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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