Spare Change News does not endorse any City Council candidates, and the content of this opinion column does not represent the views of Spare Change News, its staff, or its board.
This opinion piece is by Hélène Vincent, a candidate for Boston City Council in District 8, which includes Mission Hill, Fenway/Kenmore, Back Bay, Beacon Hill and the West End. Check out future issues of Spare Change News for an in-depth profile of Vincent and other Boston City Council candidates.
While knocking on doors this spring, I met a resident who shared a discouraging story. He and his family are recent immigrants who had been actively solicited by credit card companies. The companies were offering cards that the family later discovered had high interest rates and hidden fees. They were lucky enough to catch the problem early; if they hadn’t, they would have been trapped in an endless cycle of debt.
Sadly, their story is not isolated. Financial institutions target historically underserved communities within this district and around the country, such as immigrants and people of color. We must empower all members of our community to protect themselves and their families against these threats by investing in personal finance education and resources.
The problems relating to financial literacy extend far beyond credit cards. Power imbalances, from banking to education, are also strongly exacerbated by this gap. For example, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau writes that financial literacy is key to the ability to navigate the banking system, where fees for violating opaque rules are commonplace. This is also true for the world of student loans. Student debt has been rising significantly, with the average Massachusetts graduate owing more than $31,000 in 2019. These borrowing decisions are made by students shortly after high school graduation; these students often lack the tools to manage a loan process that will have consequences for the rest of their lives. Banking fees and student debt can lead to savings losses, crushing interest rates, and even housing or job rejections.
While our state has made some progress in pursuing financial literacy initiatives, our community still experiences the consequences of this educational gap. I am proposing a multi-step policy to boost financial literacy, focused on aiding and augmenting Boston’s current efforts. This financial literacy program will be intersectional, accessible, and transparent. It will be an effective way to supplement other important policies such as a higher minimum wage and stronger workers’ rights, all while providing a base of knowledge that will empower residents who are seeking affordable housing, higher education, or employment.
Implementation will have two parts: the first in Boston Public Schools, and the second directly in our communities.
First, hands-on financial literacy lessons should be integrated into our children’s education. Nationwide, 22 states require high schools to offer a personal finance course. Sadly, Massachusetts is not one of them. To start, we should create after-school financial literacy lessons and begin the process of integrating them into our school curricula. As a City Councillor, I will advocate for the inclusion of these important lessons and for the budget allocation required to make them a reality. Second, we should bring these literacy lessons directly into our communities. Libraries and community centers, already vital hubs for neighborhood engagement and support, can become locations for free, city-taught financial literacy courses for all our residents.
Our City’s Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) provides one-on-one financial coaching sessions to those who request them. However, the office is currently understaffed and underutilized. As a member of the City Council, I will be a strong advocate for increasing OFE’s funding so that it may expand its existing programs, develop new resources, and enhance outreach across the city. Ultimately, we will open a second OFE headquarters to provide services to even more neighborhoods. Financial literacy programs are not a quick solution to poverty. However, to tackle inequality in all its forms, we need to build on a solid foundation. Affordable housing initiatives are imperative, but their success will be limited if those we seek to help do not have the tools to navigate mortgages, banks, or credit.
Similarly, we cannot improve access to higher education and set students up for lifelong success if they are not taught the fundamentals of borrowing and student loans. Financial literacy is power, and it is an anchor to enable prosperity for all our community members. As a City Councillor, I will make sure financial literacy is part of a larger effort to make Boston inclusive, accessible, and affordable for all.