Urban Teens Publicly Debate Financial Topics That Will Shape Their Futures And Ours

James Crotty, Forbes

At this time of the year, most teens are debating whether they should get a summer job or where they should go once school lets out. Maybe some will debate whether to get a tattoo or a piercing, much to their parents’ chagrin.

This past Thursday, however, students from Urban Prep Bronzeville Academy and University of Chicago Woodlawn High School tackled a much heavier question for their generation – Should I Buy a Home? – in the finals of the 2014 Citi Financial Literacy Debates, held at Westinghouse College Prep in the East Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.

Bronzeville and Woodlawn students earned the right to debate Thursday by competing against eight other teams from Chicago area urban high schools — Bronzeville was the only school with two teams — in round-robin debates at the May 9th prelims at Citigroup offices in downtown. In addition to arguing buying versus renting, they also delved into a subject more pertinent to their immediate future – and the subject of a recent Crotty on Education column — Is a Four-Year College Worth the Cost?

English: Chicago skyline at sunrise Deutsch: C... Chicago skyline at sunrise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The topics are especially relevant because these students represent a school district where roughly seven in eight students hail from low-to-moderate income families.

The answers, however, to either question aren’t as cut-and-dried as they seem. Regarding buying a home, yes, homeowners receive tax breaks on their mortgage interest and they own a tangible asset. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, however, homeowners were among the biggest losers. In fact, a recent study from the University of California indicates that many minority homeowners still remain underwater on their mortgages.

Regarding the merits of a four-year college degree, a Pew Research Poll, which I highlighted earlier this month, shows that workers with a Bachelor’s degree or higher earn on average $17,000 more annually than their peers with only a high school diploma. In addition, college graduates have significantly lower rates of poverty and unemployment that those without a degree.

However, as I also noted, a rising number of college graduates find themselves “mal-employed,” or working in jobs for which they’re overqualified. Indeed, a Northeastern University study found more than a third of degreed workers under age 25 are working in jobs that only require a high school diploma.

The students at Westinghouse got to argue whether such chronic mal-employment is a short-term blip or a canary-in-a-coal-mine warning of future economic gloom.

The Citi Debates — which are co-sponsored by the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, the Chicago Debate Commission, as well as Citi Community Development — feature only teams from the Chicago Debate League (some of whose inspiring members I met on a recent site visit to the hardscrabble neighborhood of Austin). The CDL debaters studied and rehearsed for up to six weeks before the debates. Clearly, there’s a tremendous opportunity here for these students – many of whom come from homes where policy discussions do not naturally occur around the dinner table — to take what they’ve learned about financial literacy from outside the classroom and help themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.

However, there’s also something larger at work here. For a forensics geek like me – whose two debate documentaries, Crotty’s Kids and Master Debaters, are currently on the festival circuit — public debates are not only dear to my Chautauqua-loving heart, they are a sine qua non for democracy itself. First, public debates get otherwise speed-obsessed debaters to slow down their arguments to appeal to a lay, though highly educated, judging pool. Secondly, public debates are fantastic preparation for the rhetorical demands of the working world, where one is often asked to slowly and persuasively defend one’s position in small groups and public forums. Finally, public debates serve a critical civic function, causing spectators and contestants alike to think deeply, and often counterintuively, about issues of real concern to themselves and their communities.

I hope to see more corporations financing urban public debates on topics germane to their particular sector (whether it be finance, transportation, energy, food, retail, and even for-profit education itself). In addition, I hope policy-makers serving poor communities deploy public debates — lead by young urban constituents — to encourage greater dialogue about the issues of concern to these communities (most public forums on heated topics are  just free-for-all shouting matches, with little attempt to civilly hear out the other side).

As the late great Bronx High School of Science debate coach, Richard B. Sodikow – who passed away May 4 in Boynton Beach, Florida — said in an interview on the Master Debaters DVD, debate “is a wonderful equalizer. And for the teaching of democracy, there is nothing better.”

Moreover, he added, in debate “everything can be tested. We are not unpatriotic if we test the values of our own democracy.”

On this Sunday, as on every day, let’s really try to hear that message out.