Who Determines Literacy?

I was reading this article over at VSB today, and it got me thinking about the definition of literacy. Now, this is something we analyzed in my summer course about literacy, and I learned that the old binary between literate and illiterate is hopelessly outdated, like many things in education.

Yet we are still using the phrase “financial literacy” to describe teaching certain skills to people who don’t have a lot of money.

Now, do some poor people make unwise decisions with their spending? Sure. Because they’re people, and people make unwise decisions. Does it follow that being rich means you’ve necessarily been smart with your money? No. It just means you’ve been lucky.

We discuss “financial literacy” as though it is something we wise people can bestow upon the heathens pounding rocks in caves, when the truth of the matter is, being well-versed in financial systems would truly entail being made deeply aware of how few opportunities being poor afford people. I say this as a person who has never been poor and is unlikely to be. I’ve been “broke,” temporarily, and entirely because I was dumb. But you can’t stupid your way into poverty, you can only reside there by birth or due to lack of opportunity, or both.

It’s not too different from the language education field I am seeking to change, or the “appropriateness” analyzed within raciolinguistics. You know who needs “financial literacy?” It’s all the rest of us, who need to become deeply aware of how our systems are constructed to prevent escape from poverty. If the rest of us became “financially literate,” some would still choose not to care, but I can bet more of us would change our priorities and fight back against a system that harms so many.

This is easy for me to say from my academic perch as I enter 20th grade with my health insurance (and good health) and all. But we really don’t need to teach poor people better habits so much as we need to give them an actual opportunity to have access to money and power. We don’t do it because, in our view, it would come at our expense, and we want to win more than we want to be fair.

You know who’s financially literate? The president is, because he knows exactly how not smart you can be and get continually rescued by the system that values you because of your status. (If he truly believed he was smart and wasn’t scared he was stupid, he wouldn’t talk about his intelligence so much.) And people without money know the system better than most of us just because they can see and feel how it treats them.

Until we actually support our fellow citizens – and I am no economist with ideal solutions for how to do so – teaching them how to put an extra dollar away is just a stopgap. We should probably still do it anyway, though, because the system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.