“Financial literacy” is a bullshit concept

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“I have 4 dollars.” -Patrick Star fabian bank via unsplash

“Budget yourself rich”

November is Financial Literacy Month, and since our editor-in-chief Taylor was kind enough to give us a primer on how to take advantage of the tools and services provided for students in news this week, I can say what’s really on my mind – which is that financial literacy as a concept is a scam in the way Mother’s Day is a scam. On the surface, both seem like the kind of thing you can’t argue with. Who’s going to say that mothers shouldn’t have a day? Only an asshole. Who’s going to argue that people shouldn’t be financially literate? Only a dirtbag leftist. But just as Mother’s Day is a scam cooked up by card companies to sell cards, financial literacy is a scam cooked up by capitalists to sell the idea that poor people are poor because they can’t manage their money, and not because we live in a brutal system of inequality.

“But, Sara,” you ask. “How can it possibly be bad that someone would take control of their finances by learning to budget properly and make informed decisions about the financial products and services that best meet their needs? Are you going to launch a shitty podcast, too?” And to you I would say that, yeah, sure it’s good to have a budget. Sure, people should be empowered to make good financial decisions so they don’t get ripped off by the credit card company or the landlord (even though the very existence of the credit card company and the landlord is a ripoff in itself). But the problem here isn’t about taking individual responsibility for our finances. It’s about the inadequate tools we are being handed to deal with large-scale systemic problems of wealth inequality and wage slavery, among other things. Facing the crisis of capitalism in our personal lives with a budget document and a financial advice template is like battling a mammoth with a stone.

Financial literacy presumes that the biggest barrier to financial security is the fact that people don’t understand how interest rates work, or that they need to diversify their investment portfolio (lmao), or that it’s important to have a savings account. But the biggest barrier to financial security is capitalism. This is a system that allows for the minimum wage in every single major Canadian city to be well below what it costs to rent a one bedroom apartment (let alone eat and pay utilities). It’s a system that allows teenagers to take on massive amounts of debt to pay for school, debt that is almost impossible to discharge even in bankruptcy. This is a system that allows for predatory lending companies (payday loans, by any other name) to commit usury (a crime once punishable by death and excommunication) on every other street corner. It is a system that has forced millions of workers to go to work during a deadly pandemic because they could not afford to stay home and stay safe.

In the face of these problems, we can see that being financially literate is not enough to lift you out of the system of entrenched inequality that we live under. If the Canadian government, the institution that started the Financial Literacy Month initiative, really wanted Canadians to have financial security, they would strengthen our labour laws, giving workers more control over their conditions and their wages. They would guarantee public housing, institute universal pharmacare, dental care, and mental health services. They would set a $20 minimum wage federally, crack down on predatory lending, and cancel student debt. What’s more, they would pay for it by taxing the wealthy, who have accumulated staggering amounts of wealth through the exploitation of the very people being told that their financial woes are their own fault. You should not need to be financially literate to have secure housing and access to healthcare, transportation, utilities, and nutritious food, and we need to recognize that financial literacy as imagined by capitalists is not enough to guarantee you those things either.

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