A dearth of math skills might very well explain extreme inequality in America.
A new study shows that more than 20% of Americans lack the basic math skills required to make good financial and health choices. The same study notes that basic math skills with corresponding confidence in those skills tend to lead to better financial and health outcomes.
The study observes that 73 million Americans lack the basic math skills necessary to make profitable financial and health decisions. Moreover, the study finds that there must be a match between math skills and the confidence to use them.
If one has good math skills but is not confident in those skills then that person does not trust their own judgment to make decisions based on their math. Conversely, if one has poor math skills, but has confidence that doesn’t match the skill, then that person is unlikely to find financial prosperity. In order to attain prosperity, one must have the math skills and the confidence to match. I can attest to this from my own personal experience.
I can remember my early days with math. In second grade, I had a really cool Japanese math teacher. He taught us math and administered a math test every Friday. This math test consisted of about 30 simple addition and subtraction problems with a time limit. At first, I failed to complete the test. And then I saw the kids that got a 100% right on the test on Wednesday were in line for free ice cream after school on Fridays. So I learned how to just finish the test. Then I became determined to pass that test with 100%, and I did. I will never forget the sweetness of that ice cream on Fridays.
In that environment, I got plenty of support, plenty of challenges and developed corresponding confidence to match my math skills. I continued my relationship with math throughout my school years and to this day. And later on, I was the one who enjoyed the word problems while everyone else groaned. I had figured out how to break them down to steps for calculating the answer.
As a young man, I was a sheet metal worker and I used math every day to calculate distances, quantities, angles, and offsets. I used math while working on a giant shear, a 10-foot long blade that can cut sheet metal up to 16 gauge in thickness. For example, I used math to calculate the number of 7–3/4 inch strips I’d get from a 10-foot long and 5-foot wide piece of metal. I did that in my head.
Even in the present day, I use math to calculate my time and record it at work. Adding and subtracting time is a bit different than base 10 math in that the hour is 60 minutes, not 100. So I figured out a shorthand method for calculating the difference in time between the start to finish. I broke it down into simple addition tasks instead of trying to subtract minutes from hours and making it more complicated than it needed to be. I do that in my head every day, too. I even wrote a short tutorial for timekeeping and have passed it on to my managers because they have subordinates with timekeeping challenges.
I still use math in my finances and my health decisions. I use math to figure my taxes. I use math for judging my experience with the health insurance I choose and use. I use math to estimate and gauge my commute time. As a result of my math skills, which aren’t terribly impressive, I am more prosperous now than I have ever been, due in part to having some skills with math and the confidence to match.
So it is with some interest to read that when people lack basic math skills, they have difficulty building wealth. I found other articles to confirm the first. I found another study that confirms that numeracy really is a word and that couples with greater skills with numbers tend to find greater prosperity.
I also found that kids who participate in math activities at home also develop their vocabularies in the process of working with math. It takes more than a few words to describe how math works. But the very act of describing mathematics with words requires more language skills.
According to the Eurekalert article:
Exposure to basic numbers and math concepts at home were predictive, even more so than storybook reading or other literacy-rich interactions, of improving preschool children’s general vocabulary.
I also think that a deficiency in math skills helps to explain the extreme inequality we see in America today. It’s an obvious conclusion to reach, but you won’t find it in any headline. It just makes sense that if so many people lack math skills, they’re going to have a hard time keeping the money they make. Accumulating wealth is a challenge for people who are innumerate, just as people who are illiterate have difficulty learning new things through reading.
22% of Americans lack the numeracy required to accumulate wealth, and that’s probably a low estimate. That number is compounded by the fact that most people lack the connections and the skills to use them, to exert a significant influence in the laws that help to give rise to the extreme inequality we observe in America today. While it is easy to say that the system is rigged, it is useful to point out that we need more people with the skills needed to unrig the system. One of those skills is knowing how to do the math required to make the system work for everyone.