Talking Finance with Chicago Public Schools & The Aspen Institute

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post when I was a mentor for The Aspen Challenge.

The Aspen Challenge — launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation — provides a platform, inspiration, and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the most critical issues humanity faces. The program engages leading global visionaries, artists, and entrepreneurs to issue real world challenges to teams of students.

Twenty teams from Chicago Public Schools will compete with each other and present their solutions for a chance to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here, I explain why it’s important to teach children about personal finance and how the Challenge prepares students to be leaders and problem-solvers

---- 

I’ve been hearing the phrase, “It’s expensive to be poor,” a lot lately. Elite policy circles, academia, and the mainstream press have spilled a lot of ink on it. I even got into the fun a couple of weeks ago, when I was asked by the Aspen Challenge to speak on this very subject.

As a product of the Chicago Public Schools, I jumped at the chance to speak to 200 kids, representing 20 high schools across the city, to engage on this topic through the Aspen Challenge. Using the check-cashing industry as an example, I waxed poetic about how these types of entities exist mainly to extract value from the communities in which they are most prevalent. I talked about how crazy it is that in 2016, people are still walking into a physical store, and spending an extra 10 to 20 percent to cash their checks, when I’ve been using a smart phone to cash mine since 2002 (for free!).

I asked the students to think about how much money goes through cashing checks on a yearly basis. I walked them through the math to show how much that meant for all of them. I then asked them to guess how much per year this cost communities like theirs across the country.

“$100 million?”

“No,” I replied, as I tried to suppress a slight grin thinking about how epic this reveal was about to be.

“$500 million?”

“No,” I replied again, as my grin widened like I was overlooking Whoville on Christmas Eve from the podium.

“$2 billion,” someone called out, as I loosened my mic in preparation for the mic-drop to end all mic-drops.

“$51 billion, actually. That’s a huge chunk of change that could instead be infused back into these neighborhoods,” I said, while inwardly flinching in expectation of all the flying brain matter as their heads exploded with the shock.

Except. It didn’t exactly work the way I planned it would. Certainly, the kids were shocked at the price, and more than a few glanced around with incredulous looks at their friends. But then the questions started to roll in.

“So,” one girl began, “What if I can’t get a checking account because my credit is bad?”

“Okay,” another started, “but what if I can’t get a card because I don’t have the appropriate documents?”

Then, another fellow chimed in. “But what if I gotta pay my rent, or buy food, and I’m waiting for the check to clear?”

It was like the Whos had just broken out into song. My grin quickly diminished as I attempted to respond to these super-smart questions, which are not that easy to answer.

I am fond of a saying, “If it appears to you that rational people are acting irrationally, then it’s likely that you yourself are missing something.”

These young people, with their pointed questions, were demonstrating this in real time. This isn’t just a policy question. This is a real life question. These kids live in the real world, and have to make real decisions every day, often with incomplete information.

We can talk all day about how an industry is taking advantage of the most vulnerable populations, but what are we going to do about it?

We can’t expect the banks, or the currency exchange, to make that change independently. Why would they? After all, $51 billion is a lot of money.

Certainly, we can push for more and better regulation for industries that take advantage of vulnerable communities. However, as those kids will tell you, they can’t wait for that. They have to deal with these hard decisions today.

That’s where the Aspen Challenge comes in, helping young people design solutions to some of the most critical issues that they face every single day. I challenged the students to empower their peers to understand the financial rules that govern their lives and implement a method for enabling them to maximize the rules to their benefit.

As I told these kids, I had many of these same problems growing up on the South Side of Chicago. And with a lot of work, a lot of help, and a little bit of luck I gained the tools I needed to become financially capable. I hustled my way through college, was fortunate enough to work for some amazing companies and accomplish some amazing things.

I came to Moneythink because I wanted to make sure other kids like me did not have to walk the same circuitous route that I did. These kids should not have to go it alone and figure it out for themselves. As a person, that’s important to me.

As an organization, we understand the same thing. We at Moneythink have spent the last six years learning how to best teach finance, and incorporate it into a young person’s life in a way that it will stick.

It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve learned a lot. We also know that other organizations are struggling with the same questions and challenges we faced. As such, we’ve started to help other organizations incorporate financial education and capability into their programs. To us, it’s a no brainer. They are better positioned, and have the attention of far more kids than we do.

By working with them, and helping them solve one of their key problems, how to teach financial capability, we have the ability to reach far more young people than we could alone, because if nothing else, $51 billion is a lot of checks.