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Closing the Financial Literacy Gap

Studies show that no matter what class, race or education level, many women are in the dark about money. but a few efforts aim to change that--one even starting with girls as young as 9.


Don't get pregnant! For heaven's sake, no matter what you do, you vulnerable, hormone-crazed teenage girl--Do Not Get Pregnant! Assuming that a young woman heeds that message, which some days seems to be written on every billboard and trumpeted from each treetop in the urban jungle, what is she then supposed to do with her nice, strong, not pregnant self? Head a Fortune 500 company?

Well, why not?

Thirty years of feminist rhetoric has told her she could. Yet while society might, legally and attitudinally, be supportive of women in business, those who actually talk to girls, asking those nitty-gritty, "what do you want to do when you grow up?" questions, say their awareness of economic realities is alarmingly limited. High school graduates, college alumnae and even women with business school degrees are victims of a complex set of historical, sociological and familial circumstances that conspire to keep many of them financially illiterate, or at least several laps behind the boys.

An alliance of Los Angeles educational and social service groups recognized the importance of teaching girls economic literacy early, acknowledging that there were other topics worth discussing besides teen pregnancy, often a financial sand trap in itself. They believed girls needed to know about balancing a checkbook, investing for the future, managing credit card debt, thinking creatively about owning their own businesses and giving back to the community.

So three years ago, the Collaborative for the Economic Empowerment and Readiness of Girls pooled the resources of the Angeles Girl Scout Council, Junior Achievement, the YWCA, Girls Inc. and the L.A. Women's Foundation to educate girls from 9 to 18 in some money basics. They invited 200 local high school girls to a daylong program at USC recently that included workshops, lectures and contact with mentors.

Anyone who questions whether it was a good idea to invite teenage girls to an event called "Making It: You, Your Money, Your Future" need only look at the statistics. Single women with children account for 54% of all poor families in this country. Single mothers head 19% of all families with children, but are twice as likely as married couples to live below the federally defined poverty line. One in seven women in America lives in poverty, one in three among African American women and Latinas.

The collaborative targets girls from ethnically diverse and low-income neighborhoods. But Joline Godfrey, chief executive of Independent Means Inc., a Santa Barbara-based provider of training and products for the financial novice who spoke at the conference, said that economic illiteracy is the great leveler, crossing race and class barriers. "I work in very chichi private schools, and I will often walk out of them more shaken than in an inner city school, because the privileged kids are so oblivious to how critical these issues are to their lives, even now."

Saving for the Future and Paying Off Debt

According to a 1997 study conducted by the Oppenheimer Fund, one in seven women has nothing saved for retirement. Of those who do, one in three women with both savings for the future and credit cards owes more on her credit cards than she has in her retirement account. "Across culture and economic strata is this perverse notion that a privilege of prosperity is that the daughters of people who have achieved upward mobility don't have to become economically competent," Godfrey said.

The fault line separating women from financial savvy even runs through elementary school playgrounds, where boys trade marbles, then baseball cards, in informal marketplaces that acquaint them with risking, investing, absorbing losses and maximizing gains. Girls who get baby-sitting jobs are told, "You're so good with children." Boys who earn money mowing lawns aren't praised for their talent with grass. They're applauded for being resourceful and entrepreneurial.

Dana Goldinger is a real estate, finance and bankruptcy attorney who now works in insurance and estate planning in Beverly Hills. "I deal with a lot of high-net-worth individuals," she said, "and my experience has been that many wives of affluent men have no clue about their financial situation, and the results of that can sometimes be devastating."

Wasn't the last wave of feminism, one of the great movements for social change that arose at the end of the '60s, supposed to solve these problems? "We are in a different place than we were 20 years ago, but we haven't moved as far as we thought we would," Godfrey said.

Twenty years ago, armed with a degree in social work, Godfrey was hired by Polaroid Corp. to counsel its employees. She became increasingly interested in becoming an entrepreneur, she said, because "I came to understand that if you really want to make an impact, you have to run the company." She launched a firm that designed executive learning programs for Fortune 500 companies and sold it in 1990.

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