While wealth and income gaps are noticeably pronounced today, in Jack Kosakowski’s view such disparity can be associated with a perennial American problem: the widespread inability to manage money.

“Almost all the research shows that the general population doesn’t have much confidence in money management,” says Kosakowski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to own their economic success, plan for their futures and make smart academic and economic choices.

“Most parents feel they’re not equipped to teach their children how to manage money and they rarely engage their children in the money management conversation. This is pretty clear from all the debt out there,” Kosakowski says.

In Kosakowski’s view, the money management conversation is as awkward for most American families as the “birds and bees” conversation. Educational institutions also don’t prioritize financial education and traditional financial literacy programs tend to focus on more complex concepts like the stock market as opposed to teaching children and adults the basics of money management.

In June, the International Monetary Fund issued an official warning to the U.S. government about the growing dangers of the high poverty rate that exists in our country today.

In its annual assessment of the U.S. economy, the IMF stated that about one in seven Americans is now living in poverty, a situation that the agency’s managing director Christine Lagarde says will “corrode the underpinnings of growth and hold back gains in U.S. living standards.”

So as much as poverty is rampant, the lack of basic financial knowledge makes things worse, and since its founding in 1919, Junior Achievement has worked to improve financial knowledge, encourage entrepreneurship and prepare young Americans to enter the workforce.

The organization’s programs reach more than 4.6 million students a year in 201,444 classrooms and after-school locations, in inner cities, suburbs and rural areas.

The programs focus on the basics: budgeting, saving, and how to properly use credit cards, he says. If these concepts are learned at a young age, that will help to reduce income and wealth gaps and improve savings such that financial advisors will then have a more informed generation of Americans to work with and help move through the various stages of proper financial planning, he maintains.

But the one key ingredient that, in Kosakowski’s view, can make all the difference to proper money management is belief.

“At Junior Achievement, we believe no one can improve their circumstance without a belief in themselves and a sense of purpose,” he says. “Most people from low-income backgrounds will say they can’t do something, rather than they can, but that’s because they don’t have knowledge, background or belief in themselves, so our mission is to inspire first and then prepare. Our programs provide knowledge but they are designed to inspire and instill self worth and that is very important.”

Kosakowski, who has worked for Junior Achievement for 42 years, has firsthand experience of what it is like to grow up without hope or inspiration. His father worked in a factory, he says, earning a minimum wage and convinced that there was no way out of his surroundings.

“As a kid, you know only your local environment and I thought that my father’s life was my future,” Kosakowski says. “It wasn’t until I joined Junior Achievement that I met people who saw in me something that others hadn’t and I went from thinking that things happened to knowing that you can make things happen for you.”

See how Pershing’s Mark Tibergien is tackling financial illiteracy one high school at a time, in A Local Solution to ‘Generate Enthusiasm’.