My two years as a Teach For America corps member presented me with an understanding that is both a gift and a powerful burden, one that I carry with me everyday. This understanding is that our country contains within its first-world borders millions of individuals who cannot meet the daily demands of 21st century life, whether that means paying the utility bill, landing a job that pays a living wage, or finding an excellent education for their children.
Today, millions of hard working, low-income Americans find themselves trapped on the lowest rungs of our socio-economic ladder, unable to traverse an increasingly impassable wealth gap. A 2011 study by the Economic Mobility Project found that the United States has a lower rate of social mobility than most developed countries. Empirically speaking, the American Dream may be more attainable elsewhere.
According to pre-recession research by the Center for Economic Development (CFED), low-income families follow one of three pathways to the middle class: home ownership, education, or small business establishment. Unfortunately, social mobility initiatives concentrating on home ownership exacerbated the wealth gap, as collapsing home prices crushed home equity and left many hard-working, low-income Americans homeless and bankrupt. Consequently, education and small business creation remain the two most plausible avenues to material prosperity.
In addition to preparing students academically for post-secondary opportunities, it’s imperative to improve college persistence rates for low-income students by tackling the primary reason for their departure: financial distress. Second, we must teach students applicable, 21st century skills to enable success in business environments of all sizes and industries.
After my two year teaching commitment was over, and I had spent a year as an unmotivated business analyst at a Fortune 50 company, I stumbled across a young non-profit called Moneythink and was immediately drawn to its mission. Moneythink empowers urban high school students to make and manage money. It looked and sounded like the confluence of business and education, an intersection that was perfect for me. Moneythink seemed to offer an answer to economic issues I encountered during my corps experience: by teaching students basic financial and entrepreneurial skills, Moneythink empowers students to build a sustainable economic foundation, while working to spur small business growth in areas that need it the most. After a handful of rigorous Skype interviews and a rainy afternoon meeting the team, I became Moneythink’s first program director.
Since its inception in 2009, Moneythink has grown to 27 university chapters nationwide, serving nearly 4,500 students and recruiting over 500 college mentors. In March 2012, President Obama and the White House Champions of Change initiative recognized Moneythink for its efforts in expanding economic opportunity nationwide.
Given the deficiency of financial literacy and entrepreneurial education today, Moneythink faces an uphill battle in its mission to reestablish an attainable American Dream. Still, Moneythink’s focus on financial enablement and entrepreneurial development inspires true, tangible empowerment for less-fortunate students, which may create a more distinguishable pathway to prosperity and enable the realization of the American Dream for all.
Joe was an ‘09 corps member in New York. He left the classroom after his two year commitment and spent one year as a business analyst for a Fortune 50 company. Now he is Moneythink’s first program director, working to make this nonprofit student movement sustainable, scalable, and successful.