Why it’s time to start prioritising financial literacy for First Nations people

first nations

There is one factor underpinning all 17 Closing the Gap targets that is not being paid enough attention: financial literacy.

Accessing health services, especially when you live in remote or regional areas, can be expensive when you factor in the medical costs along with travel, accommodation and food.

Feeding your family, often your extended family, a healthy varied diet is not cheap in remote areas, and not even cheap in inner cities right now.

Being able to find the right care for your sick or elderly; accessing education, tertiary studies, vocational training — this all costs money.

Engaging lawyers when needed is especially costly. Imagine more Aboriginal families being able to afford quality legal representation and what difference this would make to incarceration rates for Aboriginal peoples.

So, what if your family never had the chance to build money skills? What if your wages were stolen, you were paid in rations, you never actually had control of your own money or were paid very little, were never able to “legally” purchase land or homes so you could pass them down to your children or grandchildren? 

These aren’t old practices; they were only one or two generations ago. Even this generation right now had to endure flawed and undignified cashless debit cards.

How would you build meaningful financial prosperity — intergenerational financial prosperity?

Financial vulnerability

It’s important to understand how we got to this level of financial disparity before we even talk about the numbers. It’s not that First Nations people don’t take responsibility when it comes to their finances or that we don’t care. It’s because we never had the opportunity. 

Our First Nations Foundation Money Stories research, conducted with Centre of Social Impact and NAB, found 48% of First Nations people experienced high or severe levels of financial vulnerability. For non-Indigenous Australians, it was 11%.

Further, less than 40% of First Nations people had access to $2,000 in savings in case of an emergency. For non-Indigenous Australians, it was 70%.

These might sound dire, but there’s hope. As a result of Closing Gap initiatives, we are seeing more Aboriginal people being employed and occupying significant roles within the workforce. We are at a pivotal moment where, for the first time, we might have money left over after each pay. 

The issue is many First Nations people don’t have the foundational financial literacy to know what to do with it, and we don’t yet have the knowledge embedded back into community after dispossession to simply ask friends or family.

Businesses have a role to play

This is where corporate Australia can do better, much better.

First, by understanding why there have been generational barriers to financial literacy as we’ve talked about here.

Second, by understanding how they can better support their First Nations employees and their families.

Third, by understanding how they can use their business or service to make scalable impact in community, whether it’s through funding money skills training or superannuation workshops, mentorship programs or specialised professional development programs, even auditing how their business operates to find out how there might be barriers for First Nations mob and making changes to be more inclusive.

Addressing financial education and financial wellbeing is really the missing puzzle piece to amplify and accelerate all Closing the Gap targets. Recent reports have shown we are significantly behind in many areas, so it’s time to do more.

This is up to all of us.

Phil Usher is the CEO of the First Nations Foundation. Phil is a Wiradjuri man, but as he grew up in Tamworth he identifies more with the Gameroi people.

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