FAIR Money, a small research collective consisting of anthropologists and design researchers based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has just published its first report, Good with Money: Getting by in Silicon Valley.
The report, which is based on interviews and a diary study with 10 people struggling to gain or hang on to firm financial footing in a booming local economy, focuses on the most striking finding: how skilled people are with money and how little their skill set overlaps with the money management skills traditionally taught in financial literacy classes.
The reportâ€™s introduction sums up the central arguments:
The â€œmaster narrativeâ€ of financial probity that dominates American culture at this historical moment makes it almost impossible to see the financial behavior of low- and middle-income Americans without a strong punitive bias. This dominant narrative focuses on living well within oneâ€™s means, using credit cards responsibly, saving for financial milestones, and managing oneâ€™s credit score. It refuses to acknowledge that wage stagnation, underemployment, and rising costs of health care and education leave vast numbers of Americans with insufficient income to cover basic expenses. When we consider financial actions and decisions from the inside out, in their full complexity and in the context of meaningful relationships and life choices, it becomes readily apparent that struggle, hard work, ingenuity, and bad luck are much more common than financial irresponsibility or ignorance.
One of the practical manifestations of this master narrative of financial probity (or assumed lack of) is the financial literacy industry, both for-profit and not-for-profit. Financial literacy education makes a foundational assumption that adverse financial outcomes are due to ignorance and/or irresponsibility and that education can effectively eradicate both. This report argues that offering education as a solution to financial struggle is a fairy tale that does real harm. It obscures the massive 30-year-long redistribution of wealth to the very top of American society. It blames the victims of this redistribution for their misfortune and distorts our thinking and our judgment. In obscuring the causes of the financial struggles experienced by average Americans, financial literacy education also makes it much more difficult to think about true solutions.
The report discusses particular â€œscriptsâ€ in the master narrative condemning people who struggle financially, and it proposes a different way to think about their choices and decisions. It also contains the financial stories of the research participants told through a lens of empathy and historical understanding.
Fair Money is a research collective dedicated to a deep understanding of household financial management under conditions of extreme inequality. The collective is interested in peopleâ€™s behaviors, decisions, and ideals, in the tools and services available to them, and in the overarching conceptual frameworks that give them meaning. The collective consists of anthropologists and design researchers based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The collective arose out of a sense of personal outrage over the exploitative practices of payday lenders. In the course of conducting its first research study, the group broadened its mission to encompass household finance in general.