Fighting Poverty with Passion
Erin here, reporting from the field, deep in the wilds of the New Orleans public school system. At my three-month point, the native children and teachers have finally accepted me into their fold.
This month several guests from the Netherlands joined me here in New Orleans. Loyola University was hosting the foreign educators, who stopped in at Kedila’s program to see some of the supplemental teaching methods employed at Banneker’s school, such as our after school program.
As one of our after school activities this month, we tested our students’ abilities with an interactive budgeting game, adapted from one designed by the University of Minnesota. The students were given a predetermined number of beans, which they used to “buy” what they needed for their households. They were given the opportunity to choose between “luxury” and “budget” versions of housing, transportation, food, clothing, and other expenses. Hearing how the students chose to “spend” their beans was at times funny, sad, encouraging, and eye opening.
One group told me their hardest decision was what food choice to get. Their options: food stamps (zero beans), most meals at home but eat out occasionally (two beans), and eat most meals out (three beans). When I asked what they were conflicted about, I was surprised to find that the students had all quickly agreed to eat most meals at home, but that their conversation had then devolved into a heated argument of what would be an acceptable meal plan for the “family” unit. (“Two beans isn’t enough for fried chicken at every meal when you’re the only one who wants it!”)
I overheard another group planning their extra spending, “Let’s not get a TV; someone would steal it”. I was surprised by that statement, as this would not have been a primary concern for me if I was playing the budgeting game. The rest of the group agreed quickly to the suggestion (opting instead to put more money into their savings). I was saddened that this was a concern on the minds of our fifth grade students, and that it was accepted as a normal consideration. Further into the game, an “unavoidable accident” (we said anything from “your neighbor tried to sue you, and you had to pay a lawyer tons of money to clear your name” to “one of your family members was in a car accident and had to be hospitalized for two weeks! They’re alright now, but you have to pay the bills”) resulted in the removal of several beans from the budget. With no small amount of grumbling, the students again reorganized their spending. As soon as a new budget was decided on, another accident occurred, and even more beans were taken. At this point, the concepts of tradeoff and prioritization were discussed. At the same time, what started as quiet grumblings with the removal of the first few beans soon became angry outbursts of “that’s not fair!” and “Why should I have to pay my brother’s medical bill?”. Several students attempted to steal beans from other groups.
On a brighter note, many of the students excelled at prioritization and making “good choices”. Once the purpose of paying taxes (and consequences of failure to do so) were explained, every group budgeted a bean for taxes, even as their discretionary spending became more and more limited. While most students did not opt to save more than 5% of their income, a majority of them chose to keep housing, health, and car insurance as long as they could. After a good deal of guidance, most students were able to settle on a budget that all agreed on.
Some of my more important work this month with Kedila has been creating and implementing a reusable lesson plan system for the students. Seeing the students use this to work together and build skills they might not otherwise get a chance to practice has been a great VISTA experience.