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Our nation is facing a savings crisis. It will take a unified effort to correct it

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A perfect storm is threatening progress on youth financial empowerment, and the financial wellness of a generation of learners is at stake.

It starts with the national savings crisis in our country. The personal savings rate—how much people save as a percent of their disposable income—was down to a low of 3.7% in December. According to the FDIC, 6 million U.S. households were unbanked in 2021, and millions more are considered underbanked. Additionally, a recent LendingTree survey found that almost half of U.S. adults admit they wouldn’t be able to cover a $1,000 emergency using only cash or their banking accounts. 

Compounding the issue, the Federal Reserve reported, more adults experienced spending increases in 2022 than income increases.

This all comes at a time when modern life has automated spending, rather than saving. However, the benefits of a savings account are numerous and range from access to credit, consumption of durable goods, and even a higher likelihood of enrolling in college.

Everyone deserves a chance at lifelong financial health, and we must start with our youngest learners, focusing not only on their access to critical financial services but also to educational incentives like scholarships and career-connected learning.

For more than a decade, we’ve been part of a broad movement to ensure financial education is taught in all public schools and real progress is being made. 

Since 2019, 19 states have signed bills requiring high school students to complete a stand-alone personal finance course in order to graduate, bringing the total to 25. This is critical because early financial education is the key to ensuring that today’s youth get a fair chance to achieve holistic financial wellness.

Yet this progress is now threatened by a confluence of dire budget trends in our nation’s school districts. 

The pandemic-era relief funding that has helped districts invest in additional resources is ending in September, just as state revenues are slowing and 45% of public schools are facing a teacher shortage. School districts will face unprecedented decisions on spending, and the highest-need schools will be hit the hardest. 

These challenges could delay access to life-changing financial education for an entire generation of learners—and jeopardize the progress so many have invested in and made in educating young people and their families on the importance of savings. 

Unlocking lifelong financial opportunity for our nation’s students is one of the greatest callings of our time: a core issue that, if successfully addressed, can have positive effects on all parts of society. As one district administrator stated, “The gravest danger to our public school system is the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

That’s why now is the time for the public and private sectors to come together. We must double down and prioritize three key areas: first, access to no-cost financial education for students and families; second, access to financial services; and third, access to mentors, scholarships, internships, and other career-focused connections. Only by integrating all three areas will we unlock lifelong financial opportunities for the next generation.

From theory to action: Financial education, financial access, and career connections

This three-prong approach means embedding core financial education concepts throughout K-12 curricula so young people have a foundational understanding of personal finance, along with practical knowledge.

We must also support parents and caregivers with high-quality resources on financial concepts so they can engage children on the topics, even if they aren’t entirely confident in their own knowledge. A large school district in Florida has built a digital platform to help families do just that, so they can better engage and support their children through virtual learning. This type of program can and should be replicated across the country.

It also means helping students make connections to mentors and providing career-connected and work-based learning so they can get a real-world introduction to career possibilities. According to a Department of Education survey of high school dropouts, 81% of student respondents said there should be more opportunities for real-world learning and believe students need to better see the connection between school and getting a good job.

We can ignite their passion and help them realize their dreams through internships, mentorships, and scholarships. 

And, crucially, we must increase young people’s access to banking services. Research from the Department of Health and Human Services has shown that unbanked and underbanked households suffer many ongoing, damaging, and far-reaching effects. Conversely, young adults who open savings accounts earlier in life are more likely to invest, accumulate more wealth, and maintain positive relationships with financial institutions later in life.

That’s why federal regulators have long called for increased access to banking, especially more youth bank accounts, as a core strategy to support wealth creation and end this destructive cycle. Yet today, half of teenagers don’t have a bank account. We need to make it much easier for parents and caregivers to seed savings accounts so that students can apply the financial concepts they’re learning in the classroom to the real world.

A clear path forward

We’re not naive about it: Unlocking lifelong financial opportunities for our nation’s youth is a massive challenge. It won’t be achieved overnight. And it won’t be achieved by any one organization, company, or agency. Which is why we need everyone to stand up and get involved: school districts, companies, families, nonprofits, financial institutions, and technology providers.

Research has shown the enormity of the journey ahead—but also a clear path forward, and the enormous benefits of improving youth access to financial education, financial services, and career-connected learning. When the public and private sectors work together, we can inspire lifelong financial well-being for generations to come.

Tom Davidson is the founder and CEO of EVERFI from Blackbauda founding partner of Fortune’s Impact Initiative.

Ray Martinez is the president and cofounder of EVERFI from Blackbaud. He serves on the board of the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. 

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