The following is my response to an article published by Reuters Blogs on the financial literacy panel from yesterday at the Milken Global Conference where I served as the moderator. Interesting points raised by the writer. You can read his piece here, and my response below.
Let's keep moving towards progress folks...
I am John Hope Bryant, the individual you refer to from the panel. Thanks for your passion sir.
Thank you also for coming to the first ever panel hosted by the Milken Global Conference, and frankly, it sounds like maybe you should have been on it, for some lively debate.
Here are a few important clarifications:
1. The panel was 1 hour and 15 minutes total. Very challenging to tailor make the conversation you desire, in a discussion even twice as long. In an hour, in a first ever panel, a thoughtful "40,000 feet" conversation with 5 panelists is unfortunately just about pushing the envelope of the possible. This said, I was surprised we did not hear from you during the Q & A period, given your strong views. Would have been happy to respond there, but nonetheless let me respond here.
2. As a meaningful point of reference, you should know that I am not just an advocate for financial literacy. I am the founder of Operation HOPE, which has reached, taught and empowered more than one million low-wealth individuals in practical, aspirationally relevant financial literacy since the L.A. riots of 1992. Today we are the largest urban delivery system in America, operating in 68 urban communities, and 6 provinces in South Africa. As a nonprofit we have funded more than $300 million in new homeownership from HOPE(loans that did repay), and subsequently have additionally restructured more than $250 million in existing mortgage loans, from other lenders, tied to this subprime mess. Half of the restructures are middle class borrowers and about half are low-wealth. Check out results for yourself at www.operationhope.org.
3. The work of HOPE directly inspired our government to make financial literacy federal US policy, which subsequently created the President's Council, where I serve as vice chairman, and chairman on the Committee on the Under-Served. Mr. Salmon, I had been pushing this issue for 7 years with then President Bush, but it did not actually happen until 2008. That said, our President's Council annual report has already produced legislative bills from Congress requiring financial literacy in schools, and college (see HR 1325 by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, requiring anyone receiving a guaranteed student loan to also be required to take a 4 hour course in financial literacy, and all colleges and universities receiving federal funds would be required to offer a course in financial literacy). The non-partisan Council has enjoyed support from the Obama Administration, and I think President Obama will ultimately make this real in real people's lives (including his meetings recently with credit card companies at the White House). In other words, progress is a process. A passionate process, but a process nonetheless.
4. Our work at HOPE has increased credit scores from 570 to 650, in our HOPE Centers. That moves someone from predatory lenders to mainstream banking. That is real.
5. Here is the summary point of the last three; we know a thing or two about how this impacts people's lives on-the-ground and in real time;
5(a). With all the challenges with credit cards, and while there are MANY, they are also not the devil, and a lot better option I might add than what I call "ghettoized financial services"-- payday loan lenders, check cashers, rent to own stores, and others in this ghettoized $10 billion industry. Take away credit cards and the next ladder down is not pretty at all. Credit cards ARE or can be a lifeline for homeowners, and we need to work to make them (credit card providers) work better for people. I might add that I also noted in my remarks that I had personal frustrations with my own credit card providers, and yet we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
5(b). My mentor is Andrew Young, and Young and his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr were optimist, and were focused on "what they were for, and not just what they were against." Young has taught me well that you don't get very far jamming up people you want to help you, in public no less. There has been more progress through evolution than revolution, and my job is to encourage the "better angels" of leaders within the credit card industry (and their own enlightened self interest mind you), and more so on this panel, to hopefully "inspire" Citi Cards to take a positive lead. Beyond that, and on a personal level, David Simon the individual is just a great American. One who hasvolunteered regularly with me through Banking on Our Future, teachingfinancial literacy in classrooms throughout NYC, and encouraging his staff and the bank to do the same. Even as he left the panel, he was brainstorming ideas of how he andCiti Cards could do more, even changing card terms, and promoting incentives to card holders over charges. Isn't than exactly what we want?
I guarantee you will get more real and sustainable change out of folks through a form of rational inspired leadership, based on enlightened self-interest, than you will through the simple power of coercion, jamming folks up in public forums just because you can (even one who is legally blind can see that the credit card industry is in deep trouble, and need to change. The question is, who is going to help them do precisely that).
Note: at present not one of our funding partners are credit card companies, so my comment(s)come without financial bias, though we are non-profit nonetheless.
In closing, I believe that "every good marriage is made of constructive friction," so I encourage you to keep pushing me and others to "do more."