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Wednesday, 02 February 2011 20:03

Cashing in: Tribe teaches teens to get smart with casino windfall

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This year in Cherokee, a major change will quietly work its way into law, causing little fanfare but marking a historic shift in policy towards the casino profits that, for 15 years, have been divided among all members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

After April, teenagers will be required to go through financial training, before getting their share of the money, a measure that’s the first of its kind among Native American nations.

Principal Chief Michell Hicks says he’s pretty pleased with that decision, and the advantage it gives the tribe.

“Cherokee is way ahead of the game,” Hicks says. “The Eastern Band stands out in front.”

Hicks interacts with other tribes at conferences and events around the country, but knows of none that require this level of financial planning for the recipients of casino profits.

He — and the Tribal Council — hope that it will bring increased responsibility and burgeoning bank accounts to the tribe’s newest adults, who have not always had a history of cultivating either.

 

Big money (and big responsibility)

It’s ten minutes past three on a cold, Friday afternoon, and five high school seniors are gathered around a conference table at Cherokee High School, laden with backpacks and clearly very ready to get away from school work and into the weekend.

In the vast majority of ways, they appear to be like every high school senior in every town across America. They have the kind of names that characterize their generation — Kayla, Katlin, Skylar — and the attendant trappings, too. Cell phones flip back and forth idly in more than a few hands, more than a few thumbs swiftly click across tiny keyboards.

But in one unique way, they’re less similar to their peers in other places than a first glance might betray: these particular kids will mark their 18th birthday with more than some kudos, a voting card and maybe the keys to a used clunker. Quite a bit more, actually.

Since the end of 1995, every enrolled tribal member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has enjoyed a cut of the earnings from the boundary’s biggest breadwinner — Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Back then, that amounted to $595 a year. By 2010, it had jumped to $7,347 annually.

Today, the total payments for someone who have received the money from the outset works out to $92,000, no paltry sum. Children have their portion held in trust until their 18th birthday, and invested – “conservatively” says Chief Hicks – by Tribal Council and a special committee. And as the casino grows, so will revenue, and so will the trust fund for minors.

So when that monumental day comes to these six teens — and the other four-and-a-half-thousand odd tribal members who are still minors — a sizeable chunk of money will be laid in their newly adult hands.

“The first thing one goes out and gets is a brand new car,” says Jeremy Wilson. “This is the first question everyone who is about to get their big per-capita check is asked: ‘What kind of car you going to get?’”

Wilson would know, too. He’s 22 now and he got his money in 2007, so he had 12 years to consider what four-wheeled treasures such a cache of cash could purchase.

When he got the money, he did buy a new car — a Honda, relatively low in the flash department but still with a respectable level of youthful hipness — but with the remaining $35,000, he made a rather more adult decision. He invested it.

Is that normal?

He’s not sure. He can’t speak for everybody, says Wilson diplomatically. He was pushed towards the decision by his mother and elders in his life. But he will say that he was fairly unique among those he went to school with.

“When you’re 18 years old, and you are holding a check for $50-70,000 in your hands, what is the first thing you are going to think of?” he asks, almost rhetorically, answering himself: “it most likely won’t be mutual funds or Roth-IRAs.”

 

The Prodigal Spender

If you spend long enough talking to nearly anyone in Cherokee about kids and their per-capita checks, there is a certain sentence that will always enter into the conversation, in some incarnation or another. You will hear it from local leaders, young adults like Jeremy Wilson, school officials, financial counselors — the underlying theme in the current of conversation that will, without fail, bob to the top of the stream. It goes something like this: “you always hear about the kids who got the money and frittered it away on flash,” or some variant thereof.

According to Tribal Council Member David Wolfe, it’s why the idea of mandatory financial education was broached in the first place. And it was, in fact, an effort by young people themselves.

The teens at Junaluska Leadership approached the tribal council asking for help for themselves and their peers.

“They’ve heard the horror stories,” says Wolfe. “As the money in the trust fund has grown over time, now it’s getting to be a huge pot of money for them to be responsible for at 18.”

Keith Sneed, who works with Qualla Financial Freedom and has a vested interest in the issue, puts it in terms of cars. There is a multitude of bad stories, he says, about the giddy purchase of a set of wheels at sticker price and nothing to show for it years later but an old car.

“That’s all he’s going to have is an old Ford pickup,” says Sneed of the proverbial teen about whom there are so many cautionary tales.

It would be an understatement to say that Sneed rather dislikes that scenario. It is his dream to see every per-capita check recipient parlay that money into a million by age 40. And he genuinely doesn’t think that’s an unreasonable goal, which is why he started Manage Your ECBI Money.

In the simplest terms, it’s an online financial management course, and as of April, passing it with 80 percent is mandatory for anyone who wants their money at 18, as is high school graduation. For those that forego either, they’ll have to wait until age 21 to get their check.

Sneed is no fool when it comes to knowing what does — and does not — get through to teenagers.

According to Jason Ormsby, Cherokee High’s principal, he’s started heading up a yearly program called Mad Money, where he and volunteers from the community come together and simulate real life for an hour, throwing ninth graders into an imaginary financial world where they must manage their own money and deal with financial problems that are thrown their way.

“It’s real world scenarios in about a hour — your whole life in about an hour,” says Ormsby succinctly. And, he says, the simulation’s proven a success thus far.

Sneed is a far cry from teenagerhood himself, but he has spent the lion’s share of his life in the presence of the young, as a school teacher and now a financial outreach worker of sorts. And, making the adept observation that his interactions with youth these days trended towards the technological — e-mail, texting and the like — he saw an opportunity emerging to realize his dream that could actually work.

So he pitched it, and pitched it hard, enlisting the help of the First Nations Development Institute, who offer support and grant funding to initiatives by and for Native Americans, as well as the expertise of financial experts from every side of the economic world — bankers, investors, money managers and their ilk. And when he’d gotten a product he liked, he took it to the Tribal Council, who voted to make it mandatory.

 

It’s all in the approach

At this point in the tale, it should be noted that this isn’t the tribe’s inaugural foray into giving their young members some guidance in the ways of wise money management. It is the first time it’s been mandatory, but there have long been voluntary options for fiscal training.

Jeremy Wilson says he got some, in the form of the College Experience Program put on by the Tribal Education Department. A guy from First Citizen’s Bank came in, he says, and talked to Wilson and his youthful compatriots about financial options, wise investing and other similarly responsible and important economic topics.

“The only problem was, we were young,” says Wilson, by way of explanation for the less-than-lasting impact the surely admirable efforts had.

“This was nothing but sheer boredom to us, and even though a lot of people get onto us about how important it is for us to listen and pay attention, those people need to realize that you have to have the right strategy for the right audience,” says Wilson, offering a comparison to put a finer point on the problem. “If you are going to talk to a bunch of 15- to 18-year-olds about portfolios and showing stocks and numbers in a Powerpoint, you may as well talk to your grandfather about how to work an iPad.”

And it’s a salient point. If the youth of Cherokee have been playing the part of the prodigal son for the last 16 years, the well-intentioned programs and educational options of teachers and other adults were little more than the father’s pontificating to the son’s party-ready ears.

That, says Sneed, is why he’s looking to the kids themselves to craft a program that’s a little more, well, down with the kids.

“We’re asking the questions that they ask, not what their parents want to ask,” Sneed says. He brought young people into his office to meet with bank presidents, let them open up about what they didn’t understand in a more familiar environment on their terms, because, he says, “an 18-year-old walking into a bank president’s office is intimidating. It’s intimidating for grown people.” And the feedback from those interviews and many more like them built the groundwork for the Manage Your Money course, which is the first of its kind. They even have a series of YouTube videos featuring young tribal members and a hip-hop soundtrack that tout the merits of the program.

Sarah Dewees, a lead consultant with First Nations who helped Sneed develop the curriculum, says the efforts are groundbreaking.

“EBCI is actually on the cutting edge,” says Dewees. “They’re the first tribe that I know of to do an online financial course,” though she says many are re-examining their policies about minors and their monies, now that the amounts are beginning to grow.

She too, thinks the program is becoming necessary, not because Cherokee teens in particular have a hard time managing money, but because kids in general do.

“Any young person who is given a big responsibility or a large amount of money needs help to think about the best way to manage it, and when you’re young, you don’t really have a long-term view,” says Dewees. That’s the sentiment in Cherokee among those working to put that education in place, and those who wish they’d had it.

Getting back to 22-year-old Wilson, he has a lot of faith in his peers, but there’s only so much you can expect from an 18-year-old if you don’t give them any guidance.

“Our youth are smart, they really are,” says Wilson. “They just need to be given the right tools and strategies to help them become financially savvy.”

Chief Hicks says that this, more than anything, is the goal for young people, and the goal of this new law — equipping them to make better investments that will serve them longer than a new car.

“I’ve always been a believer that we need to continue to raise the bar on financial responsibility,” says Hicks. He says that financial programs like Sneed’s are, and have been, the key to changing the way young members think about where their money goes. That, says Hicks, is the long-term goal: change thinking to change actions.

“We want them to simply make the long-term investment, whether that’s a home or some other long-term investment, [to think] ‘you know this big nest egg, I’m going to do something with it,” says Hicks.

 

The conscientious kids?

Cut back to the high school, where our six seniors are sharing their plans for their per-capita money. Given Wilson’s assessment of his classmates attitudes towards investing the cash just four short years ago — “it’s not a popular topic”— it’s a little surprising to hear six teenagers talk about what they’re going to do with tens of thousands of dollars and not hear a single mention of the word Porsche.

In fact, the buzzwords that are bandied about are fiscal terms like “stocks” and “property” and “savings account.”

At the head of the table is Troy Arch. He’s antsy to leave for some other extracurricular activity, and when asked what his plans are, he quickly shoots back, “invest it in stocks.”

What kind of stocks?

“I don’t know, just some kind of stocks.”

Well, at least the intent is there, even if he hasn’t gotten the specifics nailed down yet.

Down the table, Kaitlin Bradly interjects confidently, rattling off what she thinks today’s Google stock price is.

She seems to be the ahead-of-the-curve type — the only one here who has already gone through the online course — and she’s in favor of settling her money in several different bank accounts, choosing the ones that have the best interest to drop the bulk into.

Skylar Bottchenbaugh, one of two 18-year-olds in the room, wants to invest his, too, though he’s got a more concrete goal in mind than simple savings.

He’s headed to Texas upon graduation, where he’ll study to be an auto mechanic.

“I want to invest into my own garage,” he says, and he’s gotten feedback from his family and college advisors that investing his big check first is a good way to start on that dream.

Of course, he adds, he’s going to buy himself a car, but not a new one, “because you’ll end up trading it in sooner or later. Probably a Kia or something.”

Again, not quite the expected car of choice for a teenager sitting on 70 grand.

In terms of pure intent, these students are a far cry from the anecdotal teen who has historically featured so heavily in the minds of those trying to help educate them. And that may be, in part, because that education is working, that programs like Mad Money are already getting through.

But another factor in play here may simply be time. Per-capita checks have been handed out now for just over 15 years, which is as far back as most of these students can remember.

All of them will say that the decisions of those that came before them had a hand in crafting their outlook today. They have seen firsthand how easy it is to flush away a few thousand. And so have their families.

“My parents have kind-of had a say in mine,” says Kayla Smith, also 18. “They see how everybody else spends theirs just randomly — two months and it’s gone.”

Yes, agree the others, we’ve seen that, too. And we do not think it is a clever idea.

To stick with the Biblical analogy, they’re playing the part of the other brother, watching unimpressed as the prodigal parties to the pig pen, determined not to share that path themselves.

Some of them, though, are similarly unimpressed that their responsibility — or intent towards such — hasn’t translated into a greater degree of respect from authorities. They don’t think money management should be mandatory for everyone, just those who drop out or flunk out. Yes, they’ve all chosen to study up on savings and investment, to seek sound financial counsel. But they resent the fact that they’re being forced into it.

“I think it’s unfair that they make us take this test,” says Bottchenbaugh. “We’ve waited all this time to get it. It’s our money, we should be able to spend it the way we want to, even if it’s blowing it in a few days.”

Some of that viewpoint, of course, is a by-product of youth, the compulsion to bristle against anything that’s compulsory.

And Sneed says he thinks the tribe would be remiss in not giving every kid the chance to acquire some solid financial skills, because, he says, in every group, regardless of outside influence, there will always be a few on each extreme of the spectrum — some who blow through the money recklessly, some who care for it wisely. The crowd he’s after is the middle, the average kid who might do great things with it, if only they knew how.

“There’s going to be a few that, no matter what you do, they’re going to throw their money away,” says Sneed. “The majority need direction and help, and that’s what we’re trying to provide: direction and help.”

Chief Hicks has a response for that mindset, as well: they will still get their money, just a few years later. And, he says, the idea in that was to, at least, provide every young person with three extra years of “natural experience” before coming into such wealth.

In other tribes around the country, the concept of staggered payments – breaking the lump sum into smaller chunks to be paid out at age 18, 21 and 24 – has been introduced for precisely that reason. And Hicks says it’s been bandied about for years among the Eastern Band. Even with the new course in place, it’s an idea that he’s certain isn’t dead yet and will swing back into the dialogue at some point.

“I think it’s going to be a topic that comes back alive as the money increases,” says Hicks. “Our students could save $10,000 if we did staggered payments.”

 

Hope for the financial future

Whether or not attitudes are already changing among Cherokee’s youth, Sneed says he hopes the direction and help will begin to show itself four, five or 20 years down the road, when today’s teens — and by extension the community around them — are more financially stable than their predecessors.

For the chief, it’s his hope as well, that the young people of the tribe would make sound investments now that would carry into the future. And while he thinks that gaining experience, education and training off the boundary is important — he, Sneed and Wolfe have all done so — he doesn’t see return and reinvestment of that same money into the reservation as an impossibility.

“I definitely think that’s an area that’s wide open,” says Hicks of entrepreneurship on the boundary, and he says that, even now, the tribe is making efforts to close the gap between current entrepreneurs, many of whom are older, and younger minds and money trying to learn the ropes.

In Wolfe’s eyes, he sees the long-term benefits of this program and others like it coming back to boost the whole community. He sees it as a “nation-building” effort.

“Before this, we didn’t have very many going to school and college. I think that’s a great sign of things to come out of these investments — to promote secondary education, that we can build on it,” says Wolfe. “That’s the type of scenario that we’re trying to create in a nation.”

And it’s hard to tell if our six teens represent a wholesale change in the attitudes of youth across the board. There is some element of self-selection — why come talk about your per-capita plans if you have none or don’t care to make any?

Principal Jason Ormsby, who has a more on-the-ground perspective, says he has seen a change in the attitudes of his students as a whole.

“I see more and more kids investing it, going on to college or buying a house, using it more wisely,” Ormsby says, and he hopes his students take the new education they’re about to get to heart.

“I’d like for them to take some of it and have a good time, you know buy themselves something, but I’d like to see them invest it and go on to school and see what happens then. Just don’t be in a hurry to spend it on stuff that’s not really that important.”

As someone who’s looking back from just a few years down that path, Jeremy Wilson’s parting wisdom to today’s 18-year-olds runs in the same vein.

“Don’t let per-capita consume you, don’t let it be your main concern, because there are too many areas in our communities that are in need of dire attention,” counsels Wilson. “If we can improve how we manage our money, we won’t need to look forward to the next per-capita check because then we will know we’re doing just fine, and we can then focus on more important things.”

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