One of the most important lessons the subprime mortgage crisis holds for us is just how poorly informed many Americans are when it comes to making important financial decisions. Clearly, there is a need for basic financial education. But when, where, and how should such education be delivered? Financial literacy programs aimed at high school students do not appear to be effective, and few adults are willing to expend the time, money, and effort to acquire the sort of general education that would help them make good lifelong financial decisions.
This leads to the idea of delivering financial education in the workplace, which appears to hold real promise for reaching large numbers of adults in a cost-effective manner. Employers are theoretically capable of providing the time, the place, and the instructors for trusted financial education. But how many employers do so, and just how good is the education they provide? What motivates some employers to provide such education, particularly to low- and middle-income workers? This paper is a preliminary status report on what is being done in this area, by whom, and with what results.
Given the limited and often experimental nature of workplace-based financial education, it seemed premature to conduct a full-scale national survey of employers. Instead this overview is based on a review of the current academic literature, a special Gallup-NFIB survey to establish the incidence of such offerings by smaller firms, an analysis of statewide surveys of employers in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and interviews with human resources directors in companies that offer such benefits and third-party providers of financial education. We focused on the small and medium-sized enterprises that are responsible for much of the job creation in the United States.
Initially, we intended to look at workplace financial education that was not directly related to the provision of the employer's principal (primarily retirement) benefits. It was our belief that many individuals are in need of financial education in subject areas unrelated to employee benefits, such as how to finance a home purchase, choose investments for a personal retirement portfolio, pay for their children's education, and manage debt, and that they should be thinking in terms of an overall lifetime financial plan. However, relatively few employers offer financial education that is not closely related to their company's primary benefits; consequently, we expanded the scope of this study to include workplace financial education related to retirement.
Our research suggests that employers are primarily motivated to offer financial education to comply with the fiduciary duty standards of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act or to meet the federal nondiscrimination test to qualify their pension plan for favorable treatment by the IRS. But they appear to be motivated by other factors as well, including a desire to help their workers avoid getting into financial difficulties (the assumption being that a stressed worker is a less productive worker), the belief that offering financial education helps them recruit and retain employees, and out of a sense of social responsibility.
This overview looks at methods of delivering workplace financial education, including print media, workshops and seminars, Internet and intranet instructional programs, and counseling offered through employee assistance plans. It also looks at the self-selection problem with optional programs (higher-wage, financially savvy workers tend to welcome workplace financial education, while lower-wage workers, who would benefit the most from such education, generally do not), the use of incentives, the importance of following educational sessions with a chance to act immediately on what has been learned, worker-paid education, and interested versus disinterested third-party providers of financial education.
Most employers appear to agree with the social need to educate their workers, but in the current economic environment, they are unwilling to expend the necessary resources. This is mainly because 1) increased competition has squeezed profit margins, 2) other important benefits, particularly health care, have become more expensive, taking a greater share of the benefits pool, 3) employees do not seem to value financial education as highly as they do other corporate benefits, and 4) providing objective, effective financial education is expensive and hard for employers to justify on a cost-benefit basis.
Since there are few other effective means of providing basic financial education to American adults, we need to take another, pragmatic look at workplace delivery. In order to promote workplace financial education, we should consider 1) Helping companies pay for financial education programs, 2) initiating pilot programs, perhaps funded by philanthropic organizations, focused primarily on lower-wage employees, who have the most to gain from such education, and 3) leveraging the educational opportunities provided by interested third parties willing to fully disclose their interests by certifying those who are competent, ethical, and willing to deliver financial education to all employees on a nondiscriminatory basis.