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FutureProfits

A Life Economics Curriculum

Two and a half square miles. Fourteen predatory lending institutions. Not a single bank or credit union.

In this setting in East Palo Alto, California, simply learning how to balance a checkbook in a financial literacy class wouldn’t take a kid very far. CEO John Liotti and his colleagues at Northern California Urban Development (NCUD) could see that young people in the community needed much more than that.

07_10_futureprofitsCover of upcoming FutureProfits book.

A Life Economics Curriculum

Two and a half square miles. Fourteen predatory lending institutions. Not a single bank or credit union.

In this setting in East Palo Alto, California, simply learning how to balance a checkbook in a financial literacy class wouldn’t take a kid very far. CEO John Liotti and his colleagues at Northern California Urban Development (NCUD) could see that young people in the community needed much more than that.

They needed more tools and resources to work their way out of poverty. They needed to talk about power structures and to a cast a vision for their future in which they considered how much money their lives would cost. They needed to learn “how to position their lives, how to own the pond,” Liotti explained.

While helping to bring in East Palo Alto’s first credit union, which opened in 2007, NCUD was partnering with various organizations to provide financial instruction for youth, and the instructors were frustrated with the curriculum they found. Most was either “dumbed down for little kids or very complex,” youth program manager Jenni Ingram recalled. “We wanted to find a balance, something that taught financial concepts but addressed the whole person.” Over time the instructors’ adaptations of existing resources developed into a new kind of program. They called it Life Economics.

In NCUD’s Life Economics course, now called FutureProfits, students explore power dynamics in their community and consider what they can learn about money by looking at their surroundings. They discuss the concept of gaining fast money: money that you earn quickly without regard to moral standards. They think about what it means to be a success financially—having freedom to make choices—and look at various paths they can take after high school to get there. Most of all they develop tools for decision making that will empower them to make wise choices on matters that will affect their financial future.

The course has been wildly successful. It’s reaching more than 400 students weekly, and more community-based organizations are requesting the program than NCUD is able to serve. So NCUD is partnering with CCDA to publish the curriculum and offer it to the wider public.

The secret to its success is in its wholistic approach. Instructors use a variety of modalities to interact with students: class discussion, simulations, budgeting exercises, a few lectures. The course opens with a simulation called the bean game, in which students receive unequal numbers of beans and must become servants to other students when they run out of beans. The group then discusses how the game relates to real life.

In the second lesson, the instructor learns from the students, who tell the instructor about their world: who calls the shots, whom people look down on in the community, and whom the students look up to. The instructor hears them out and thanks them for the instruction. This mutuality between teachers and learners builds trust.

Soon the class is on to budgeting. The students are assigned careers and must construct budgets on the basis of given salaries. After a reality check and an analysis of needs and wants, the students modify their budgets to make them more realistic. Then the instructor hands out surprise emergencies—a different one for each student—and they have to rearrange their budgets accordingly. They quickly learn that the students who have put some money into savings are better situated to handle their emergencies.

Only after talking about money in their own community and participating in the budgeting exercises do the students begin to learn about dealing with financial institutions. The course refers to this process as “understanding the game,” as in learning “how interest games you”—and “how you game interest” instead. Students learn about the dangers of credit cards, payday loans, and rent-to-own arrangements and how to use a bank or credit union effectively instead. Finally the students create a five-year plan for their life, considering the meaning of financial success and exploring potential post–high school paths including college, entrepreneurship, and apprenticeship in a trade.

Organizational leaders who have brought in the FutureProfits course praise it highly. Bonnie Hansen, principal of Sequoia High School, said, “This may be the most important learning kids get while with us at Sequoia.” When asked about success stories, Ingram and Liotti both point to students who bring their lessons to their families. One young man saw his dad at a check-cashing outlet and persuaded him to open an account at the credit union and to give him the money that had been going for the check-cashing fee. He “used his entrepreneurial skills to make a deal with his dad,” Ingram reported. FutureProfits “had impacted this student and his understand of money and had impacted his dad too.”


You can purchase the FutureProfits curriculum through CCDA and other major online bookstores.

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