This study is the first to provide a systematic review of all available high school financial literacy standards across the United States and Canada.

Purpose: The purpose of this research was to render visible the hidden ideological underpinnings of financial literacy standards. Specifically, the study investigated what the discourse in the standards implied about individuals’ financial outcomes and what was made invisible about the ways in which people achieve or fail to achieve economic security and wealth.

Research Design: This study employed critical discourse and ideological analysis to examine state-sanctioned financial literacy standards from 43 high school social studies curriculum documents in the United States and Canada.

Findings: The analysis revealed that, overall, financial literacy standards framed financial wellbeing as a personal doing while neglecting to consider the broader social, economic, and political forces influencing financial outcomes. This research demonstrates how financial literacy discourses, rooted in ideologies of merit, often tell an incomplete story about the origins and determinants of both wealth and poverty.

Conclusions: The results from this study offer insight into how deficit thinking about economically marginalized individuals and groups continues to permeate educational discourse. In examining financial literacy standards in particular, this study contributes to existing research problematizing financial literacy initiatives and calling for more critical, inclusive, and nuanced approaches. This research also adds to scholarship unpacking the ideological assumptions embedded in state-mandated academic standards concerning wealth and poverty.

In the wake of the 2007–2008 global financial crisis, calls for financial literacy education, or “the knowledge, skills and confidence to make responsible financial decisions” (Task Force on Financial Literacy, 2010, p. 10), increased dramatically. Stemming from concerns over irresponsible borrowing and risky investing, financial literacy advocates sought to improve individuals’ financial knowledge and money management skills (Organisation for International and Economic Development [OECD], 2016). While financial literacy education has its origins in consumer education and home economics (Arthur, 2012b; Chamberlin, 1978), the financial collapse and its aftermath saw a resurgence of personal finance programs and initiatives in both the United States and Canada (Faulkner, 2015; OECD, 2016). Within the K–12 system, financial literacy is increasingly added to social studies curricula through the introduction of state standards. In the United States, for instance, the Council for Economic Education (2016) reported that between 2002 and 2016 the number of states requiring financial literacy standards to be implemented in schools increased from 17 to 37. Despite the explosion of financial literacy education, there has been little study of state-sanctioned financial literacy standards or their underlying ideologies and assumptions.


This research is the first to offer a comprehensive analysis of official U.S. and Canadian high school financial literacy standards in social studies curriculum frameworks. While there are significant differences between the United States and Canada, political discourse tying financial literacy to the health of the economy following the financial crisis was prevalent in both nations (Pinto, 2012). As states and provinces continue to introduce personal finance instruction into the social studies, an increasing number of teachers and students are exposed to financial literacy education and the lessons it proposes about the financial system as well as the roles of governments, banks, and individuals within it. My analysis of state standards revealed that while there are slight differences in the ways financial literacy is presented between the United States and Canada, as well as between states, provinces, and territories in each region, the overall framing is similar. The implicit lessons embedded in the standards about wealth and poverty are often inaccurate, and as I will argue in this article, misguided.


Ideas about wealth and poverty in financial literacy standards are worth unpacking because attitudes and beliefs about these constructs have significant impact on educational policy and practice (Bartolomé, 2008; Berliner, 2006; Dworin & Bomer, 2008; Gorski, 2006, 2012). When works like Ruby Payne’s (2003) A Framework for Understanding Poverty—a disparaging account of the deficient “mindsets” of people in poverty—circulate freely in teacher professional development courses (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Dworin & Bomer, 2008; Ng & Rury, 2006), critical engagement with texts informing teachers’ work is needed. Standards, given their authoritative nature, merit particular study. While it is unclear to what extent they guide practice, financial literacy standards, like other state-sanctioned documents, are developed with that aim in mind. Furthermore, what students are required to know about how people come to occupy their socioeconomic positions in life matters. Studies show that prevailing societal views about poverty ultimately determine public support of economic policies that directly affect the lives of the poor, such as social welfare programs (Adeola, 2005; Bullock, Williams, & Limbert, 2003; Chafel, 1997).


This article responds to a pressing need for educators and researchers to examine critically the influence of dominant ideologies in various educational contexts (Bartolomé, 2008). The research questions guiding this study asked: (1) What are the implicit ideological assumptions underlying financial literacy standards and what do they suggest about individuals’ financial outcomes? and (2) What are the explicit and nuanced ways in which poverty and the experiences of people who are poor are included or excluded in financial literacy standards?


In what follows, I begin by providing an overview of financial literacy and standards-based education reforms. I then proceed to explain the rationale behind employing critical discourse analysis when studying financial literacy standards. The following section situates the research within the literature on attributions for wealth and poverty. Next, I outline the methods used in collecting and analyzing the data. I then proceed to describe the findings and how they materialized, detailing specific strategies of critical discourse and ideological analysis. The article concludes with a discussion of the findings and their implications for researchers, educators, and curriculum policymakers.


THE RISE OF FINANCIAL LITERACY EDUCATION


The international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2016), a major advocate for financial literacy worldwide, defines financial literacy as


knowledge and understanding of financial concepts and risks, and the skills, motivation, and confidence to apply such knowledge and understanding in order to make effective decisions across a range of financial contexts, to improve the financial well-being of individuals and society, and to enable participation in economic life. (p. 85)


Employing the language of wellbeing and empowerment, financial literacy is often presented as a determinant of individual and societal welfare. Though the OECD (2013) began planning for a financial education project in response to governments’ and politicians’ mounting concerns regarding citizens’ financial illiteracy in 2002, financial literacy received heightened attention as a legitimate solution to economic insecurity in the aftermath of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis (Pinto, 2013; Schug, 2012; Willis, 2009). The OECD (2013) observed that in both industrialized and emerging economies a “lack of financial literacy was one of the factors contributing to ill-informed financial decisions” (p. 140).


Intensifying concerns regarding public financial literacy have resulted in new policy initiatives. In 2012, the OECD (2014) included financial literacy for the first time as one of the domains (alongside science, reading, and mathematics) in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) triennial international survey of 15-year-old students’ competencies. Describing the conceptual foundations of the assessment, The PISA 2015 Financial Literacy Framework blames “shrinking public and private support systems, shifting demographic profiles, including the ageing of the population, and wide-ranging developments in the financial marketplace” for the rising concern about citizens’ levels of financial knowledge (OECD, 2016, p. 80). Additionally, as government and employer-based health care and pension plans disappear, responsibility for risk management shifts to the individual, and a changing financial landscape means people are now expected to navigate an expanding array of financial products and services that require complex decision-making (OECD, 2016, p. 80). Given that the first PISA results from 2014 revealed major gaps in young people’s financial skills and knowledge (OECD, 2014), financial literacy education will likely continue to garner policy interest.


Along with including financial literacy as a domain in the PISA survey, the OECD (2011) recommended that governments develop financial education programmes and integrate financial literacy education into school curricula. Though Canada weathered the global financial meltdown with less negative impact than other G7 nations—avoiding a government bank bailout, for one—the perceived importance of financial literacy played out similarly to the United States (Pinto, 2012). As news outlets reported growing debt, low savings, and reckless spending by Canadians, “government rhetoric on the issue” gained momentum, “which quickly translated to mandated policy” (Pinto, 2012, p. 41). Worldwide, the apparent political importance of financial literacy resulted in a push for its measurement and quantification (Pinto, 2012). Both Canada and the United States have incorporated financial literacy into their education systems through state-sanctioned curriculum standards. Data from the 2016 Survey of the States shows that 45 states included personal finance in their state standards, 37 states mandated that these standards be implemented, 22 states required that a personal finance high school course be offered, and 17 required that such a course be taken (Council for Economic Education, 2016).


In Canada, seven provinces and two territories already include financial literacy in their secondary school curricula. Some provinces have even eliminated critical social studies content to ensure financial literacy is included. For example, the province of Quebec reduced the current contemporary world history course, covering important topics such as the distribution of wealth and power, to half the teaching time to make room for a mandatory financial literacy class (McCallum, 2016). In 2016 in Ontario, where financial literacy is not a standalone course but incorporated into other subjects, the Ministry of Education contemplated removing the province’s compulsory civics course in order to make space for a full credit course in careers, which would include financial literacy instruction (Nanowski, 2016; Tidridge, 2016).


CRITIQUES OF FINANCIAL LITERACY EDUCATION


Despite financial literacy’s mainstream acclaim, scholars and researchers have raised numerous concerns. While some of the critiques relate to the efficacy of personal finance education to improve financial behavior (e.g., Amagir, Groot, van den Brink, & Wilschut, 2017; Angel, 2018; Fernandes, Lynch, & Netemeyer, 2014; Mandell & Klein, 2009), scholars have also questioned the underlying aims of financial literacy education and their implications for schooling and society.


Canadian economist, Jim Stanford (2010), observes that the timing of renewed interest in financial literacy is ironic considering the financial collapse was “rooted not in individual ignorance, short-sightedness, or irresponsibility” but “in the sophisticated efforts of major financial institutions to profit from the creation and trade of fundamentally unproductive financial assets” (p. 22). Stanford argues that while some people will indeed fare better if they improve their financial conduct such as reducing credit cost or avoiding financial fraud, prudent financial behavior on the part of singular individuals will not eliminate widespread unemployment or economic hardship affecting millions of Canadians. Stanford writes:


This discourse of financial literacy locates the root cause of Canadians' financial distress in individual actions, choices, and failings: not saving enough, not planning ahead, not reading the fine print on those risky investments. It assumes that financial education alone (rather than a more concrete change in the real circumstances of Canadians' economic lives) will be enough to change those outcomes. (2010, p. 23)


Likewise in the United States, Hamilton and Darity (2017) argue that the “directional emphasis” of financial literacy is wrong (p. 59). The racial wealth gap, often framed as a matter of deficient knowledge and poor decision-making on the part of Black Americans, is not actually a matter of personal agency, financial literacy, and choice (Hamilton & Darity, 2017). Instead, it is the deep-seated structures perpetuating inequality and racism, such as intergenerational wealth transfers or the historical advantage from which Whites continue to benefit in college admissions preferences for university legacies, children of donors, and other channels (Hamilton & Darity, 2017).


Studies of curriculum resources intended for youth also reveal how conventional financial literacy approaches fail to address the inequities that individuals with diverse social identities (e.g., gender, religion, race, etc.) face in current financial systems. For example, Pinto and Chan (2010) and Pinto and Coulson’s (2011) studies showed how three widely-used curriculum resources produced by the federal government, Visa Canada, and the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education presented a level playing field for all individuals and groups in society when it came to accumulating wealth. In a gender-blind approach, discussions about the barriers that women face in the form of the wage gap, for example, were omitted in these materials (Pinto & Chan, 2010; Pinto & Coulson, 2011). Similarly, Pinto and Chan found that these same resources failed to consider how Muslims who practice Shariah as a way of life are at a disadvantage when it comes to the financial choices and opportunities available to them. Since Islamic teachings include the virtues of not accumulating excessive material wealth or taking advantage of others, charging interest, for example, becomes problematic (Pinto & Chan, 2010).


Examining Prosper Canada’s financial literacy facilitator resources for workshops aimed at teaching personal finance to adults living in poverty, Blue and Pinto (2017) also found a “one-size-fits-all” approach that disregarded the diversity of participants’ experiences. For instance, the workshops’ emphasis on individual wealth attainment contradicted Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing that focus on collective values and generosity rather than individual wealth accumulation (Blue & Pinto, 2017). Moreover, these resources were marked by a deficit perspective assuming participants with low socioeconomic status were lacking in skills and knowledge (Blue & Pinto, 2017). According to the training manuals, it was the financial habits of low-income individuals that needed fixing—not an economy that failed to provide higher paying jobs or secure employment opportunities (Blue & Pinto, 2017). Noting that research continues to show how economically vulnerable individuals tend to already be proficient at budgeting, Blue and Pinto argue that financial awareness does not equate financial well-being. Workshops teaching to save and plan for retirement are misguided if participants lack the means—and not necessarily the skills—to save (Blue & Pinto, 2017).


Studies of financial literacy initiatives and resources establish how conventional financial literacy approaches often reify social inequities through “choice” and “value neutrality” discourses (Pinto & Chan, 2010; Pinto & Coulson, 2011). “Choice” discourses, dressed in neoliberal language that centers on optimizing individual action in the marketplace, stress personal responsibility for one’s finances and making the “right” choices while discounting the role that financial systems and societal barriers play in producing inequitable outcomes (Blue & Pinto, 2017; Pinto & Coulson, 2011). Relatedly, “value neutrality” discourses present the rules for good financial behavior as universal, fallaciously suggesting that individuals need only follow certain formulas in order to achieve and maintain financial security since everyone has an equal chance to succeed regardless of their position in society (Pinto & Chan, 2010).


Such conventional approaches to financial literacy education employ the understanding of financial literacy articulated by the OECD (2016) as financial awareness, knowledge, and responsibility for one’s financial future. This focus on “how one acquires, manages, and accumulates money for personal use” constitutes what Lucey, Agnello, and Laney (2015) consider a “thin” conception of financial literacy (p.1). Lucey (2007), Lucey and Bates (2010), and Lucey and Giannangelo (2006) maintain that current (or thin) interpretations of financial literacy dismiss the moral and social implications of economic decision-making, including the various contexts and circumstances from which one’s financial knowledge derives. For example, Lucey and Bates (2010) argue that unsound financial decisions play out differently for those from affluent families whose material and social resources provide insurance against the kind of financial decline their poorer counterparts may experience under the same conditions, perpetuating an illusion of control where there is none.


A “thick” view of financial literacy, on the other hand, “represents a social notion that considers the motivations for and consequences of one’s financial decisions for oneself and for others with whom he or she has financial encounters” (Lucey et al., 2015, p. 2). Under a thick view of financial literacy, an individual buying a product might not only acknowledge its financial costs but also its social ones. Blue and Pinto (2017) illustrate the purchase of a pair of moccasins from the perspective of a “thick” financial literacy as described by Lucey et al. (2015). When buying a pair of moccasins, one would consider not only the price but also the environmental footprint of the product, the treatment of the company’s employees, and its reputation for social good (Blue & Pinto, 2017).


In response to rationalizing financial literacy on the basis of the economic crisis, scholars like Arthur (2012b) advocate for a “critical, emancipatory civic financial literacy that supports deliberation and civic engagement aimed at altering a political economic system which constrains our actions so as to make crises all but inevitable” (p. 164). For Arthur, conventional forms of financial literacy position consumption and investment as legitimate civic acts, individualizing and depoliticizing solutions to longstanding problems such as poverty, insecurity, and inequality (Arthur, 2012a, 2012b). A critical civic financial literacy, in contrast, allows students to address the root problems of precarity and instability through collective, political actions aimed at effecting real social change and limiting the existing conditions of financial insecurity. One example are service-learning initiatives—combining community service with civic action—where students study, for instance, which classed, racialized, and gendered groups are most at risk of food insecurity (Arthur, 2012b). Investigating how government policies and market forces impact the health of these populations, students then disseminate findings to the public, relevant governmental organizations, and state officials (Arthur, 2012b).


Like Arthur (2012b), Stanford (2010) argues that we should not take as inevitable the increasingly polarized circumstances of economic life. Rather than ask students to accept and adjust to an unfair and unequal world, we ought to educate about the real causes and potential solutions to financial problems (Stanford, 2010). In this version of financial literacy, Stanford (2010) stresses teaching about issues such as the skewed and concentrated distribution of wealth, the importance of public pensions (over personal investments) for senior citizens, and the impact of regulatory and institutional factors such as minimum wages. In one of the few studies examining state standards, Maier, Figart, and Nelson (2014) offer similar recommendations. They argue that the existing National Standards for Financial Literacy for K–12 ought to include a broader examination of the forces that shape and constrain financial choices, such as the extensive role of governments, unpaid household labor, and non-profit institutions (Maier et al., 2014).


It may be reasonable for corporations like Visa Canada to produce texts promoting a narrow, uncritical, and consumerist version of financial literacy. But as Arthur (2012c) contends, one would expect state-sanctioned curriculum frameworks—given the civic functions of schools and their commitment to creating democratic citizens—to construct a more expansive interpretation. As a curricular topic, financial literacy education is most often situated within social studies curriculum frameworks and is justified on the basis of improving “citizens’ civic responsibility, civic equality, and political engagement” (Arthur, 2012b, p. 163). Such objectives are consistent with citizenship education’s normative goals to develop in young people the skills, knowledge, and dispositions required for collective decision-making about how we ought to live together and the kind of citizens we ought to develop to support an effective democratic society (see, for example, Apple & Beane, 2007; Hess & McAvoy, 2015; Osborne, 2010; Parker, 2010). Yet, dominant forms of financial literacy emphasizing self-interest, individual agency, and consumerism are at odds with the civic aims of schools to cultivate informed, politically engaged citizens who are capable of analyzing, deliberating about, and taking collective action to address contemporary social problems (Arthur, 2012c; Lucey et al., 2015).


Alternative financial and economic literacy approaches promoting a more critical inquiry do exist (see, for example, Lucey et al., 2015; Sober Giecek, 2007), but it is unclear to what extent these optional materials are used in classrooms in the United States and Canada. Social studies standards—where financial literacy is most often situated—on the other hand, offer a glimpse into the kind of financial literacy teachers are required to teach. Whereas scholars have studied federal government, non-profit, and corporate sponsored financial literacy curricula, and a few studies have focused on singular documents containing financial literacy standards (e.g., Arthur, 2012c; Bosshardt & Walstad, 2014; Maier et al., 2014), this study is the first to offer a comprehensive account of financial literacy standards across the United States and Canada.


WHY EXAMINING STATE STANDARDS IS IMPORTANT


In the current era of standards-based school reforms, state standards, such as the recently adopted Common Core standards in the United States, increasingly shape the information presented in textbooks and in high-stakes, standardized testing (Apple, 2014; Au, 2013; Hursh, 2007; Vasquez Heilig, Brown, & Brown, 2012). As a result, standards carry powerful potential to influence what is taught in the classroom (Journell, 2010; Sleeter, 2002; Vogler & Virtue, 2007). Although standards-based education reform efforts in Canada are not tied to the kinds of high-stakes testing as in the United States, provincial standards in Canada nevertheless determine curricular content (Hargreaves & Goodson, 2006; Ross, 2017; Sattler, 2012). Efforts in the province of Ontario and Quebec, as noted earlier, to include financial literacy at the expense of other important social studies subjects demonstrate the demand for knowledge and skills that will make students more effective consumers, investors, and workers—not necessarily citizens. In both the United States and Canada, content areas containing literacy and numeracy receive greater instructional time at the expense of social studies subjects focusing on political and civic literacy (Au, 2013; DeLeon & Ross, 2010; Vogler & Virtue, 2007).


Though state standards do not necessarily tell us about classroom practice (Westbury, 2007), and both teachers and students “selectively accept, reinterpret, and reject what counts as legitimate knowledge” (Apple & Christian-Smith, 1991, p. 14), standards shed light on what is worth knowing and thus are inherently political and ideological in nature (Apple, 2014; Apple & Christian-Smith, 1991). Previous analyses of social studies learning standards and curricula (e.g., Anderson, 2012; Journell, 2008; Orlowski, 2008; Sleeter, 2002; Vasquez Heilig et al., 2012) have shown that knowledge presented in state-sanctioned curriculum frameworks is neither neutral nor disinterested; it is, instead, a set of discourses connected to power, generating omissions and overgeneralizations (Apple, 2014; Orlowski, 2008). As Vasquez Heilig et al. (2012) observe, curriculum scholars such as Michael Apple and Christine Sleeter have theorized about the political nature of state-sanctioned curricula, but few studies exist depicting exactly how ideology plays out in state standards, especially concerning the representations of marginalized individuals and groups.


CRITICAL DISCOURSE AND IDEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS


This research undertook the task of identifying the various discursive strategies (van Dijk, 1993) operating in official financial literacy standards. While the social inequality highlighted in this study pertains to socioeconomic status, other identity categories such as race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, language, immigrant status, or religion interact with social class to exacerbate discrimination and oppression (Choo & Ferree, 2010; Collins, 1998; Crenshaw, 1991). When people who are poor are discussed in this article, it is with the understanding that there is no singular group of poor or working-class people forming a distinct culture. Rather, people living in poverty are diverse individuals. Their material disadvantages are often a result of compounding discrimination based on multiple grounds of identity, and they experience class oppression differently at the intersection of race, gender, and other identity markers (Crenshaw, 1991; Gorski, 2013; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Milner, 2013).


Since the study dealt with the analysis of ideological assumptions undergirding the standards, a clarification of what is meant by ideology is worthwhile. I used Bartolomé’s (2008) definition of ideology as a “framework of thought constructed and held by members of society to justify or rationalize an existing social order” (p. xiii). According to Bartolomé (2008), “dominant ideologies are typically reflected in both the symbols and cultural practices of the dominant culture that shape people’s thinking such that they unconsciously accept the current way of doing things as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’” (p. xiii). Cormack (1992) argues that members of subordinate classes, despite living in a society structured by the dominant ideology, have their own understanding of the world, and while they may accept part of the dominant ideology, particularly that which legitimizes the socioeconomic structure, they can also subvert it (p. 14). By introducing into the dominant ideology elements of subordinate ideologies, however, the dominant class retains its hegemony, universalizing and naturalizing beliefs that become self-evident and unconsciously accepted (Bartolomé, 2008; Cormack, 1992).


Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “common sense” is also useful in understanding how the public freely consents to dominant ideologies that stigmatize the poor (Baptist & Rehmann, 2011). For Gramsci (1971, cited in Baptist and Rehmann, 2011, p. 49), common sense is “an incoherent set of generally held assumptions and beliefs, which ‘contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history . . . and intuitions of a future philosophy.’” Hegemonic notions that see poverty as an outcome of individual fate and bad choices, such as being born into a culture of poverty or dropping out of school, often go unquestioned as they appeal to images and experiences we may have encountered directly or have been exposed to through the media or other ideological apparatuses (Baptist & Rehmann, 2011, p. 50). Thus, explanations of poverty as individually driven seem logical, natural, and sensible to the public at large, convincing even people who are poor that with enough effort, they can indeed pull themselves up by their bootstraps (Gorski, 2012; Kaufelt, 1994; Silva, 2013). Neoliberal ideology has an especially strong impact on “common sense,” permeating everyday culture with the belief that the “market” is a game, and if one does not play by the rules, losing is the natural outcome (Baptist & Rehmann, 2011, p. 54).


Ideological analysis, then, can uncover the role of ideology as “an unconscious stabilizer and justifier of the status quo” (Cormack, 1992, p. 16) and expose “the hegemonic discourse that informs our commonsense understandings of reality” (Kaufelt, 1994, p. 133). The purpose of ideological analysis in this study specifically was to identify the influence of dominant ideologies on discussions of financial outcomes in financial literacy standards. At the same time that meritocratic ideas about a good education, hard work, self-sufficiency, and financial discipline appeal to commonsense understandings of the social order, they also work to obscure the influence of broader societal forces and act to replicate misconceptions and stereotypes about how one comes to occupy their place on the socioeconomic spectrum.


THEORIES AND DISCOURSES ABOUT WEALTH AND POVERTY


Reviewing research on the ideologies and beliefs about social stratification, Hunt and Bullock (2016) trace systematic empirical research into what Americans believe about the causes of individuals’ financial outcomes to sociologist Joe Feagin’s (1972, 1975) 1969 national survey, which identified three types of beliefs: individualistic, structuralist, and fatalistic. While individualistic beliefs turn to characteristics of people who are poor such as lack of effort or loose morals to explain poverty, structuralist beliefs highlight aspects of the social and economic systems in which people who are poor reside—low wages or a shortage of jobs, for example (Hunt & Bullock, 2016). Fatalistic explanations—“supraindividual but non-social structural factors” such as illness or bad luck—have been less commonly used in empirical research because of the relative unpopularity of fatalistic beliefs in the United States and because of the unreliability of fatalism items in statistical subscales (Hunt & Bullock, 2016, p. 94).


Other studies on beliefs about poverty since Joe Feagin’s seminal work (1972, 1975) have similarly drawn from this framework (e.g., Bullock et al., 2003; Chafel & Neitzel, 2005; Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, & Tagler, 2001; Prins & Schafft, 2009). Apart from a few Canadian studies (e.g., Guimond, Begin, & Palmer, 1989; Reutter et al., 2005), most research on beliefs about poverty in North American has been conducted in the United States, indicating a need for more country-specific data (Reutter et al., 2005).


Additionally, Bullock et al. (2003) report that attributions for wealth have received less attention in the social science literature than attributions for poverty. Both wealth and poverty contribute to inequality, but the asymmetry, they suggest, reflects the tendency to view poverty—not wealth—as a dominant social problem (Bullock et al., 2003). The few existing studies on wealth attributions (e.g., Furnham, 1983; Smith, 1985; Smith & Stone, 1989) employ the same type of framework used to assess explanations for poverty, with individualistic explanations (personal drive, careful money management, etc.) on one end and structural ones (political influence, family privilege, etc.) on the other (Bullock et al., 2003, p. 38).


Yet, individualistic and structuralist attributions, Hunt and Bullock (2016) caution, are not “ideological alternatives” (p. 101). Research has shown (e.g., Kluegel & Smith, 1986) that people can adhere to both individual and structural explanations since competing cultural forces shape people’s thinking (Hunt & Bullock, 2016). In examining how financial literacy standards framed individuals’ financial outcomes, I was not looking for an either/or explanation, but rather whether the standards foregrounded one ideological camp more strongly, or if equal attention was given to both perspectives. In what follows I describe the two paradigms in greater detail.


INDIVIDUALISTIC PARADIGMS


Individualistic paradigms are embedded in deficit ideology, proposing that poor individuals are culpable for their poverty and focusing on the alleged inferiority, or deficit, of these individuals rather than the underlying sociopolitical arrangements that produce economic injustice (Bullock et al., 2003; Gorski, 2011). Gorski (2016) posits that “deficit ideology is rooted in the belief that poverty is the natural result of ethical, intellectual, spiritual, and other shortcomings in people who are experiencing it” (p. 381). Deficit ideology operates in various theories that attempt to explain poverty, categorized in Adeola’s (2005) review of the literature as the genetic pathology theory, the culture of poverty thesis, and human capital theory.


The first of these, genetic pathology theory, asserts that inherited genetic traits, particularly intelligence, play a significant role in determining human nature and explaining socioeconomic positions (Adeola, 2005; Valencia, 2010). Though the genetic theory has long been discredited, remnants of stereotypes involving intelligence, race, and poverty still linger in the American public imagination, in part due to high media coverage and wide dissemination of The Bell Curve (Adeola, 2005; Valencia, 2010). Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994) contentious book, attempting to link low intelligence to poverty and other social ills, “ranks as one of the most sustained treatises on genetic pathology deficit thinking ever published in regard to the poor and people of color” (Valencia, 2010, p. 47). Other publications that utilize the genetic pathology model of deficit thinking have garnered public interest as recently as 2008 with Richard Lynn’s (2008) book, The Global Bell Curve (Valencia, 2010).


The culture of poverty thesis, first coined by Oscar Lewis in 1959, continues to appear in contemporary discourses on poverty, most prominently in Ruby Payne’s (2003) A Framework for Understanding Poverty, frequently used in teachers’ professional development workshops (e.g., Bomer et al., 2008; Gorski, 2008; Ng & Rury, 2006; Prins & Schafft, 2009; Thomas, 2010). Like other deficit theories, the culture of poverty thesis employs a “blame-the-victim” mentality, arguing that people who are poor make up a subculture with a value system deviant from that of mainstream society, which ultimately sustains and perpetuates their poverty (Adeola, 2005; Kaufelt, 1994). According to this thesis, cultural values associated with poverty include dependence, helplessness, low aspirations, loose moral conducts, familial dysfunction, and a disinterest in education, work, savings, self-development, and success (Adeola, 2005; Kaufelt, 1994; Valencia, 2010).


Human capital theory similarly utilizes the individualistic paradigm, approaching the problem of poverty as one caused by an individual’s lack of investment in human capital (Adeola, 2005). Popularized by Nobel Laureate T. W. Schultz, human capital, or the investment in education, knowledge, experience, health, and nutrition, is directly linked to earnings (Adeola, 2005, p. 63). Viewed this way, human capital theory explains poverty as a result of insufficient interest and effort in attaining experiences that enhance individuals’ competitiveness in the labor market (Adeola, 2005, p. 63). A focus on individuals and their potential for human capital, however, diverts attention away from critiques of the economic structures and labor demand policies that create insecurity and precarity at the outset (Rank, Yoon, & Hirschl, 2003).


Such individualistic explanations of poverty and deficit thinking are often embedded within prevailing cultural narratives that fuel “blame-the-victim” perspectives. Ideas about equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and social mobility in the U.S. and Canadian cultural consciousness express themselves in the ethos of “the American dream,” or “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” mentality, obscuring how broader structures impact poverty and inequality and the way that factors other than merit (luck, inheritance, and connections, for example) play a role in success (Hamilton & Darity, 2009; McNamee & Miller, 2014; Thomas, 2010). Rooted in Protestant ethics, ideas about the opportunity structure emphasize meritocratic notions of individual responsibility, including independence, self-reliance, rugged individualism, hard work, and the free enterprise system (Adeola, 2005; Kaufelt, 1994).


In particular, the story of the American Dream in which America is a land of opportunity and anyone with enough effort, virtue, and talent can achieve success appeals to popular common sense (McNamee & Miller, 2014). Echoing Protestant ethics, the American Dream “posits that opportunities for success, while differential, are available to the talented and industrious, irrespective of initial circumstances of disadvantage” (Schlozman, Brady, & Verba, 2012, p. 81). The few studies focusing on attributions for wealth cite explanations consistent with this meritocratic worldview, such as intelligence, talent, personal drive, effort, careful money management, and a willingness to take risks (Furnham, 1983; Hunt, 2004; Smith, 1985).


Using an assortment of data, Schlozman et al. (2012) demonstrate that rags-to-riches stories in the United States are not universal or even common but rather exceptional cases; most people throughout their lifetimes remain close to the social position with which they started. Yet, myths about large numbers of singular individuals beating insurmountable odds through their own efforts continue to be drivers of national education policy (Berliner, 2013) and to inform public attitudes about people who are poor in a way that draws away attention from the structural causes of poverty (Adeola, 2005; Rank, 2005).


Canada also harbours its own myth about social mobility and progress. Writing about poverty narratives in Canada, Rimstead (2001) argues that the national imaginary, through dominant concepts such as “the Canadian and American Dream of social mobility or the notion of national building itself as an inevitable, evolutionary step towards ‘development’ and wealth subtly exclude the poor from the national imaginary by virtue of narratives of prosperity and progress” (p. 7). Projecting “real” poverty as occurring elsewhere historically or geographically (Rimstead, 2001), narratives of progress often mask the structural causes of present-day poverty in Canada.


STRUCTURAL PARADIGMS


Baptist and Rehmann (2011) stress that explanations for poverty based on culture, psychology, or individual behavior disregard its structural causes. Such “commonsense” notions of poverty are based on “stereotypes and misconceptions of poor people that are institutionalized and perpetuated in the mainstream media and in the national culture writ large” (Banks, 2013, p. ix). “Bad” individual decisions, as Baptist and Rehmann (2011) point out, cannot account for mass impoverishment in the case of the deindustrialized “Rust Belt” or for the plight of the working poor (p. 29). In these instances, poverty results not from a lack of hard work and determination but from overexploitation and scarcity of sustainable jobs, making it difficult to escape one’s circumstances (2011, p. 29).


Rank et al. (2003) argue also that individual-level interpretations of impoverishment lack credibility against the “life span analysis,” the idea that most Americans will encounter poverty at some point during their lifetimes. Systematic and widespread examples include the Great Depression, economically depressed areas such as rural Appalachia and urban inner cities, and the current economic climate where unemployment is extensive (Rank et al., 2003). Thus, the ubiquitous nature of poverty points to failures in structural conditions and flawed institutions rather than individual shortcomings. Structural explanations for poverty identify changing economic conditions emanating from deindustrialization, globalization, and high-tech capitalism causing job loss, eroding wages, outsourcing, and unstable working environments (Adeola, 2005; Baptist & Rehmann, 2011). From a structural vantage point, poverty is also induced by systemic factors such as institutionalized racism and sexism that lead to racial and gender wealth gaps (Block, 2017; Hamilton & Darity, 2009).   


Adherents to structural ideology also foreground a host of socioeconomic and political structure barriers, including the ineffectiveness of social insurance programs to lift people out of poverty, weakening labor unions and diminishing workers’ rights, and the already unequal distribution of wealth inherent in modern capitalist societies that continues to grow due to economic and social policies favoring the wealthy and exploiting the poor (Adeola, 2005; Bullock et al., 2003; Rank et al., 2003). Mirroring structural attributions for poverty, structural explanations for wealth focus on sociopolitical and economic conditions. Examples include a taxation system that advantages the rich, political pull to influence policy in favor of the affluent, money inherited from family, better educational and vocational opportunities, and an economic system in which pronounced inequality is inherent (Furnham, 1983; Hunt, 2004; Smith, 1985).


METHODS


DATA SOURCES


This research reports on state standards from 43 curriculum documents in provinces, territories, and states that have developed standalone financial literacy courses or integrated personal finance standards within existing social studies frameworks. At the time of the study, The Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories used the provincial British Columbia and Alberta curricula respectively. As such, I used six documents representing eight provinces and/or territories in Canada. The remaining 36 documents were from the United States. Because several states referenced the National Standards for Financial Literacy, (Council for Economic Education, 2013), and California listed it as a resource upon which teachers could base their instruction (California Department of Education, 2013), I included this influential document. Fifteen states and five provinces were not included in the study because, to my knowledge, they lacked official state-sanctioned standards or substantial content for analysis at the time.


The study focused primarily on state-level curriculum standards, which are generally defined as “the expectations of what students need to know and be able to do at the end of each grade” (Colorado Department of Education, 2014, para. 3), commonly referred to as curriculum standards, state standards, learning standards, academic standards, or content standards in the United States and curriculum outcomes or expectations in Canada. Because of the widespread use of the term standards in literature on standards-based curriculum reform, and for clarity and consistency, I use the term standards to refer to both U.S. and Canadian variations in this article.


I also analyzed any text in the social studies curriculum frameworks within which the standards were situated. The introductory remarks, for example, provided a rationale for the standards, often revealing a set of values and beliefs that guided the rest of the document. Whenever financial literacy standards appeared within another strand, such as career education, I analyzed only the financial literacy standards to limit the study to financial literacy material. Focusing only high school (Grades 9–12) content, I examined approximately 660 pages of text, the majority of which was produced within the last decade.


While the documents ranged in length from Delaware’s one page of personal finance standards to Oklahoma’s 24 pages, most documents were similar in their overall framing. One exception was Ontario’s Financial Literacy: Scope and Sequence of Expectations, with its 207 pages and a distinct format: using existing standards from documents in other disciplines—The Arts or Canadian and World Studies, for example (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011). Important to note, however, is that research on standards can only address the intended curriculum as opposed to the enacted or achieved curriculum. In other words, how teachers and students interpret or resist the standards analyzed was beyond the scope of this study.


DATA ANALYSIS


In the first phase of data analysis, I focused on the first research question: What are the implicit ideological assumptions underlying financial literacy standards and what do they suggest about individuals’ financial outcomes? I employed a deductive coding method that involved creating four key analytic questions prior to analysis (Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2014). I developed these questions based on criteria in Chafel’s (1997) and Chafel and Neitzel’s (2005) studies of societal conceptions of poverty as reported by adults and children.


(A) What do the standards suggest about the nature of wealth and poverty?

(B) What do the standards suggest about the explanations for wealth and poverty?

(C) What do the standards suggest are the justifications for unequal financial outcomes?

(D) What do the standards suggest are the solutions to unequal financial outcomes?


My rationale for analyzing what the standards suggested about unequal financial outcomes was based on the fact that financial literacy education’s raison d'être is to prevent individuals from falling into the kind of poverty and financial insecurity experienced as a result of the economic crisis. Thus, the lessons embedded within the standards tell a story—albeit not always overtly—about how positive financial outcomes (wealth)—and their antipode (poverty)—occur.


I conducted a close line-by-line reading of financial literacy standards and related content, searching for text pertaining to each of the four key analytic questions. I then used Miles et al.’s (2014) coding cycles to interpret the data, flagging in the “First Cycle” potential responses to the questions in a preliminary read-through and then rereading several times. Immersing myself in the documents, I used Miles et al.’s (2014) strategy of “jotting” to note my “fleeting and emergent reflections and commentary” on issues that emerged during data analysis (p. 94). These notes included my reflections and reactions to the content, notes to cross-reference other text in the data, and—later—my rationale for coding a passage a certain way. After several read-throughs, I organized the text and the reflections I had collected into an Excel spreadsheet.


Proceeding to the “Second Cycle” of coding, I developed codes that fell into four categories reflecting the key analytic questions, with sub-codes for each. While the main codes were “prefigured” (Creswell, 2013), meaning they were based on the pre-existing analytic questions, the sub-codes were “emergent” to reflect the process of discovering the answers to these questions through a methodical analysis. For instance, the prefigured code “What do the standards suggest are the solutions to unequal financial outcomes?” became Code D, with sub-codes that emerged from the data: D1 (Individuals are responsible for their financial wellbeing), D2 (The government is responsible for the wellbeing of its citizens), and D3 (There is a collective responsibility for citizens to take care of each other (charity, philanthropy, etc.). Some passages were double and even triple coded as they provided information for more than one question. Appendix A illustrates a sample coding scheme that links raw data to Code B (on the explanations of wealth and poverty) and its sub-codes.


While some passages were explicit in providing answers to the questions I was seeking and a simple qualitative data analysis sufficed, in many instances I used critical discourse and ideological analysis to tease out the hidden assumptions. I applied Cormack’s (1992) categories for the method of ideological analysis of cultural products that he sees as “ideology in action” (p. 26) as well as van Dijk’s (1995) techniques for ideological analysis of discursive practices. I detail these methods as I report the findings to demonstrate how I arrived at the conclusions.


I found that passages gathered for the first two key analytic questions (on the nature and explanations for wealth and poverty) reflected individual-level and structural-level paradigms, allowing me to code these passages according to which perspective they subscribed. At this point, I also performed a quantitative analysis of the content, counting the number of social studies curriculum documents with financial literacy standards that included (a) individualistic and (b) structural explanations for poverty. As Miles et al. (2014) suggest, resorting to numbers was a helpful way to protect against bias. Demonstrating how frequently the standards discussed individualistic or structural explanations was one way to triangulate the evidence from the discourse analysis regarding which attributions were emphasized.


With few direct responses to the third and fourth questions (on the justifications and solutions), sometimes the answers to these questions had to be inferred. I deduced the answers based on how the passages had framed the nature and causes of individuals’ financial outcomes in the first and second questions. For example, when the standards foregrounded personal responsibility for one’s economic wellbeing without attention to structural factors, the solutions to poverty logically entailed a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps remedy.


Critical discourse analysis makes prominent not only what is stated or implied, but also what is absent and silenced (van Dijk, 1993). Thus, in the second phase, I focused on the second research question of the study: What are the explicit and nuanced ways in which poverty and the experiences of people who are poor are included or excluded in financial literacy standards?


Here, I employed Cormack’s methods for ideological analysis, using the category of absence. Cormack (1992) understands absence to be less of a missing element in a text and more of an avoidance of an element that may have been expected to be in the text but is missing (p. 31). Such a conception of absence deals with the problem of determining how to agree on what is absent—because the possibilities of what is potentially missing are infinite—especially if one is willing to accept absence at the level of probability (Cormack, 1992, p. 31). Cormack illustrates this idea of avoidance with the example of a work of fiction that claims to represent everyday life but has no major female characters—reminding the reader that part of determining an absence is “working out what the text is claiming (however implicitly) to represent” (Cormack, 1992, p. 31). For van Dijk (1995), the issue of absence has to do with what he calls de-topicalization, where undesirable interpretations of social and political events are generally not covered in ingroup discourse (p. 28). An example of de-topicalization is in the way that minority crimes are frequently reported by the media, whereas everyday discrimination by elites (professors, police, journalists, etc.) is less prominent (van Dijk, 1995, p. 28).


In the context of this study, I used the category of absence in two ways. First, I determined absences using literature outside the financial literacy standards themselves to detect what topics have been avoided—or what ought to be present in financial literacy standards but is missing. I used various studies reviewed earlier (e.g., Arthur, 2012c; Pinto & Chan, 2010) to compare and contrast the curriculum resources previously investigated with the standards in this study to determine content that was de-topicalized. Arthur (2012c), for example, observes how financial literacy resources tend to avoid issues like child poverty, the causes and effects of growing wealth disparity in Canada and globally, or the destructive effects of capitalism. Thus, previous studies of other financial literacy resources inspired the topics for which I searched during data analysis. Topics also surfaced from the discrepancies within the curriculum frameworks themselves, such as a document claiming to be applicable to all socioeconomic groups in its introduction but failing to mention poverty or class in the subsequent sections of the document. For a sample of how an absence was analyzed using critical discourse analysis, see Appendix B.


My method for noting absences in the standards involved reading each document line-by-line, recording the topics I had identified when they emerged, and keeping count of how frequently the topics appeared, if at all (Miles et al., 2014). At the end of this phase, I also searched the documents for words such as “poor,” “poverty,” “wealth/y,” “social services/ programs/ security,” “capitali/st/sm,” “race,” “gender,” “inequality,” and “disparity” as an additional measure to ensure that I had not omitted any critical references in the read-through.


Finally, as I proceeded through each phase I also noted what I considered instances that were outliers—they were unique in their potential for critical inquiry—as a way to prevent self-selecting biases (Miles et al., 2014). Another way to ensure the trustworthiness of the analysis was to compare the findings with other sources (Miles et al., 2014). I found that the findings in this study were consistent with other studies of financial literacy initiatives discussed in the section on critiques of financial literacy education, which further corroborated my conclusions.


FINDINGS


This section reports on how I employed ideological and critical discourse analysis in the data analysis and the results that surfaced from the study in two parts.


PART I: CONTENT (WHAT IS IMPLIED ABOUT FINANCIAL OUTCOMES)


The Nature of Wealth and Poverty


Synchronic structure occurs where an opposition of terms, and thereby values, is implied throughout a text rather than developed in a linear manner (Cormack, 1992, p. 30). To illustrate, Cormack (1992) reminds us of Ronald Reagan’s famous reference to the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire,” which, as an implied opposition, contrasts with the United States as “the Good Nation” or “the Defender of the Free World” (p. 30). I used synchronic structure to infer what the standards presupposed about the nature of poverty by examining contrasting statements about the kind of individual attributes that characterize its opposite—wealth. For example, the Arkansas personal financial management standards asserted that “education, training, and other factors […] (e.g., interpersonal skills, workforce readiness skills, ethics)” influence “productivity and income potential” (Arkansas Department of Education, 2014, p. 10). Ohio’s Financial Literacy Academic Content Standards similarly listed “many factors” that affect gross income, including “competencies (knowledge and skills), commitment (motivation and enthusiasm), training, work ethic, abilities and attitude” in “impacting one’s earning potential” (Ohio Department of Education, 2012, p. 1).


In both instances the standards did not explicitly state that only personal factors influence one’s financial status. Yet, because none of the “many factors” listed in these statements—or anywhere else in the documents where the standards were located—cited influences such as the role of gender, job availability, or fair wage policies in earning potential, the implied takeaway was that personal efforts matter most. The subtext signalled that in order to reach the top of the income distribution, one must possess the appropriate mindset, abilities, and behavior. To land at the bottom implies a personal deficiency.


Judgements, another category of ideological analysis, arise in a text through explicit statements that make values and beliefs perceptible (Cormack, 1992, p. 28). Judgements surfaced through the morally charged language used to discuss personal finance in the standards. When financial responsibility was tied to ethics and morals the understood message was that high moral character is required to productively contribute to society. This idea was exemplified in standards discussing how “morals and values affect wants and needs and consequently financial decisions” (South Dakota Department of Education, 2011, p. 2), how factors such as “a sound work ethic . . . affect gross income” (Ohio Department of Education, 2012, p. 1), and how individuals’ “ethics” impact “economic decisions” (New York State Education Department, 2015, p. 48). A standard such as “effective money management is a disciplined behavior” (Oklahoma State Department of Education, 2009, p. 5) inferentially cast a person with limited financial resources as undisciplined, without considering external factors and circumstances beyond their control. Budgeting was framed as “living within one’s means” (Oregon State Board of Education, 2011, p. 17) or the “ability to live on less than you earn” (Oklahoma State Department of Education, 2009, p. 7), supposing that whether earnings outweigh the cost of food, shelter, and other necessities is always a matter of choice and personal decision-making.


Vocabulary or lexicalization in critical discourse analysis has to do with the selection of descriptive language and its ideological implications, such as referring to particular groups as either “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” (Cormack, 1992, p. 28; van Dijk, 1995, p. 26). Euphemisms, for instance, are often employed to mitigate the harsher implications of more direct language (van Dijk, 1995). With regards to this study, the language of “cultural values” in the financial literacy standards examined surmised that certain cultures are better at financial decision-making than others. For instance, standards underscored the influence of culture in building financial acumen by asking students to analyze how “cultural values may impact financial decisions” (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2006, p. 5) or how “cultural influences affect the use of all of one’s personal resources” (Alberta Learning, 2002, p. 9).


Likewise, the Oklahoma standards declared that “personal financial literacy is not an absolute state” but rather “a continuum of abilities that is subject to variables such as age, family, culture, and residence” (Oklahoma State Department of Education, 2009, p. 3). The standards highlighting the role of “culture” also discussed the impact of “personal values” on spending and financial decisions (e.g., Alberta Learning, 2002, p. 9). In controlling the discourse (van Dijk, 1995) by including “personal values” alongside references to “culture,” the standards abated the questionable implications of attributing negative financial behaviors to differences in “culture,” which could be interpreted to mean ethnicity, race, or social class (e.g., “culture of poverty”).


In total, 28 out of the 43 social studies curriculum documents examined (about 65%) included clear and direct references to individual factors, including character traits, habits, dispositions, and personal and cultural values as determinants of effective financial behavior.


The Explanations of Wealth and Poverty


Individualistic explanations. The individualistic paradigm framing financial outcomes as determined by individual factors was dominant across the standards examined through the prevalence of explicit and implicit references to personal responsibility. Explicit references presented financial health as a choice, clearly stating that individuals are personally accountable for their economic situation without recognizing systemic inequities and sociopolitical conditions constraining those choices. Standards centered on individual agency by asking students to “explain the importance of taking responsibility for personal financial decisions” (Alabama Learning Exchange, 2009, para. 5) and “recognize that individuals are responsible for their own financial transactions and subsequent positive and negative consequences” (Utah Education Network, 2015, p. 1). In total, 12 out of the 43 curriculum documents (about 28%) contained explicit references to personal responsibility.


While implicit references did not use the language of “personal responsibility,” they conveyed a similar message emphasizing financial behavior such as consuming, saving, and investing which, according to the standards, lead to self-sufficiency and even to national economic stability. Regarding the individual benefits of financial literacy, numerous standards considered how it helps “families to maintain economic self-sufficiency” (Vermont Department of Education, n.d., p. 4) and students to “become self-supporting adults who can make informed decisions relating to personal financial matters” (The Texas Education Agency, 2010, p. 73). Other standards went as far as to link personal finance to the health of the national economy, stating that “economics and personal financial literacy are essential to function effectively in personal lives, as participants in a global economy, and as citizens contributing to a strong national economy” (Colorado Department of Education, 2009, p. 19). Maintaining that “the economic stability of our communities and the resulting growth of our state’s economy are influenced by personal financial literacy” (Maryland State Department of Education, 2010, p. 8), the introduction to the Maryland document attributed both personal and national economic wellbeing to the individual financial literacy of its citizens.


By virtue of the fact that all the financial literacy standards and their accompanying text emphasized individual efforts and actions in achieving economic security, personal responsibility was espoused by every one of the 43 frameworks in the study. Table 1 and Table 2 show the percentage of curriculum documents (out of 43) with at least one reference to individualistic paradigms and the percentage of documents with at least one reference to structural paradigms.


Table 1. List of Curriculum Documents with at Least One Reference to Individualistic Explanations


Individualistic paradigm

Curriculum document

 

Percentage of documents

Character traits, habits, and values

Alabama

Arizona

Arkansas

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maryland

Missouri

Nebraska

Nevada

New Jersey

New York

North Carolina

Ohio

Oklahoma

South Dakota

Tennessee

Utah

Virginia

West Virginia

Wisconsin

National Standards

Alberta

Manitoba

Ontario

65%

Personal responsibility

All

 

100%



Table 2. List of Curriculum Documents with at Least One Reference to Structural Explanations


Structural paradigm

Curriculum document

Percentage of documents

Thin structural explanations

Alabama

Colorado

Delaware

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Missouri

Nebraska

Nevada

New York

Ohio

Tennessee

Utah

30%

Thick structural explanations

Connecticut

Florida

Maryland

New Jersey

South Carolina

Virginia

Wisconsin

National Standards

Manitoba

Newfoundland

Ontario

26%


Within this study, structural explanations fell into two categories: “thin” and “thick.”


Thin structural explanations. Standards with thin structural explanations were marked by vague language alluding to various trends impacting financial wellbeing without explaining them or their effects. For instance, these types of standards referred to “economic conditions” that “affect income” (Indiana Department of Education, 2008, p. 3; Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2005, p. 1), “the impact of global issues on financial planning” (Iowa Department of Education, 2010, p. 38) and “employment trends and reasons for growth and decline in employment” (Nebraska Department of Education, 2012, p. 10). Characteristic of these standards was the lack of concrete examples when factors such as “circumstances” that can “change personal financial priorities” (Kansas State Department of Education, 2013, p. 6) and “events in the general economy” were introduced (Ohio Department of Education, 2012, p. 1).


In total, 13 of the 43 curriculum documents (about 30%) contained thin structural explanations. In fact, in 5 of the 13 documents, “economic conditions” was the only reference to any contextual factors impacting income and financial planning.   


Thick structural explanations. Certain financial literacy standards attended to richer explanations, illustrating specific external determinants restricting one’s ability to attain employment or achieve a comfortable standard of living. Thick structural explanations included standards that asked students to “discuss how income from employment is affected by factors, such as supply and demand, geographic location, level of education, type of industry” and “union membership” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2014, p. 2). They also required students to


identify economic and societal trends (e.g., globalization, developments in information technology, the changing role of unions and professional organizations, outsourcing or ‘contracting out’, emerging work-style alternatives, self-employment, entrepreneurship, changing demographics) and explain how they influence available job opportunities and work environments (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011, p. 106).


In total, only 11 of the 43 social curriculum documents with financial literacy standards surveyed (about 26%) referenced thick structural explanations. None of the structural references, however, discussed structural attributions for wealth such as access to better life opportunities, intergenerational wealth transfers, or tax loopholes for the rich. When structurally oriented explanations for poverty appeared, they often failed to engage the structural paradigm in any meaningful way. For instance, even thicker structural references, emerging in about 26% of the curriculum documents, were still situated among prevailing references to individual factors. One compelling example was Connecticut’s Business and Finance Technology Education Frameworks, instructing students to “Discuss how income from employment is affected by factors, such as supply and demand, geographic location, level of education, type of industry, union membership, productivity, skill level and work ethic” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2014, p. 2). In this standard, structural attributions in the form of supply and demand, geographic location, and union membership were weighted as heavily as individual-level ones such as productivity, skill level, and work ethic.


Even discussions of the economic downturn were framed in individualistic terms, such as this Maryland passage:


With the nation currently in the midst of a financial crisis, far too many people are deeply in debt and are faced with the reality of losing their homes and their financial security. The events of the last decade point to the need for a more focused approach to personal finance instruction for students, both while they are in school and in the future. (Maryland State Department of Education, 2010, p. 8)


While the passage located the precarious financial conditions of many Americans structurally, namely in the events leading up to and during the financial collapse, its individual-level response—personal finance instruction—was deficit oriented. Central, here, was the idea that needing fixing are the money management habits of individual citizens rather than the flawed institutions and practices of the financial system.


The Justifications for Unequal Financial Outcomes


Because most of the financial literacy standards in this study did not openly engage the issue of unequal financial outcomes, the analysis did not capture any passages answering directly the question whether it is fair that some people are rich and others are poor. However, whether unequal financial outcomes are justified, as well as the following question on possible solutions, was inferred from how the passages responded to the first two questions on the nature and explanations of wealth and poverty (Questions A and B). As shown in Table 1, the standards overwhelmingly attributed financial success and failure as emanating from personal factors, conveying that individuals are ultimately personally responsible for and deserving of their economic position in life.


One introduction, in the Council for Economic Education’s (2013) National Standards for Financial Literacy, addressed, however obliquely, unequal financial outcomes:


People who work, spend, save, borrow, invest, and manage risk wisely are less likely to require a government rescue. To be sure, financial literacy does not eliminate the need for a social safety net; even the most prudent individual can encounter financial difficulties. Government also necessarily regulates financial markets to prevent illegal or abusive practices and to ensure disclosure of pertinent financial information. However, most of the responsibility for managing financial matters rests with the individual. (Council for Economic Education, 2013, p. vi)


This passage recognized that anyone can encounter financial trouble and that the government (through social welfare services and financial regulation) plays a part in the financial wellbeing of citizens. Yet, the authors reverted to shifting the burden for financial security from the government to the individual and also used a semantic strategy that van Dijk (1995) calls a disclaimer of the apparent concession (p. 27). A disclaimer of the apparent concession appears to acknowledge a problem, but ultimately fails to make a concession, as this reproduction of discourse illustrates: “There are of course a few small racist groups in the Netherlands, but on the whole . . . ” (van Dijk, 1995, p. 27). Similarly, the National Standards for Financial Literacy passage cited above appeared to recognize the need for government intervention, but in the end “redistributed” (van Dijk, 2002, p. 186) the responsibility for financial security to the individual. Such a strategy resulted in a “positive self-description” of the authors as outward supporters of social policies designed to help vulnerable individuals and a “negative other-presentation” (van Dijk, 1995, p. 27) of people who “require a government rescue.” The passage ultimately justified and naturalized unequal financial outcomes while projecting an image of the authors as rational and objective (van Dijk, 1995).


The Solutions to Unequal Financial Outcomes


Considering the prevalence of explicit and implicit references to personal responsibility, it follows that the solutions to inequality primarily rest with the individual. Only 11 of the 43 curriculum frameworks studied (about 26%) discussed social welfare programs. The following standard from Florida illustrates the way in which social programs were portrayed in the learning standards that included the topic:


Discuss the fact that, in addition to privately purchased insurance, some government benefit programs provide a social safety net to protect individuals from economic hardship created by unexpected events. Remarks/Examples: Describe examples of government transfer programs that compensate for unexpected losses, including Social Security Disability benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation. (Florida Department of Education, 2015, sec. SS.912.FL.6.8)


Here, the need for a social safety net was predicated on “unexpected events” only, without addressing the permanent sociopolitical conditions that guarantee an inequitable distribution of wealth. Missouri and Alabama also mentioned government transfer programs in the context of relating “taxes, government transfer payments, and employee benefits to disposable income” (Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2005, p. 1) but left out any discussion about the structural and systemic conditions creating the need for such programs.


Other departures from the usual individualistic conceptions occurred in curriculum frameworks that discussed charitable giving. Nine in total, standards in this category asked students to “connect the role of charitable giving, volunteer service, and philanthropy to community development and quality of life” (Indiana Department of Education, 2008, p. 3) or to “explain the costs and benefits of charitable giving” (Oklahoma State Department of Education, 2009, p. 13). These examples alluded to some collective responsibility for citizens to take care of each other but still framed it in terms of cost and benefit. More importantly, none explored the question of why, in as wealthy a nation as the United States, anyone would need to rely on charity.


PART II: ABSENCES (WHAT IS MISSING)


Poverty and Socioeconomics


With the exception of financial literacy standards in five documents, the other 38 documents in which I examined the standards never mentioned the words “social class,” “socioeconomic status,” “poverty,” or “poor.” Instead, the topics and the choice discourse that marked these standards were based on middle-class assumptions about how the world works. The majority discussed sound financial planning including saving, investing, and insurance as a way to protect against risk but did not consider what happens when one cannot afford to save, invest, or insure in the first place. While few standards reflected the realities of students from low-income families, most promoted some version of financial planning expressing middle-class aspirations. Examples of criteria identified by the Institute for Research on Poverty (2010) for typical middle class goals (car ownership, home ownership, college education for children, etc.) abounded.


Nowhere was the trend toward a middle-class orientation more evident than in the following excerpt from the National Standards for Financial Literacy:   


A high school senior has many expenses, including yearbook, class ring, homecoming, graduation announcements, senior pictures, cap and gown, college visits and application fees, and numerous prom-related expenditures. In addition, students may be responsible for ongoing expenses such as car insurance, gas for their car, clothes, cell phone, entertainment, and personal care items. (Council for Economic Education, 2013, p. 9)


Budgeting for a class ring and car insurance were presented as if they are universal teenage experiences. Here, the middle-class (and even the upper-class) experience was privileged, despite an introduction claiming that the document has been “designed to apply to all socioeconomic student groups” (Council for Economic Education, 2013, p. v). The only qualification to this taken-for-granted assumption about a typical senior student’s expenses appeared in the following text: “Incomes can change for a variety of reasons, such as hours are reduced at a part-time job, gift money received is smaller than expected, or parents are unable to provide the level of financial support anticipated” (Council for Economic Education, 2013, p. 9).


Another example of the centrality of the middle-class experience came from Manitoba. The teaching unit, Money in the Economy, asked teachers to “introduce the unit by bringing an actual item or a picture of something that the students would like to purchase (e.g., rock concert or hockey tickets, a new laptop, big screen TV, new bicycle)” (Canadian Foundation for Economic Education, 2014a, p. 3). The assumption here was that all students are in an economic position where these items are within reach. For certain students, however, money signifies more than access to a concert or a big screen TV. Money can mean whether they will have a place to sleep at night or whether they will attend school hungry.


In contrast to the prevalence of the middle-class experience, only 10 of the 43 documents mentioned social programs beneficial to people on low-income. Examples included: “Describe ways people in the community can benefit from local government assistance programs” (Indiana Department of Education, 2008, p. 3) and “explain the roles of Social Security, employer retirement plans, and personal investments (e.g., annuities, IRAs, real estate, stocks, and bonds) as sources of retirement income” (Oklahoma State Department of Education, 2009, p. 10). None of these references to government assistance programs delved into larger systemic issues demanding the existence of such programs or how one might navigate them.


Social Supports


Arthur (2012c) believes that as critical citizens, financial literacy students should be aware of the financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills required of individuals and families with low incomes. Speaking about financial literacy resources in Ontario, Arthur (2012c) posits that given the level of poverty in the province, financial literacy education ought to teach students about navigating the welfare system, food banks, and the unemployment insurance system. Akin to Ontario, few standards broached these topics. Because such lessons were often omitted from financial literacy education, low-income students were further marginalized within the curriculum, reproducing the disenfranchisement that already occurs outside of school. A notable exception was Tennessee’s Personal Finance Standards asking students to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and to “identify strategies for reducing the overall cost of postsecondary education, including the impact of scholarships, grants, work study, and other assistance” (Tennessee Department of Education, 2014, p. 1).


Labor Unions


Unions are the last remaining organizations advocating on behalf of ordinary workers who are not professionals or managers (Schlozman et al., 2012, p. 87). Yet, only five states or provinces in the study included standards discussing unions. The decline of union membership over the last 40 years and the consequences for low-wage workers as well as the middle class in receiving a fair share of economic growth was left unexamined for the most part. References to unions were limited and vague. Consider, for example, one of West Virginia’s elusive standards requiring students to “explore how benefits packages, union and professional organizations impact lifestyle” (West Virginia Department of Education, 2012, p. 106). Topics like public pensions and minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, the role of unions in broadening access to basic supports, or reducing the pay gap between workers and management (Campbell & Yalnizyan, 2011) were excluded from the majority of the standards.


As an exception, Ontario raised issues that are more likely to generate critical inquiry, such as asking students to “identify and describe important challenges to Canadian unions and workers posed by globalization and offshore industries” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011). Manitoba, too, was an exception, dedicating an entire page on the benefits of union membership to positive financial outcomes, including higher earnings—especially for women, people of color, and low-wage workers (Canadian Foundation for Economic Education, 2014b, p. 10). The document outlined other benefits to union membership such as health and pension benefits, more leisure time, safer working conditions, and increased access to information.


Economic Inequality


In the United States, the top 0.1% of families now own approximately the same share of wealth as the bottom 90% (Saez & Zucman, 2014). Not only are the rich becoming richer, but also the poor are becoming poorer. For example, in Canada, the top 10% of Canadians have seen their median net worth grow by 42% since 2005 while the bottom 10% saw their median net worth fall by 150% (Broadbent Institute, 2014). Such high levels of inequality are not only detrimental to the poor but also to society as a whole, resulting in the unequal distribution of power, political instability, and a variety of health and social problems that are between three and 10 times more common in unequal societies than in more equal ones (Bartels, 2016; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010).


Considering that economic inequality is often cited as one of the defining challenges of our time in public and political discourse, it is striking that standards designed to teach students about economics and finances are overwhelmingly silent on this topic. Only four of the 43 curriculum frameworks examined (less than 10%) mentioned economic inequality. However, even these four neglected to delve into questions of wealth distribution and how the critical issue of soaring economic inequality affects societal and individual financial health.


First, New Hampshire referred to economic inequality in one of its themes, as a way to “encourage higher-order thinking” in students (New Hampshire Department of Education, 2006, p. 7). “Theme H” of the K-12 Social Studies Curriculum Framework was to explore such “essential questions as: Why is there disparity between the rich and the poor?” (New Hampshire Department of Education, 2006, p. 9). While the document notes that the themes “are not to be understood as required standards in their own right” (p. 7), one would expect “an essential question” to be developed at a later point, especially in a section teaching about money. Yet, the words “poverty,” “wealth,” or “disparity,” did not appear in the financial literacy standards.


South Carolina’s financial literacy standards also referred to economic inequality. However, this singular reference was not an actual learning standard. Located in a section titled “Implementation,” it advised educators to vary teaching methodologies and mentioned the importance of understanding “economic disparities among various racial and ethnic groups” (South Carolina Department of Education, 2009, p. 17). However, nowhere else in the South Carolina document were the topics of race and ethnicity as they relate to economic disparities approached. Instead, the standards were typical of other financial literacy standards, containing only consumerist, uncritical objectives, such as “apply consumer skills to purchase decisions” (South Carolina Department of Education, 2009, p. 13).


Newfoundland’s Social Studies: Canadian Economy 2203 also mentioned unequal wealth distribution in the introduction to Unit 5, which allowed teachers to select two of four topics: distribution of income and standard of living, sustainability, technology, and personal finance. The introduction declared: “After learning about money, students realize that the world’s wealth and resources are not distributed evenly. There is a distinction made between ‘developed nations’ and ‘developing nations,’ and ‘have’ provinces and ‘have not’ provinces” (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education, 2004, p. 77). Later, students were asked to research the reasons for these designations as well as to write a short newspaper article on the causes of poverty and the solutions available to combat the problem in Canada.


Ontario, too, referred to economic inequality several times, including asking students to “analyse the causes of selected examples of regional economic disparity (e.g., in Aboriginal communities)” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011, p. 57) and “analyse the causes and implications of Canadian regional differences (e.g., economic disparity between Central and Atlantic Canada ...)” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011, p. 71). Nevertheless, neither Newfoundland and Ontario addressed how wealth concentrated in the hands of an elite few affects ordinary Canadians’ ability to build wealth and prosper.


The Nature of Capitalism


In the standards examined, capitalism and the free market system were positioned as natural, universal, and inevitable. For example, Ohio’s financial literacy standards stated that “although government policies and/or programs impact many aspects of economic activity in the U.S., a free market economy remains as the underlying economic philosophy and provides the setting within which the individual can exercise choice” (Ohio Department of Education, 2012, p. 1). The Texas economics course within which the financial literacy learning standards were situated, Economics with Emphasis on the Free Enterprise System and Its Benefits (The Texas Education Agency, 2010), exemplified the ideological commitment to the view of capitalism as absolute. The assumption underlying the course’s title left no room for students to question their unexamined beliefs about their nation’s economic arrangement or to assess the shortcomings of the free enterprise system. Across the Canadian and U.S. documents examined, students were asked to explain, identify, and participate in the economic system, but never to question, problematize, or imagine an alternative one. In 41 of the 43 curriculum frameworks examined the word “capitalism” did not appear in the financial literacy content.


As Baptist and Rehmann (2011) contend, “the structures and power relations of high-tech capitalism that accelerated the spread of the precarious conditions and engendered the economic crisis have been successfully banned from the official discourse” (p. 2). The closest to a criticism of the current economic structures in the content examined were the learning standards related to predatory lending practices, a contributing factor to the 2008 financial crisis. Such standards were framed this way: “identify the types and characteristics of predatory lending practices (e.g., payday loans, car title loans, high-risk mortgages)” (State of New Jersey Department of Education, 2014, p. 12) or “discuss the negative impacts of predatory and pay day lending practices” (Utah Education Network, 2015, p. 3). However, the references to predatory lending were divorced from the larger context of capitalist financial structures that are inherently exploitative of the powerless and the poor.


Ontario’s document was again an anomaly. One of its learning standards asked students to “assess how the continuing forces of capitalism and free enterprise have affected Canada since 1945” and included examples such as “exploitation of natural resources,” “deregulation and privatization of Crown corporations,” “environmental degradation,” “increase in part-time employment,” and “economic disparities” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011, p. 65). This particular passage was the only one I found explicitly addressing capitalism’s detrimental effects.


DISCUSSION


Ideological and critical discourse analysis of U.S. and Canadian state standards revealed that financial literacy education in secondary school curricula frames financial outcomes in individualistic and deficit-based ways. Paying little attention to the broader economic and sociopolitical contexts in which taking control of finances is progressively more difficult for hard-pressed families, the majority of the standards analyzed were organized around the idea that personal optimization and self-discipline are the key to financial security. Anchored in the ideology of merit, the standards advanced that society is fair and anyone with enough willpower, work ethic, and financial smarts has an equal chance to succeed. Those who have failed, proceeds this meritocratic line of thinking, have only themselves to blame.


The implications of the findings are threefold. First, without attending to the socioeconomic conditions and the pressing political and economic issues of the present era, the standards deprive both low-income students and their more affluent peers of grappling with the genuine causes of wealth and poverty. While the standards studied projected a meritocratic worldview, we know from research that society is neither equal nor fair and that race, class, gender, and geography, among a host of other factors, are significant predictors of socioeconomic status (Alejo Vázquez Pimentel, Macías Aymar, & Lawson, 2018; Blau & Gielen, 2012; Block, 2017; Hamilton & Darity, 2009; Taylor, Kochhar, Fry, Velasco, & Motel, 2011).


Less significant are the kind of financial know-how and decision-making around education, career, and financial matters advocated by the standards. Yet, the lessons put forth in the documents examined focused almost exclusively on personal finance and individual agency. According to the standards, students are to cultivate the right attitudes, knowledge, and skills for financial success. The backdrop of skyrocketing economic inequality, neoliberal policies that have weakened social protections, and a volatile labor market (Piketty, 2014; Stiglitz, 2012) against which they are to do so was, however, missing from the standards. But an infinite amount of financial prudence on the part of individuals cannot overcome the realities of labor market discrimination, structural unemployment, stagnating wages, or unaffordable housing.


Thus, to attribute financial security and wealth attainment to mere personal effort, as the standards do, is to tell an incomplete story about how individuals come to occupy their positions on the socioeconomic spectrum. Left out from the standards, so deeply steeped in meritocratic ideology, were discussions about the numerous social mechanisms that generate inequalities. Just as poverty does not primarily stem from personal failure, wealth is not solely the product of individual ambition, contrary to popular portrayals of this trope in American Dream narratives. Individuals occupying the top echelons of the wealth pyramid prosper not only because they are talented, driven, and financially savvy—and therefore more deserving—but because the current system works in their favor.


For instance, political influence in the form of corporate lobbying, political action committees, and deregulated campaign contributions ensures advantageous economic outcomes for the affluent, including offshore tax breaks and domestic tax loopholes (Bartels, 2016; Broadbent Institute, 2018; Lafer, 2017). Economic elites also benefit from intergenerational transfers of wealth, inherited advantages, and the transmission of middle and upper-class social and cultural capital, including “opportunity hoarding” by parents to secure the best schools, internships, networking opportunities, and employment for their children (Bullock et al., 2003; Ermisch, Jäntti, & Smeeding, 2012; Hamilton & Darity, 2009; Reeves, 2017; Silva, 2013). In short, the financial literacy standards examined in this study overlooked a crucial lesson about money: the family one is born into matters significantly (Chetty, Hendren, Kline, & Saez, 2014; Freeman, Han, Madland, & Duke, 2015).


Further undermining the message in the standards that education and training lead to financial security and upward mobility is the reality of a higher education system that is exacerbating inequality and poverty (Mettler, 2014). No longer a guarantee to climbing the economic ladder, college education is becoming less accessible to low-income communities. Of those who can afford some type of college education, students often attend less selective institutions with lower success rates, and if they manage to finish, they struggle to find decent paying jobs while repaying crippling loans that once held the promise of opportunity (Mettler, 2014; Silva, 2013). The myth that poor and other marginalized individuals are less likely to value education or possess a strong work ethic continues to pervade popular culture and education circles (Prins & Schafft, 2009; Valencia & Black, 2002). Thus, it is especially problematic for financial literacy standards to embrace the “college for all” ideology (Silva, 2013) without also addressing the pernicious consequences of pursuing higher education as a path to social mobility.


A second implication of the findings in this study is that financial literacy, as currently conceived in state standards, is emblematic of the way deficit thinking permeates educational discourse and further marginalizes already vulnerable populations. Neglecting to address the myths and realities of unequal financial outcomes, financial literacy standards risk casting low-income students and their families as deficient for failing to secure financial wellbeing on their own. In this way, financial literacy standards are guilty of perpetuating prevailing societal views that the economically disenfranchised are to blame for their plight while the rich are simply rewarded for their hard work and financial discipline.


As such, financial literacy education needs to be understood in the context of a larger trend of current educational initiatives aiming to fix the individual rather than the system. Grit theory—the idea that fostering resilience and perseverance helps economically vulnerable students overcome any odds stacked against them—and the family literacy movement—programs that blame academic failure on the lack of involvement from families of poor and minority children—have been similarly criticized (Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2016). These initiatives appeal to common sense by appearing to appreciate the inequities students encounter in achieving success. But rather than advocate for responsive policy interventions, they problematically fixate on students’ and families’ attitudes and habits (Gorski, 2016; Milner, 2013). Financial literacy advocates particularly, in citing the Great Recession and its aftermath as a rationale for financial literacy education, at once recognize and discount the sociopolitical conditions of the economic crisis by choosing to focus primarily on individuals’ financial grasp and disciplined behavior.


A third implication of this study concerns insights for teachers and curriculum policymakers. This study’s results echo previous research showing how financial literacy initiatives tend to pathologize economically disadvantaged individuals by suggesting that they can overcome being poor through personal finance alone (Arthur, 2011; Pinto & Coulson, 2011). While framing financial literacy as mere money management is to be expected of corporate-sponsored curricula, one would imagine state-sanctioned social studies frameworks, where financial literacy standards are situated, to paint a more nuanced picture. Even if few, the more critical examples noted in this study (such as those discussing the benefits of union membership) indicate that it is not unreasonable to envisage such topics in financial literacy standards. Students from all walks of life would benefit from lessons about the differences in wages and benefits between non-unionized and unionized positions, for example.


As other critical scholars have noted (e.g., Arthur, 2014; Pinto, 2009), financial literacy education can achieve a limited set of ends, providing students with an essential set of life skills in money management. Teachers, however, need to be aware that while lessons on personal finance may be necessary, they are insufficient. Removed from broader discussions about wealth distribution, relations of power, and the systems that produce and exacerbate inequality, financial literacy will not empower all citizens to lead financially secure lives or solve larger national and global economic problems as it purports to do (Hamilton & Darity, 2017; Lucey et al., 2015; Maier et al., 2014; Pinto & Coulson, 2011).


For educators to create equitable learning conditions for all students and to teach students about the genuine causes of wealth and poverty, teachers first have to “unlearn” deficit ideologies that locate deficiencies within students and their families rather than in the surrounding sociopolitical contexts (Gorski, 2011). Unlearning deficit thinking requires the ability to discern oppressive ideologies operating in educational discourse and to perceive with ideological clarity how their “commonsense” and pervasive nature obscures their discriminatory perspectives (Bartolomé, 2008; Gorski, 2011). As such, the goal is not to eradicate financial literacy from the curriculum and further disadvantage students from participating in the current financial system but rather to be cognizant of the problematic ways in which financial literacy is currently conceived. Teachers would do well to explore resources beyond the official curriculum, and examples of more critical approaches to financial literacy and economic education do exist (see, for example, Lucey et al., 2015; Sober Giecek, 2007).


But teachers alone cannot carry the burden of making financial literacy more equitable, honest, and meaningful. Curriculum policymakers, too, ought to expand the focus from individual agency and how best to optimize one’s own circumstances to seeing economic uncertainty as a collective problem. Social studies lessons about the financial system ought to reflect that citizens working together can organize to challenge economic injustice and moneyed interests through concerted, policy-oriented actions—beyond charity—that level the playing field for all citizens (Sober, 2017). When it comes to the economic health of society as a whole, political and civic actions matter more than individual financial decision-making. Moreover, while poverty is a serious problem, the other side of the inequality equation, extreme wealth, is also detrimental. Driven by ideologies of individualism, financial literacy standards currently exalt the intrinsic virtues of wealth attainment while ignoring the ways in which wealth concentration and corporate greed undermine the democratic process and hurt society for rich and poor alike (Bartels, 2016; Lafer, 2017; Stiglitz, 2012; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010).


Currently the trend is to move away from cross-disciplinary lessons on economics and finance in order to isolate financial literacy standards. Based on the findings in this study, I propose to move in the opposite direction: Financial literacy ought to be taught across the curriculum. Students would receive a more rounded education if lessons about finances were embedded in courses that link to lessons on systemic and structural forces affecting financial outcomes. Ontario was one of the few regions in Canada and the U.S. in which financial literacy standards stated anything substantial about topics such as poverty and widening economic inequality because the standards were pulled from other disciplines in the social studies curriculum. Thus, envisioning a “thicker” form of financial literacy is promising, considering that many financial literacy standards are already situated within social studies curriculum documents that open with introductions citing a renewed focus on critical thinking, citizenship, democracy, and the public good as directives for education in the 21st century. Colorado’s High School Social Studies vision, for instance, is of “competent and responsible citizens” who “are informed and thoughtful, participate in their communities, are involved politically, and exhibit moral and civic virtues” (Colorado Department of Education, 2009, p. 2).


Without attending to the ways in which financial literacy discourses participate in mythmaking and deficit ideology, financial education will continue to be hailed as empowering and equitable despite its deficit framing. Furthermore, the preoccupation with personal finance in the social studies curriculum will continue to distract from critical analysis of the broader sources of economic insecurity and thereby genuine remedies to economic injustice. Ella Baker, the great civil leader, activist, and community organizer, was also known for her work in the 1930s as a teacher of consumer education—financial literacy’s predecessor. Working tirelessly to politicize her students by connecting consumer problems with major social issues, Baker, on a flyer announcing one of her workshops, asked: “Some consumers organize to save money, others to save the world—what does consumer education mean to you?” (Ransby, 2003, p. 94). We ought to pose a similar question regarding financial literacy education. Does financial literacy education mean teaching students to look out for their own interests in a deeply unequal financial system benefitting those at the top with little regard for those at the bottom? Or does it mean engaging students in critical analysis of the social, political, and economic conditions affecting individuals’ life chances so that they develop the skills to act—in concert with others—on improving economic outcomes for all citizens?


Acknowledgements


I am grateful to Professor Joel Westheimer and Matt Brillinger at the University of Ottawa for their thoughtful suggestions during the development of this article. 


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APPENDIX A


SAMPLE CODING SCHEME (EXPLANATIONS FOR WEALTH AND POVERTY)


Code

 Sub-code

Definition

Example text

Explanations

for wealth and poverty (B)

 

Text discusses–even if implicitly–explanations for wealth and poverty.

(text refers to a standard or other framing text within the document where the financial literacy standard is located).

“In the US economy, personal financial decisions rest with the individual. Making responsible decisions related to goals for lifestyle and financial wants, fosters financial success and security”

(Ohio Department of Education, 2012, p. 1).

 

Individual

explanations

(I)

Text refers to personal responsibility or various individual character traits that imply financial security is a matter of attitude, knowledge, skill, morals, habits, etc.

“The intent of personal financial literacy education is to inform students how individual choices directly influence occupational goals and future earnings potential. Effective money management is a disciplined behavior and much easier when learned earlier in life” (Oklahoma State Department of Education, 2008, p. 5).

 

Thin structural explanations

(S-thin)

Text makes vague references to “economic conditions,” “effects of globalization,” etc.

“Analyze the effects of globalization” (Nevada Department of Education, 2013, p. 10).

 

Thick structural explanations

(S-thick)

Text names concrete economic and sociopolitical conditions, such as the changing role of unions or the uneven distribution of wealth in society.

“Identify economic and societal trends (e.g., globalization, developments in information technology, the changing role of unions and professional organizations, outsourcing or ‘contracting out’, emerging work-style alternatives, self-employment, entrepreneurship, changing demographics) and explain how they influence available job opportunities and work environments” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011, p. 106).



APPENDIX B


EXAMPLE OF CRITICAL DISCOURSE ANALYSIS APPLIED TO A PASSAGE


A high school senior has many expenses, including yearbook, class ring, homecoming, graduation announcements, senior pictures, cap and gown, college visits and application fees, and numerous prom-related expenditures. In addition, students may be responsible for ongoing expenses such as car insurance, gas for their car, clothes, cell phone, entertainment, and personal care items. (Council for Economic Education, 2013, p. 9)

Research question

Analysis

Evidence for conclusion

What are the explicit and nuanced ways in which poverty and the experiences of people who are poor are included or excluded in financial literacy standards?

- Middle/upper class experience is centered since not all students have access to a car or can afford a cell phone, class ring, etc.

- Low-income/ lower class experience is de-topicalized by avoiding discussion of experiences students from lower socioeconomic groups may encounter. For example: working to meet basic needs (meals, bus tickets, etc.); providing financial support to siblings, parents/ guardians, or other family members; helping parents/ guardians/ family members navigate the welfare system, apply for food stamps, etc.

Part of determining an absence is “working out what the text is claiming (however implicitly) to represent” (Cormack, 1992, p. 31). The introduction to the document where this passage is found states: “To make the standards as accessible as possible, they have been designed to apply to all socioeconomic student groups” (Council for Economic Education, 2013, p. 9). While the document claims to represent all socioeconomic groups, this passage excludes the experiences of youth on low-income or living in poverty.









Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 3, 2020, p. 1-50
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22989, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 3:22:04 PM

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