A Modest Proposal for Curing Our Economic Woes: Mandatory Home Ec

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Serious student cutting fabric in home economics classroom
Alamy
Do you ever wonder why and how America got into the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression? The answer is actually pretty simple: It's because you didn't take home ec in high school.

I know, I know: When discussing America's economic woes, it's easy to fall into the trap of blaming the entire financial crisis on a single cause. But while it's fun to blame every problem on entitlement spending or low tax rates, the military industrial complex or socialists, Barack Obama or Antonin Scalia, the truth is usually more complex. Then again, complex explanations only work if the audience is equipped to understand them.

And that's where home economics comes in.

When most people think of home ec, the first things that come to mind are skills like cooking and sewing. In a broader sense, however, teaching those things was only a small part of why the course was created -- and what it offered students. As Ruth Graham recently noted in the Boston Globe, the overarching goal of home economics was to help young people learn how to run an efficient household -- and that included basic financial skills like how to make a budget, balance a checkbook and shop efficiently.

Beyond that, however, home ec skills like cooking, cleaning and sewing are themselves money-savers. Homemade meals tend to be cheaper -- and healthier -- than convenience foods. The abilities to sew adequately, clean efficiently and comparison shop can save a household untold amounts of money.

A Victim of Its Own Success, and the Times

In some ways, home ec was done in by its own success: As basic household skills became almost ubiquitous, critics of the class could reasonably ask why it was necessary to teach it in schools. At the same time, home ec's focus on household skills seemed to be enforcing gender norms -- a factor that put it in the crosshairs of feminist critics like Robin Morgan. By the 1990s, when it changed its name to Family and Consumer Sciences, the class had become an anachronism, a relic left over from the days of "The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best."

Fast-forward 20 years, and we find our society facing a frightening dearth of personal finance knowledge. For the last several years, the Treasury Department and the Department of Education have administered a basic financial literacy test to high school students. On average, the kids scored just 70 percent. The results of a 10-year survey by the Jumpstart Coalition for Financial Literacy were even more dire: they found that yearly scores ranged as low as 48.3 percent. And milennials aren't the only ones who have problems with basic financial knowledge: The average score on FINRA's five-question financial literacy quiz is 58 percent.

A growing body of critics and pundits are calling for a major facelift for home ec, but this -- like many recently suggested solutions to long-standing economic problems -- closes the barn door long after the horse has fled. A freshly-relevant home ec program won't do too much good for the millennials and Gen Xers who managed to make it through school without learning the basic life skills a good home ec course would have provided.

But even if you never learned how to cook, sew and run a fiscally-sustainable and efficient home, take heart: There are a growing number of books available to help you catch up on the lessons you missed. And, for that matter, there are numerous websites (ahem!) that offer information on ethical buying and careful consumerism. Just because your local educational system failed you, there's no reason that you have to fail yourself.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.


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thehansons5hansonje

As a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher, I can assure you the my colleagues and I do not perpetuate the 1950's housewife. In the area of life skills, we offer courses on the topics of nutrition and wellness, healthy relationships, parenting and child development, and personal finance. In the area of career choices, we offer courses in culinary arts, early childhood education, teachers for tomorrow, fashion design, interior design, and hospitality. All courses are offered to boys and girls alike.
BECAUSE our society is predominantly made of double income families, life skills are critical. Due to our society's fast paced, stressed out lifestyle, students need to have a basic understanding of proper nutrition and stress management, how to maintain healthy relationships, good parenting strategies, how to manage money and live within your means, and how to run an efficient household in order to manage their lives.
In a perfect world, these things would be taught by parents... but many of today's parents were never taught these skills; hence they do not have or practice those skills. Look at the rates of obesity, stress, depression, divorce, and financial problems in our country. To the naysayers in this discussion thread, how can offering courses that help all students become productive, healthy members of society who understand how to balance work and family life be a bad thing?

November 02 2013 at 9:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dennis

Home economics made sense back when there was a stay at home wife, and that has change as of 50 years ago, and this curriculum has been antiquated ever since. I just can’t understand why the tax payers are still funding a useless curriculum by today’s standards. It would seem, that we should eliminate home economics and teach personal finance instead, because if the people are well educated on how to use money both the individual and the society will benefit.

October 22 2013 at 4:42 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
bernice

In nyc, how to you have a median income of only 55000/year for the general population and the prices of houses in nyc are 500000-$2 million and rent is 1600-2000/month for a 2 bedroom rental in the nice neighborhoods? Then colleges cost more money than what its' worth and you can't even pay off your student loans because when you get out of college, (depending on your major) you aren't even making a lot of money? You want to give student loans for $80000, but yet when the student comes out of college, they are barely even making $40000! How does the government account for that ? But yet they want to blame the people even though the price of housing and rent in nyc is WAY out of control and is unrealistic, college prices are at a crazy high!....then the government has the AUDACITY to justify trying to give illegals citizenship by telling us Americans that "we dont reproduce enough"! Who can afford to reproduce, CONGRESS? It's not like the government is handing me welfare for any of my children!! Excuse me that I was born here and HAVE to get raped with taxes to fund congress's shitty spending habits and handouts to illegals!!

October 22 2013 at 11:57 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
bernice

I don't think this is very acurate...it's kind of hard to balance a budget when most of the people out there don't even have money to make a budget to balance!

October 22 2013 at 11:46 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Geoff

Actually, home ec mandated that materials be purchased to produce a shirt. The materials cost twice as much as a nice shirt could be purchased for at the store, not to mention the valuable hours spent producing it. It proved that making shirts was no longer economically viable, but the home ec teacher was not required to take economic classes, evidently.

October 22 2013 at 11:23 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rkeeeballs

I remember as a kid when we were not such a dang disposable society. Tell today's youth that your mom put a light bulb in a sock....to "darn" a hole and extend it's life....lol Then wait for the puzzled look and the eye roll... :>)....Most of the younger set seems OK with going out for a bite to eat.....because they can't/won't cook...$..

October 22 2013 at 10:57 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Sonny

The drug laced population, dependent upon the Govt, has no time for home economics............. it infringes upon their free time!

October 22 2013 at 10:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
budner1

More garbage from the lackies on the left. Blame the people, they are just not smart enough. Victimhood reigns supreme. What about the dumb-a** policies that mandate that more people become elligible, by loosening the lending policies.Say.. let's force those evil banks to lend to people who they KNOW cannot possibly repay thier debt. HELLO BARNEY can you hear me!

October 22 2013 at 10:52 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
toosmart4u

The government does create millions of jobs in this country. Most of them have great benefits that is why so many people run for office. The republicans will take away your benefits but fight to keep their own.

October 22 2013 at 10:48 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to toosmart4u's comment
sales5ralls

Wow, you just continue to astound me with your stupid remarks.

October 22 2013 at 11:07 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
boowah

You forgot the prime reason.....It accomplishes the right winger's dream of keeping women in the home and out of the work force!

October 22 2013 at 10:22 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply