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CFPB MIA on financial education?

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Posted: 12 pm ET

Gotten any good advice on personal finance from the federal government lately? Heard some insightful commentary from your school-aged kids on investment allocation? If you haven't, you're not alone.

Five years after a financial crisis caused in part by millions of consumers taking on dangerous levels of debt, especially mortgages, the state of financial education in the U.S. is still dismal.

In a 2012 survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, 2 of 5 adults gave themselves a C, D or F on their personal finance knowledge, and a 2011 survey by Visa found only 5 percent of adults said they'd learned about money matters from a teacher.

"There's only 14 states that have any financial literacy course requirements for high school graduation, and that means it's left up to the parents and other adults in a student's life to give them the information," says Mary Blanusa, vice president of government affairs and partnership projects for the Council for Economic Education.

That's problematic, says Blanusa, mostly because parents don't want the job.

"Most of the data show that most parents are not comfortable talking about financial information with their kids," she says. "They're more comfortable talking about sex or drugs than they are about finances."

Financial literacy is a such a big problem that the landmark Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protecti0n Act specifically calls for the creation of an Office of Financial Education within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to consolidate federal financial education efforts and to produce better results.

So far, the OFE has been given substantial resources to make that happen. The CFPB hired an assistant director, Camille Busette, last year at an advertised salary of $160,000 to $235,000 to manage the OFE. And the office had at least 10 full-time employees working as of June 2012, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

At a recent Senate banking committee hearing on the progress of Dodd-Frank implementation, CFPB Director Richard Cordray specifically mentioned financial education as a high priority.

"We're planning a strong push in the future for broader and more effective financial literacy in this country," Cordray said. "We need to change the fact that we send many thousands of our young people out into the world every year to manage their own affairs with little or no grounding in personal finance education."

But at that same hearing, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., expressed frustration at the convoluted structure of the federal government's personal finance education efforts. Coburn cited a GAO report which found that 56 different financial programs, hailing from 20 agencies, spend $68 million per year.

"By law, I'm the vice chair of the financial literacy education commission and we are coordinating with other agencies -- there are 15 or 20 other agencies -- and it does feel like one of the issues has been a piecemeal approach to this problem," Cordray responded.

Having to wade through that bureaucratic morass may be why the OFE's impact has been muted. In an April 2012 congressional hearing, many of the OFE initiatives listed by Busette consisted of research, meetings with local officials and community groups and coordination with other agencies.

But beyond authoring personal finance content for the CFPB's website, including an FAQ updated every few weeks, it's unclear what the OFE has done to directly educate consumers. It faces a deadline in June, when it must present a report to Congress detailing its financial literacy activities and strategy to improve financial literacy of consumers. Only time will be tell if the OFE is able to meet that deadline and can show for the last two years of work.

A CFPB spokeswoman declined to comment about the agency's financial literacy efforts. For her part, Blanusa says the OFE has been supportive of the Council for Economic Education's work.

"Since they really started getting things going, we've established some good relationships in their education department," Blanusa says. "They've just hired a K-12 education specialist, so we're hoping in the next year or so we can really expand upon that."

But the OFE has a ways to go before it is fully up to speed.

"We're hoping that as they get their K-12 program running, that there will be more opportunities to work together," Blanusa says.

Follow me on Twitter: @claesbell.

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