The U.S. economy has taken a significant hit as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect workers and business owners around the country. And those in lower-income communities are more adversely affected by the downturn. In times of economic strain, financial literacy—the knowledge of how to manage one’s money—is more important than ever.
Dennis Martin, DBA ’18, is using his education and experience to help increase the financial literacy of those in underserved areas.
“Growing up in a rural small town in Alabama, I had an understanding of money at an early age, around 15 or 16, thanks to my mother,” Martin says. “But I know a lot of people from minority areas who haven’t been taught about things like payday banking and lending, or even just knowing the definition behind money and savings.”
Martin was inspired to use his expertise to help others. After more than 25 years of experience in leadership and financial management in the federal government, military and corporate America, Martin had an educated guess that he wanted to back up with data.
“For things like savings and credit, some of the basic concepts of financial literacy, I believed that there was a gap between what minority communities know and what senior financial officials who run financial institutions thought that people know,” says Martin.
For his dissertation as part of the Fox School’s Executive Doctorate in Business Administration program, Martin conducted studies in urban and rural communities around Washington, D.C., Alabama, North Carolina and Missouri. He met with members of minority churches and other community groups to gauge what they knew about financial literacy. He then gave informative presentations and conducted a post-survey to discover how much they learned.
“Then I spoke with some of the senior officials. I found that, for some of the basic concepts, they didn’t really realize what these communities didn’t know,” says Martin. “In most financial institutions’ charters, they have a goal to reach out to the community. But do they really put it into the neighborhoods where it’s most needed?”
Martin says that the industry needs to understand and encourage better financial options for the underserved, who may only have payday loan shops in their neighborhoods as opposed to accredited alternatives like credit unions.
“If I’m working all day, the bank may not be open late or on the weekends,” Martin explains. “Paperwork is another component. You have to have that trust factor. A lot of people in the minority community don’t want people to be in their business. Payday loans and check cashing centers are not asking for a whole lot of paperwork.”
Martin also champions financial education for those in minority and underserved communities.
He turned his dissertation into a book, Financial Decision Making: Understanding Your Options, that aims to help individuals looking to improve their finances.
“One of the biggest things I stress is, as consumers spend billions of dollars, make sure you read the fine print. That’s why we need to have financial literacy continuously—from middle school up to when we are senior citizens,” says Martin. “Making good financial decisions is hard until you’ve been educated or had financial literacy training. Literacy has got to be there first.”
This financial literacy is an ongoing effort that requires industry leaders to make specific efforts to engage with local leaders, like pastors and rabbis, in order to build trust and recognize the needs of the specific community. Leaders like Martin can speak to both groups with authenticity backed by research and experience.
“Dennis has a passion for improving financial literacy and financial decision making,” says Susan Mudambi, Martin’s dissertation chair and academic director of the Executive DBA program at the Fox School. “His experience in the Executive DBA program is emblematic of what our program tries to accomplish—being the bridge between academic insights and practical applications.”