Chairman of Operation Hope offers his suggestions for solving the drop out crisis.

Written Exclusively for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

Where I grew up young people regularly dropped out of high school prior to graduation. The reasons vary, from a lack of parental involvement and aspirational encouragement (parents who also many times did not complete high school themselves, yet alone college), to a powerful combination of low-self esteem and a sad lack of role models, all sending one very powerful message – why bother.

Or was it the local drug dealer who seemed to send the message that a young person did not need to stay in school, graduate, or go on to college in order for kids from the neighborhood to do well?

Or worse, the message that you were somehow a sap if you stayed in school and did well, while everyone else with smarts was “getting paid,” now. Of course no one mentioned that getting paid in this way often also involved what I called the “3 P’s”; prison, probation and parole, or worse if you were unlucky. Unlucky like my best friend George when I was growing up in Compton, Calif. George, a straight A student, was murdered before he was 18 years old, because he wanted to look “cool” like the so called “big ballers” standing on local street corners. Brilliance, wasted.

Sometimes it was as simple as a kid feeling that they needed to help out mom and dad by actively contributing to their family’s meager but consequential monthly household’s income. Dignity.

In all of these cases, even the remotely honorable ones, the perception, and ultimately the result was all the same.

Perception: school is not cool, or simply not important, or worse, that it will not get you anywhere. It is not tied to your aspirations in life, and it will not help you get rich.

Reality: according to The Silent Epidemic report written by Civic Enterprises that shared the perspectives of high school dropouts, approximately one-third of all children, and 50 percent of minorities, in public high school drop out of high school nationwide. In many of the nation’s “dropout factories,” the percentage of dropouts far outpaces the percentage of graduates.

This is not good for 21st century America, and it is an economic death sentence if not changed for black, brown and low-wealth communities nationwide, or almost 100 million Americans. Can we afford to write-off almost 100 million Americans, or approximately a third of our nation’s population? Who is going to fund our Social Security fund in retirement if we do? Hello.

My experience, growing up in an inner city neighborhood is that these are not dumb kids. These are simply misdirected kids. Kids who have somehow lost their way, are low on hope and self-esteem, and unfortunately, kids who also don’t believe that education is relevant to their futures. Well, in the neighborhoods where I grew up the main messages as well as the messaging was clear – “how do I get rich, or at least do well in life?” Isn’t that what the American dream is all about? An aspiration for every American to do well, or at least to be able to succeed or fail on his or her own steam; and to be able to take care of their respective families and responsibilities.

I believe that one way to show kids the relevancy of education is to teach them the language of money at an early age. To link education with aspirations, and to show kids how they can get rich, legally. That’s the power of financial literacy, or what I see as the first step in our growing “silver rights” movement, and the power of education too.

Without question, education is the ultimate poverty eradication tool, for when you know better you tend to do better. But financial literacy is the means by which one moves from simply avoiding the poverty trap to embracing a true prosperity agenda; for themselves, their families and their communities.

Prosperity as the Partner to Peace

“Middle class folks don’t want war …they want to shop, contribute their fair share, and (to) spend time with their families.” What’s wrong with that vision for America? Absolutely nothing. And that’s not a black middle class dream, or a white middle class dream, or a Latino, Asian or Indian middle class dream. That is simply the American middle class dream. Maybe it’s a middle class aspiration the world over too.

In any event, with respect to our kids, we all need to make “smart sexy again,” because we have sure succeeded at making dumb sexy over the past 20 years or so. My friend Quincy Jones told me recently that it takes 20 years to create a culture. What kind of culture have we created amongst our young people over the past 20 years? Are we proud of that? Really?

I remember the Bank of America banker who came into my school classroom when I was 9 years old back in Compton. I remember him as much for the starch white shirt, red tie, and crisp black suit that he wore in my class as for anything he said about banking and money, although obviously the money and banking piece had a long term impact on me too (smile). Oddly enough, I don’t remember what race he was. My point is, I had never seen a man with a suit on before, at least not one talking to me. How many kids today, particularly in low wealth communities, see a woman with a dress or business suit on, or a man with a suit on? Answer: very few.

The book “The Tipping Point” speaks to the fact that communities that are relatively stable have 5 percent or more of role models within them; from doctors, to lawyers, to accountants, bankers and such. And so, from say the 50 percent role model level all the way down to a mere 5 percent, a community is stable. That’s inspiring to me. As little as 5 percent. But, at 3.7 percent role models in a community, irrespective of race, everything negative explodes; from teen pregnancies to crime, to yes, high school dropout rates.

What’s the magic of 3.7 percent you ask? My guess is that at 3.7 percent the most hopeful young person cannot remember, reflect upon, understand or even appreciate meaningfully what a real role model looks like, and so no wonder every urban, inner city young person I meet these days wants to be a rap star, an athlete, or God forbid a drug dealer. It makes sense, actually. These are not dumb kids. They are modeling precisely what they see. For them, these narrow routes seem to them the broadest available routes out of poverty and despair in their communities.

No, we are not talking about dumb kids. These kids are very smart. Example:

I think drug dealing is one of the most morally offensive and disgusting “businesses” ever imagined, and when caught the perpetrators should go straight to jail. Period. Now, this said, you cannot be a dumb successful drug dealer. Yes, I said it.

If you pursue this immoral trade (of drug dealing), and you are somehow good at it, you are not dumb. You are wrong as two left shoes, but you are not dumb. You understand finance, marketing, distribution, customer service, market penetration, territory, pricing, wholesale, retail, profit margins, and maybe import and export too. No, these kids are not dumb nor stupid, but simply misdirected, and in need of hope and a practical sense of opportunity in their lives. What they need are the role models and mentors I had growing up in inner city Compton and South Central Los Angeles, which started with my amazing mom and dad.

As a result of the bad choices that many of these immensely bright kids have made in their lives, most of them will probably never be able to secure a meaningful job at a major Fortune 500 company (which conducts background checks), but they can become an entrepreneur. Heck, they are already entrepreneurs.

What if we unleashed upon America, and the world, a new vision for the 21st century? An aspirat
ional generation of role model inspired, positive and contributing young entrepreneurs, self-employment projects and “doers” over the next 20 years? I’ll tell you what would happen, America would get a genuine second shot at keeping this party called American prosperity going over the next 100 years, because you cannot keep a third of the American population on the economic and aspirational sidelines and otherwise expect that it will.

This sort of positive vision would be good for America, and good for (once) poor people too. Now that’s aspirations in action. We need to make smart sexy again.

The 5 Percent Challenge

What if we all came together and tackled the 5% problem of role models, or the lack thereof, in America’s low wealth, urban and rural under-served communities?

What if you, yes you, decided to give Operation HOPE, or Junior Achievement, or Boys & Girls Clubs, or the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, or any number of other credible organizations or groups serving others one hour of your time per month?

Just one hour.

Let me make it even easier.

Why don’t you give me that one hour on your way to work, or your way home from work, one day per month, and use it to “tell your story” (at HOPE and Global Dignity we call it “A Course in Dignity” and you don’t have be financially literate to teach it), at a local school, or community organization that you have some personal connection to. Or maybe it is simply near you.

What if you and 25,000 other Americans did this once a month, for just one hour, for 12 months? I tell you “what,” we could change America for the better, “that’s what.”

Yes, I remember to this very day that banker giving their time and coming into my classroom in Compton, just like the kids served today by Operation HOPE’s “Banking on Our Future” financial literacy program remember our proud and committed HOPE Corp volunteers, who go daily into inner city classrooms all across this country. And they don’t just remember or learn that “ATM” doesn’t mean “All The Money” either. After just one hour of having one of our HOPE Corps volunteers in that classroom (it actually takes a minimum of 4 consecutive hours to complete a “Banking on Our Future” program set), something magical happens. Young Ms. I-Want-to-be-Popular Sanchez in the second row, or young Mr. Trying-to-be-Cool Jones in the back row, is saying to themselves — “….I can be YOU.” And that is how you break the back of poverty in America.

There is a difference between being broke and being poor.

As I often say, “being broke is a temporary economic condition, but being poor is a disabling frame of mind and a depressed condition of one’s spirit, and we must vow to never, ever be poor again.”

At Operation HOPE we have launched a 5 million kid, 5 percent role model (25,000 new HOPE Corps volunteers recruited), 5 year initiative. Call it 5 by 5.

We have vowed that between now and 2012, we will reach and teach 5 million young people, with the help of 25,000 recruited HOPE Corps volunteers, and we will teach them the basics of a checking account, a savings account, and the importance of credit and investment in their young lives. We will teach them the language of money, we will give them a course in “dignity,” and in South Africa we even teach a course in entrepreneurship because there are not enough jobs to go around, and so we must then create self employment projects and a generation of entrepreneurs.

This We Can Do

We must make smart sexy again, and we most begin to better show the aspirational relevancy of education to our young people, if we ever expect to meaningfully kick the high school dropout craze.

Here is my prescription for America, and the dropout generation too:

  • Funding for financial literacy: Congress should seriously consider providing funding for financial literacy education and empowerment, for young people and adults alike.
  • Financial literacy for every child: Financial literacy should be mandatory for every child in America, but particularly low-wealth young people who may lack proper role models. You cannot live in the largest economy in the world and not teach young people the basic language of money, let alone the rules of capitalism and free enterprise.
  • A bank account for every American: We should begin giving a child a bank account for their birthday, instead of a toy or game they will break, or worse forget about in 3 days flat. Civil rights icon and my personal hero Ambassador Andrew Young and I have called for a “Silver Rights Bill,” which would make an electronic debit card accessed, FDIC insured bank account a legal human right for every American. More Americans don’t have a bank account today (easily more than 30 million) than didn’t have the right to vote during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
  • The 5 percent movement: with 25,000 or more Americans volunteering and committing just one hour a month, 12 months a year, teaching “Banking on Our Future” or some other worthy program, and being “present” in communities, we can stabilize the necessary baseline of 5 percent role models needed in under-served and low-wealth communities across America. This is something that every non-profit, every house of faith, government office, government office holder, and every employer can do. Encourage volunteerism and mentorship. Log onto to help us, or to help anyone, anywhere in America, with the new White House Financial Literacy Volunteer Initiative, or what I call the Financial Literacy Corps. The Financial Literacy Corps is an initiative of the White House USA Freedom Corps and soon, the U.S. President’s Council on Financial Literacy.
  • EITC for every low wealth household: if you are working and you make $40,000 or less, and particularly if you have children, which is a good portion of America, you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). A bi-partisan initiative, supported by every U.S. President since President Ford, and including President Clinton and President Bush too, EITC is dignity in action, and essentially a raise or “poor man’s bonus” for working families. 1 out of 4 Americans who qualify for EITC never even requested it last year, sending $9 billion back to the federal Treasury. And if you have not filed once, you have probably not filed ever, and it is retroactive for three years. At $4,000 for the top refund recipient, that’s $12,000 in poor people’s pockets, or enough to pay off your consumer debt, cure a mortgage, send a kid to college, put a down payment on a starter home or start a new small business. This is working poor people’s money, and financial literacy helps them understand how to claim it for themselves and their families.

America, let’s kick the dropout craze.

Let’s build a new, inspiring culture for our kids in the next 20 years.

Let’s make smart sexy again.

Let’s do something.


John Hope Bryant is chairman and founder of Operation HOPE.  He also serves as the vice chairman of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy and as chairman of its Committee on the Under-Served.

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