What does financial access look like? I like to think of it as a non-prescriptive goal in two parts. First, high-quality, affordable financial services are available. Second, people are aware of the services available to them. When these conditions are met, people are free to choose whether or not to use the services, and “access” is created.
A recent working paper challenged me to probe this definition of access further. Using data from the Mexican Family Life Survey, the authors explore a) whether households are aware of a specific financial product, and b) given that awareness, if they use the product. They found, among other results, that while the availability of one type of formal loan in a given locality did predict households’ knowledge of that credit, it did not lead them to use it . . . Read More
Whether it is education generally or domain specific skills, it seems obvious that imparting knowledge and skills should be an effective approach for improving outcomes. What’s not so obvious is how to deliver useful knowledge and skills. A few new papers shed some light on two areas of specific interest to us: financial literacy and business training for microentrepreneurs.
A new paper based on a two-year, in-school, financial literacy program for high school students finds increased use of savings over borrowing, increased likelihood of financial planning and spillover of financial knowledge to the students’ parents. There are two important things to note in these findings. First, this is a very intensive program, with training of teachers, significant investment in curriculum materials, and many hours of instruction. Second, the results are self-reported. So the impact noted is not whether, for instance, the students actually saved up for a large purchase rather than borrowing at expensive rates, but whether they report doing so (for fairly obvious reasons of time and expense, it is rarely possible to measure actual behavior in large samples). A cynical interpretation of these results would be that two years of financial literacy training is effective at teaching people how to respond to financial behavior survey questions . . . Read More
We at FAI have been closely following work on financial education and financial literacy to better understand whether financial education can improve financial capability. So far, the evidence has been mixed at best. A recent meta-analysis, largely focused on the United States, finds overall little evidence for impacts of financial literacy education on financial behaviors, and effects that attenuate over time.
Is financial literacy education doomed to failure? One possibility is that programs aren’t always well-targeted towards populations that could benefit most from financial education programs – the less financially sophisticated, and those newly facing important financial decisions – and that the effects of financial education programs among these populations could be significantly greater. It’s possible that reaching the right people, in the right circumstances, could make all the difference . . . Read More
Here on the FAI blog we’ve written many posts on the shortcomings of financial literacy training programs, both in the US and abroad. When I came across a study from the World Bank’s Development Research Group evaluating a vocational training and entrepreneurship program in Malawi, I was prepared to add this to the stack of mounting evidence of training programs that show little to no effect on business development and personal finance and move on. But in this case, the study focuses on the gendered differences of participation in the training course, not just whether or not it was effective at facilitating new business activity.
Like previous research, the Malawi study found no effects on self-employment*, but it did find significant differences in satisfaction and self-esteem between women and men after taking part in the program. The authors (Cho et al.) comment, “these differences are explained by both the conditions under which women participate in training, as well as gender differences in the training experience" . . . Read More
The opening of the new Affordable Care Act health insurance marketplaces presents millions of Americans with a complicated financial decision. How do they value insurance? The marketplaces will primarily serve people who are not employed full time or are in low-wage jobs—and are therefore likely to be juggling tight finances already. What is the cost of paying down debt more slowly to buy insurance? The obvious intervention to help people make better financial decisions when faced with complex options is financial literacy.
Unfortunately, the evidence on financial literacy is pretty dismal. David McKenzie’s study of a voluntary financial literacy program in Mexico that finds no effect is pretty representative. Earlier this year, author Helaine Olen wrote that financial literacy is “a bunch of hooey,” Jason Zweig at The Wall Street Journal cited educational programs that actually make people worse off financially, and FINRA released a study showing that financial literacy among Americans has weakened since 2009.
While financial literacy levels are linked to better financial decisions, study after study shows that financial literacy courses are ineffective . . . Read More
The fastest growing part of the financial inclusion movement isn’t a product or even a standard, it’s data and measurement. And if there’s something experts are increasingly agreeing on, it’s that it is illusory to try to define financial inclusion in any precise, universal way. John Gitau says he’s confused, and so am I. How do you measure financial inclusion?
It’s true that you might not be able to measure financial inclusion itself, but you can still measure things that indicate either actual, or the potential for, progress. Such indicatorsare what we can measure, and they are very useful as long we don’t confuse them with actual measurement of financial inclusion.
There are two broad types of indicators which can be applied to fuzzy concepts like our cherished financial inclusion . . . Read More
About 2.5 billion adults, just over half the world’s adult population, lack bank accounts. If we are to realize the goal of extending banking and other financial services to this vast “unbanked” population, we need to consider not only such product innovations as microfinance and mobile banking but also issues of data accuracy, impact assessment, risk mitigation, technology adaptation, financial literacy, and local context. In Banking the World, a new collection of research papers edited by Robert Cull, Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, and Jonathan Morduch, experts take up these topics . . . Read More
We do our best (not always successfully) to keep up with new research relevant to finance, poverty and development. Today, I’ll be sharing highlights from some new papers by FAI affiliate Sendhil Mullainathan.
In “Behavioral Design: A New Approach to Development Policy,” Mullainathan andSaugato Datta advocate for employing a behaviorally-informed economic perspective to design development policies and programs. Since behavioral economics helps us understand why people behave as they do, analyzing development policies through a behavioral lens allows us to make better policy diagnoses, which in turn lead to better-designed policies.
Mullainathan and Datta outline three ways in which behavioral economics can improve program design. First, it can change how we diagnose problems . . . Read More
We’ve become fans of talking about financial literacy here at the Financial Access Initiative, so I was excited to see the May issue of the American Economic Review with selected papers from the American Economic Association’s Annual Meeting. There are four papers that address financial-literacy questions. I’ll offer some big-picture thoughts further down, but first, the punch lines of the four papers . . . Read More
It’s been 21 years since the publication of Michael Sherraden’s Assets and the Poor,the book that put asset poverty on the U.S. policymaking map. That was cause for celebration last week in Washington D.C., where the New American Foundation hosted a symposium to talk about what more might be done to help Americans—particularly low-income and minority ones—build savings and other assets. The researchers, advocates, funders, and government officials in the room covered a large variety of topics, including child savings accounts, the “teachable moment” of tax time, behaviorally informed product design, asset limits in public benefits programs, universal individual retirement accounts, mortgage lending practices, and the puzzling persistence of the racial wealth gap.
It was a rich and multi-faceted conversation, but what may have struck me the most was the work being done by the state of Delaware, which is quickly expanding its program of free financial coaching to low- and moderate-income residents. This is very much in the tradition of cities such as New York and San Francisco, which have gotten well-deserved attention over the past few years for steps they are taking to bolster the financial stability of their populations. Efforts range from expanding the use of low-cost bank accounts to counseling people about how to budget and avoid taking on unnecessary debt. A number of municipalities have come together to form Cities for Financial Empowerment, and the ones at the head of the movement, like New York, are now pushing to integrate financial counseling into other government services, such as workforce development, homeless prevention, and community courts . . . Read More
Expanding financial access can be a beautiful thing, but how people understand and make use of financial tools deeply matters, too. Acknowledging the importance of financial literacy has become quite the trend in microfinance circles, even if folks aren’t entirely sure of how best to approach the subject.
Jonathan Morduch and I recently wrote a white paper for the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation about the state of financial literacy—and attempts to improve it—in the U.S. While the consumer finance landscape is, of course, quite different in the U.S. than it is in the developing world, many of the lessons we draw are applicable to other pockets of the world. After all, if people in a country where high-quality, low-cost financial products tend to be plentiful so often make foolish decisions about money management and financial planning, there clearly must be more complicated dynamics at play . . . Read More
The evidence on financial education has, to date, not been encouraging. As Cole and Zia write in Chapter 14, being financially literate clearly helps, but the value of financial education is a different question. We know the desired outcome (literacy) but not a reliable way to get there enough of the time, nor is it clear that literacy is enough. Behavioral economics teaches us that consumers also need ways to implement ideas, especially when temptations and distractions are difficult to keep at bay.
Intuition that improved financial decision making through training would have powerful effects is strong, and there’s some evidence in that line (e.g., Karlan and Valdivia 2011). So where exactly are existing financial literacy programs going off track? Is it curriculum? Is it delivery? Is it context? Read More
This is a guest post from Aparna Dalal, independent consultant and former FAI Director of Special Projects.
A new briefing note by the Microinsurance Network’s Insurance Education Working Group (of which FAI is a member) outlines emerging practices in risk management and insurance education. The note, targeted at practitioners, outlines basic principles that practitioners should incorporate into their education programs such as: Read More
1. focusing on risk management and insurance content;
2. relating education to people’s risk exposure;
3. using a mix of channels and tools;
4. delivering ongoing education as opposed to one-time programs;
5. linking education with products;
6. leveraging existing institutions and pool resources; and
7. incorporating monitoring and evaluation activities from the start.
Chris Dunford from Freedom from Hunger opened, arguing that as well as continuing to churn out the impact studies, we also need to be thinking about how we measure and evaluate the quality of delivery. A good intervention might just be delivered badly, especially if it is an innovative intervention which is new to the implementer. We also need to think harder about using qualitative data.
Richard Rosenberg of CGAP made the case for focusing on the potential losers from microfinance. We know that there can be heterogeneous impacts. What if a positive impact on average masks some serious negative consequences for a few? Is this acceptable? We need to learn more about over-indebtedness.
Abhijit Banerjee (MIT) posed the puzzle:
Why is there low borrowing and low business growth when we find that the returns to capital are so high? Perhaps the most persuasive argument is for non-linearitiesin business growth. There may be high returns to capital at the margin, but they could drop dramatically as firm gets even a little bigger. Alternatively, already overworked individuals simply might not want to spend even more time building a business.
David Roodman emphasized the importance of qualitative research and how much we have learnt from Portfolios of the Poor. He also noted the limitations of only measuring one to two year impact. Imagine if we had done an RCTon home mortgages in the US in 2002/2003 and found great short-term impacts. That would not tell the whole story.
In the second session, Erica Field took a look at small business loans in the US, and how they differ fromtraditional microcredit loans. Loans in the US are typically more flexible with grace periods, which increases business growth but also default. An experiment with microcredit clients found that offering grace periods made them behave more like small businesses in the US – there was more investment and business growth, but at the cost of more default.
Does financial education work? Read More
Most players in the microinsurance sector would agree that to increase the outreach of microinsurance products, more education is needed. But, this is where the agreement ends. Discussions around content, delivery, funding and measurement of insurance education raise more questions than answers. What is insurance education, and how should we define it? How is it different from product marketing? What are the most effective delivery channels? Who should pay for education? How do we measure its impact? Read More
A few months ago I did a quick review of the literature on financial literacy training to find out whether there was any indication that those programs have been successful. I was struck by the lack of evidence. Out of all the studies I could find only a couple stood out as being remotely credible... Read More