Knowledge is power, the saying goes. The mission of one Arkansas nonprofit is to equip the state’s youth with power through financial literacy.
Junior Achievement of Arkansas works to promote work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy among Arkansas students in kindergarten through 12th grade. In her role as Arkansas attorney general, Leslie Rutledge champions its mission.
She sees the financial education of students as an investment in the state’s future. As Arkansans enter the workforce for the first time, they should be prepared to balance a budget, be familiar with the process of starting a new business and most of all, be financially disciplined, Rutledge said.
Her commitment to financial literacy is being recognized this month by Junior Achievement. Rutledge and AT&T Arkansas President Ronnie Dedman are the recipients of JA’s 2020 Legacy Awards, honoring “exceptional leadership in supporting academics.”
“I couldn’t be more honored to be recognized by Junior Achievement with its goals to educate and make sure young people have the tools to take care of their communities,” she told Arkansas Money & Politics. “We really want young people to learn how to manage a budget. Everyone has a budget, whether you’re making minimum wage or whether you’re a billionaire. Every person has a budget.”
Also being honored are Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District, with the Educator Award, and Bank of America, recipient of the Nelson Summit Award in recognition of corporate commitment to education.
The pandemic necessitated a virtual Legacy Awards ceremony this year, but the 2020 show will roll as planned on Sept. 22 at 11:30 a.m. This year’s theme is “Inspiring Tomorrows,” and the ceremony will be streamed at JuniorAchievement.org/web/JA-Arkansas.
Tonya Villines, Junior Achievement of Arkansas president, said the Legacy Awards luncheon is the organization’s largest fundraising event, helping JA invest in more than 14,000 Arkansas students each year. The idea is to “ignite a spark” in students that will help them gain an appreciation for the realities of work and life.
One report suggests that groups like JA still have their work cut out for them. A 2018 study from the International Journal of Social Economics found that financial literacy among global youth was low and actually had “become a cause of concern.” The study also found that “various socio-economic and demographic such as age, gender, income, marital status and educational attainment influence the financial literacy level of youth,” and most importantly, “there exists an interrelationship between financial knowledge, financial attitude and financial behavior.”
Announcements in the past year that companies such as Amazon, Czech firearms manufacturer CZ-USA and HMS Manufacturing would build large facilities in Little Rock underscore the importance of an able workforce. That’s a lot of good jobs awaiting freshly minted young adults. Large-scale manufacturers Nucor and Big River Steel each cited the state’s workforce as one of the factors that attracted them to Mississippi County. Arkansas has always been able to offer manufacturers not only low costs of living and utilities but a willing and able workforce.
Rutledge wants to make sure “able” entails “financially literate.” Junior Achievement of Arkansas was launched in 1987 by Sheffield Nelson for that very reason.
“We need more high schools focused not on just sending students to college but on sending them into the workforce, because that’s where we’re head and shoulders above some of our neighboring states,” Rutledge said.
Technology, of course, continues to represent a growing slice of the workforce pie in Arkansas and beyond. As of 2015, the state was home to more than 5,000 tech-based startups, according to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC). With roughly 10 times the number of open computing jobs available nationally as there are computer science graduates, opportunity abounds.
Since the launch of the Learn to Code Initiative, which made Arkansas the first state to require coding education in schools, the number of Arkansas students taking computer science courses has increased by more than 400 percent. And from 2012 to 2017, the state saw an increase of 144 percent in the number of in-state students who graduated college with a computer science degree. On average, those graduates earn wages 78 percent higher than the state’s average salary, AEDC says.
Whichever route Arkansas’ high school grads take — lawyer, banker, software developer, machinist, electrician — Junior Achievement wants to help prepare them to function in the real world. After all, many of the newly independent Arkansans entering the workforce each year do so having never received formal or even anecdotal financial guidance at home or at school. Rutledge especially is motivated to help young adults learn to manage debt, a sometimes necessary evil that can represent financial quicksand in the form of bright, shiny new credit cards.
Growing up just outside Batesville in the now-incorporated Southside community, the 44-year-old Rutledge was taught never to buy something unless you could afford it and to be aware of one’s “cash in hand.” As a college student at the University of Arkansas, she often worked as many as three summer jobs that included flagging traffic for the state highway department. She understands the value of hard work and a dollar earned.
“You’ve got to learn how to prioritize and manage a budget that’s workable. It’s OK to want everything, but very few of us will have everything,” Rutledge said. “Credit cards were rare when I was growing up. Whereas now, buying things on plastic is the norm, and using your phone to make purchases. It’s almost too easy. You need to know exactly how much money is in your bank account and exactly how much you can spend.
“And so now, teaching financial literacy is different because we have too many young people who are getting suckered into having credit. And they end up ruining their credit and aren’t able to make those necessary purchases where you need that credit, like buying a vehicle or a home. They’re weighed down by bad credit that they acquired when they were young, perhaps coming right out of high school, and were wanting to have everything at once.”
Rutledge’s philosophy mirrors the lessons that Junior Achievement tries to impart: “Know what’s coming in, what’s required and how you can put some money back in savings for those emergencies, so you don’t have to take on debt. Because there are certain items that each of us needs like food, water, electricity. But learn how to prioritize and manage a budget that’s workable.”
As AG, Rutledge has, among other initiatives, made it a priority to educate students at Arkansas colleges and trade schools about debt. Student loan debt is challenging enough for students without adding credit card debt to the mix. Her office issues an annual alert aimed at college students warning of the potential dangers of credit cards. For example, it reminds students to be aware of how much interest they’re paying each month and to pay off balances when possible.
“People do need access to credit, however, access to credit that they can afford and responsibly pay down as opposed to carrying it with them for the rest of their lives,” Rutledge said. “Too many of our entrepreneurs are held back already because of their college loan debt. Think about how many young people walk out of a university or a college with a six-figure debt. And rather than having limited debt that they could pay off and be able to invest into starting a business, they’re paying the next 20 years on a student loan debt. We’re holding our best and brightest back.”
Rutledge, of course, hopes to continue her crusade to help protect Arkansans’ money as governor. Term-limited in 2022, she is one of two official candidates so far — joining another prominent Republican, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin — bidding to replace Gov. Asa Hutchinson, term-limited himself the same year.
“I do want to continue serving the people of Arkansas,” she said.
Rutledge likes to joke that her mother can tell you how much change is under the cushions of the family couch at any given time. She wants to continue helping Arkansans save their couch change as AG, and maybe even beyond.