When Cultural Norms Prove Financially Costly

By Dr. Irvin Pedro Cohen – I often say children represent the hope of what a community can become. But many of us know it takes a village to get there to ensure our children receive the best education possible, both in and outside the classroom.

In recent years, we have seen tremendous progress in student achievement. High school graduation rates are on the rise. In fact, over the last four years alone, the number of students who graduated in Duval County increased by 11 percentage points, according to the Florida Department of Education.

And while reading, math and science are all core areas of education that are critically important to our children’s futures, we must also make sure they receive the right financial education to reach their fullest potential.

We don’t have to look very far to see why this is so important.

In many Jacksonville neighborhoods, I see that poor financial habits have become ingrained as a cultural norm, particularly within low-income African-American households. For decades, our young people watched their parents, grandparents and other relatives rely on check cashers, money orders and other alternative financial services to access their money and to pay bills.

These unbanked or underbanked families often spend nearly 10 percent of their income annually on the fees associated with these alternative financial services. That’s the same percentage the average family spends on food every year. And yet, these facts do not account for the impact the abundance of alternative financial services providers has on neighborhoods in terms of being destinations where people want to live.

I realize we have to meet people where they are and for many years, these services seemed like the only option for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it was that traditional banks were absent from neighborhoods. In others, people didn’t trust them or had bad experiences in the past. Whatever the reason, we must help our children develop healthier financial habits so that we can break the cycle of poverty that perpetuates when check cashers and alternative financial services become the sole options for people.

And there are ways to do that. For example, while many families have little-to-no access to mainstream financial services, many do own smartphones. Combined with a good prepaid card, instead of using a check casher, they can have their paycheck deposited on the card. And instead of purchasing a money order, they can use that card and their smartphone to pay bills online or with an app.

This does, however, require those same communities to have adequate access to technology platforms. But I’ll save that for another conversation. Bottom line, it’s not an either-or choice – the two go hand in hand.

Adult family members must set the example for how children can manage their money, save, budget and, ultimately, reinvest in their community.

The First Coast YMCA – particularly the James Weldon Johnson Branch and Tiger Academy, the YMCA’s charter school – has made financial navigation on the part of the families and students we serve a focal point of our work. Through collaborations with financial institutions like VyStar and Fifth Third Bank around financial literacy and simple saving tips that consider families’ fiscal capacity, we’ve made inroads. Although small, each step forward counts.

Sometimes, it’s easy to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. But together as a village, we can help our children see a new way and pave the way for Jacksonville’s brightest tomorrow.

Dr. Irvin PeDro Cohen is the vice president of social responsibility at the First Coast YMCA.

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