The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued a new model and recommendations, Building Blocks To Help Youth Achieve Financial Capability (link to report at bottom of page). It opens,
To navigate the financial marketplace effectively, adults need financial knowledge and skills, access to resources, and the capacity to apply their money skills and habits to financial decisions. Where and when during childhood and adolescence do people acquire the foundations of financial capability? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) researched the childhood origins of financial capability and well-being to identify those roots and to find promising practices and strategies to support their development.
This report, “Building blocks to help youth achieve financial capability: A new model and recommendations,” examines “how,” “when,” and “where” youth typically acquire critical attributes, abilities, and opportunities that support the development of adult financial capability and financial well-being. CFPB’s research led to the creation of a developmentally informed, skills-based model. The many organizations and policy leaders working to help the next generation become capable of achieving financial capability can use this new model to shape priorities and strategies. (3, footnotes omitted)
I have been somewhat skeptical of CFPB’s financial literacy initiatives because there is not a lot of evidence about what approaches actually improve financial literacy outcomes. Unfortunately, this report does not reduce my skepticism. While it claims that it is evidence-based, the evidence cited seems scant, as far as I can tell from reviewing the footnotes and appendices.
The report concludes,
Understanding how consumers navigate their financial lives is essential to helping people grow their financial capability over the life cycle. The financial capability developmental model described in this report provides new evidence-based insights and promising strategies for those who are seeking to create and deliver financial education policies and programs.
This research reaffirms that financial capability is not defined solely by one’s command of financial facts but by a broader set of developmental building blocks acquired and honed over time as youth gain experience and encounter new environments. This developmental model points to the importance of policy initiatives and programs that support executive functioning, healthy financial habits and norms, familiarity and comfort with financial facts and concepts, and strong financial research and decision-making skills.
The recommendations provided are intended to suggest actions for a range of entities, including financial education program developers, schools, parents, and policy and community leaders, toward a set of common strategies so that no one practitioner needs to tackle them all.
The CFPB is deeply committed to a vision of an America where everyone has the opportunity to build financial capability. This starts by recognizing that our programs and policies must provide opportunities that help youth acquire all of the building blocks of financial capability: executive function, financial habits and norms, and financial knowledge and decision-making skills. (52)
What the conclusion does not do is identify interventions that actually help people make better financial decisions. I am afraid that this report puts the cart before the horse — we should have a sense of what works before devoting resources to particular courses of action. To be crystal clear, I think teaching financial literacy is great — so long as we know that it works. Until we do, we should not be devoting a lot of resources to the field.