Editorial: Statistics Demonstrate Urgent Need for Financial Education

St. Louis American, March 6, 2014

“St. Louis tops the nation in the number of minority households that are either unbanked or under-banked,” St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones said Friday morning at an event her office hosted for the St. Louis Regional Unbanked Task Force. “We are also at twice the national average in overall unbanked households. These statistics are alarming, and they demonstrate an urgent need for financial education for our citizens.”

We agree, and we commend Jones for her leadership on this crucial matter. Since the task force started its Bank On Save Up initiative, its 20 member banks have opened 1,615 accounts, 83 percent checking and 17 percent savings, with an average balance of $1,118. The Treasurer’s Office is responsible for half of these newly banked citizens, as more than 800 city employees opened accounts when Jones converted city payroll to mandatory direct deposit. These raw numbers are modest, but the very high account retention rate of these new accounts – nearly 96 percent – is extremely encouraging.

As a personal aside, Jones mentioned she had just signed a contract to buy a house. “I’ve been saving for it,” she said.

We immediately thought of another once-promising young African-American elected official from a powerhouse North St. Louis political family who was much in the news on Friday: former alderman Kacie Starr Triplett, who has admitted to paying $4,450 in mortgage fees (among thousands of dollars in other personal expenses) from her campaign committee’s fund, which is illegal. Clearly, Triplett (and a number of black elected officials who misused campaign funds before her, including former state Senator Robin Wright-Jones and former state Representatives Rodney Hubbard and T.D. El-Amin) needed some of that financial education.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce is reportedly considering filing charges against Triplett, in addition to the financial penalty levied by the state’s (notoriously weak and toothless) watchdog commission for campaign finance and ethics. Given that the money Triplett spent was paid to her campaign fund willingly by her supporters, we believe that the only direct damage she did was to her own credibility. There is not one public fund or project that was hurt by her misjudgment. Of course, the indirect costs to the community of another discredited African-American elected official’s shameful financial misbehavior are self-evident.

In the hope that the banks on the task force can take a joke, we are reminded of an old wisecrack: A stupid crook robs a bank; a smart crook opens one. The fact is that a former alderman could face criminal charges for spending less than $20,000 in campaign funds on transient needs and wants, while a sitting speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives legally invested $900,000 of his campaign funds to purchase 12,000 shares of bank stock. We do not claim that now former House Speaker Steve Tilley acted criminally in so doing – he is not, in the eyes of Missouri law, a criminal for buying bank shares with campaign funds. This is not to single out Tilley’s opportunism, but to question our state’s woefully inadequate laws concerning political campaigns.

“Simply put, financial literacy is the ability to understand how money works,” Jones said to her fellow task force members. “Financial literacy is about planning for the future. When you know how to manage your money, you can make better choices about your future.”

Our community has a lot to learn about managing money if we are ever going to improve our prospects for the future. And our elected officials had better improve their own financial literacy, not to mention get a more firm grasp on ethics, if they intend to be the caliber of leaders that we need to advocate for more fair and prudent public policy.

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