Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing into the importance of financial literacy. It is clear from the distinguished panel before us today, including Secretary O'Neill, Chairman Greenspan, and Chairman Pitt, that you have identified an issue that merits the attention of our nation's top policy-makers. Thank you all for joining us today.
Mr. Chairman, America is a great country. And part of what makes our nation great is the opportunity that we all have to make something of ourselves. Americans love rags-to-riches stories, because they represent the best of what this country has to offer - opportunity for all.
But opportunities are limited for those who have not had access to education. Just as basic illiteracy limits the professional and personal opportunities for far too many Americans, financial illiteracy has limited the economic success of an even larger group.
In fact, financial illiteracy of a surprisingly large segment of our population has in all likelihood impaired the success of our marketplace, and not just of those individuals. That's why we should all be concerned, and so many players in the industry have stepped forward with valuable educational programs. Yet clearly, more needs to be done.
As the terrorists responsible for September 11 recognized, America's free markets are a central driver of this nation's economic prosperity. Yet as a student in a first year economics classroom will tell you, markets function smoothly if, and only if, full information is both freely available and able processed correctly.
On the consumer side, if a person lacks basic financial literacy, no amount of information will help him or her make a good financial decision, whether it be the choice between a fixed-rate or adjustable-rate mortgage, or whether to buy or lease a new car, if that person lacks the basic skills to analyze the information. Of course, we need to be ever-vigilant to make sure that information is conveyed in plain English. But we face a great challenge to make sure that all Americans, starting with our children, are taught how to make sound financial decisions.
Of course, for information to be useful even to the most sophisticated consumer, it must be accurate. And as we are all very much aware, recent events have called into question the accuracy of publicly-available information. Without moving too far afield from today's subject, I would urge that we in government put our heads together to figure out a way to ensure that our public companies and accounting firms, most of which are upstanding corporate citizens, comply with our laws.
As Chairman Pitt knows better than any of us, the SEC plays a critical role in overseeing the information that keeps our markets functioning smoothly. And I am sure he shares my disappointment that, despite the Senate's action in passing H.R. 1088 in late December, President Bush chose not to set aside money in this year's budget to bring SEC salaries to parity with the other federal banking agencies.
We passed that bill in large measure because we were concerned that in the past three years, more than 1/3 of all SEC employees have left the agency. There is simply no question that without qualified employees, who have experience and institutional knowledge, the SEC will falter.
In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that a strong SEC is an integral part of our Homeland Security. And money should be made available to ensure that the guardians of our markets are not paid less than those minding our banks.
Mr. Chairman, we are here today because we recognize that America's economic well-being is a topic that should command the attention of our top policy-makers. I thank you for calling attention to the role that financial literacy plays in our economic and social success. I look forward to hearing from our distinguished witnesses.