Why are we so scared to talk about the economy?

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13 2014 7:00 a.m. MST

With a security guard standing by, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, before the House Financial Services Committee hearing.

Cliff Owen, Associated Press

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The most important policy priority, according to a Pew Research study released this month, is “strengthening the nation’s economy.” Economic concerns took the top slot over defending the country from terrorism, improving education and reducing the budget deficit. Despite the overwhelming concern, some feel the economy isn't being taken seriously in public discourse.

“We heard more about the snowflake in Sochi that didn’t turn into an Olympic ring — and the ensuing cover-up — than the fact that only 113,000 jobs were added in January,” Forbes’ Doug Schoen wrote on Tuesday, placing much of the blame on the media cycle for choosing to ignore economic issues in favor of less “marquis” issues.

“The American public has spoken,” he continued. “The economy is what matters to them.”

The problem isn’t only to be found (or not found) among the movers of the media. Time’s Dan Kadlec also feels that schools are failing by not requiring more courses on economics.

“With the economy on the front page most days the past six years, you might think economics and personal finance would be a prominent subject in our schools.” But that’s not the case, according to Kadlec, who cites a recent study by the Council for Economic Education.

The study found that less than 50 percent of all states require a class in economics, and the number gets even worse when it comes to personal finance.

“These courses remain a tough sell at the state level — and that is where the battle lines are drawn. Unlike in the U.K. and other regions with a federal mandate for financial education, state authorities call the shots in America. They must be convinced one at a time, and they have been slow to respond.”

So why, then, do we tend to shy away from focusing on the economy?

One reason could be because in general, Americans do not have a terribly optimistic view toward the economy as of late. Yes, they find it important, but according to a Pew Study released in September of last year, only 28 percent of Americans believe the economic situation of the country will improve within a year. The highest percentage (48 percent to be exact) thought that at best the situation will remain the same.

Add to that, many Americans find the economy confusing, and largely take their stances along partisan lines. In other words, for many Americans, their minds are already made up. To them, the constant analysis of jobs numbers and economic projections is just background noise.

It becomes easier to see, then, why news organizations might choose to focus on matters that generate less indifference or frustration from the general public. Another Pew study recently found that 81 percent of Americans plan on tuning into the Olympics, at least for a little while (which would explain Schoen's complaint about Olympic coverage). The State of the Union address, on the other hand — which touched heavily on economic issues — attracted its lowest viewership since 2000.

As for more economics courses in school, Kadlec also points out that though the numbers aren’t quite what they should be, “the long trend is mildly positive,” which may have some impact on public attitudes toward financial matters.

With more availability to new technologies and techniques for teaching money and economics to a younger generation, Kadlec — as well as The Wall Street Journal’s Brenda Cronin — are hopeful that more effective methods will lead to a larger push toward financial education. If those who are in school now begin to feel less intimidated by economics, then maybe their better understanding in the classroom will lead to more interest down the road.

JJ Feinauer is a web producer for Moneywise and Opinion on DeseretNews.com. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: @jjfeinauer.

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