John Hope Bryant has a tough-love message for restaurant and retail workers who are rallying for “$15 an hour and a union.”
“You’re living in a different universe if you think you’ll make $15 an hour at Burger King,” said the author of the bestseller “How the Poor Can Save Capitalism.” “If you don’t like working at Wal-Mart, quit. Those systems are based on low wages and high efficiency. And even if you make $15 an hour, you still can’t live on that.”
Better, Bryant says, that you should find a marketplace need and fill it — like the man he met who paid $36 for a notary public license and now makes $17,000 a month as a “mobile notary,” taking his services to clients.
In Kansas City, Kan., on Saturday to speak at a daylong “Money Smart” event, Bryant was quick to say in an interview that he wasn’t union-bashing. Unions, he said, led, and still lead, the fight to create safe American workplaces and decent-paying jobs.
Now, he said, the priority has to be on helping improve financial literacy, especially in inner cities where he too often finds young people with “no hope, no patience, no vision and no belief.”
He said the burden of financial education falls on families, schools, big and small business, organizations like Junior Achievement and on his own Operation HOPE, a Los Angeles-based community development organization that he founded to “move individuals from check-cashing customers to banking customers, from renters to owners, from small-business dreamers to small-business owners.”
Bryant, who donated his time to the Money Smart event, generally commands $25,000 for a 45-minute speech. He typically delivers a message of hope, based on his own life growing up in Compton, Calif. At one time he was homeless. But one thing that made the difference for him was when a banker visited his elementary school.
“I was 9 years old,” Bryant recalled. “He was white, a little heavy, he had on a white shirt, a red tie and a blue suit, and I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never heard anything like it. He came into my classroom and taught me the language of money.”
A year later, Bryant took a stock boy job at his neighborhood liquor store, a place frequented by kids because the owner also sold candy. He quit after three weeks because he saw an opportunity that the owner wasn’t filling — selling more candy to more kids.
“I read the sides of the boxes and knew who his suppliers were, so I started getting inventory from one of the suppliers and selling candy to kids out of my house. ... I’m now on the board of the organization that owns the company that put me in my first business.”
Bryant, who also serves on the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, said it’s wrong to confidently assume that America will remain the world’s greatest economic power.
“We have no system to cultivate and nurture financial literacy,” he said. “Seventy percent of our households have too much month at the end of their money. Households that make $40,000 or less a year are struggling to make ends meet.”
While there’s a burden on “the establishment” to teach financial literacy, Bryant said the responsibility rests most heavily on individuals to pay attention and apply common sense.
If you’re struggling to pay the bills, he said, you shouldn’t smoke and you shouldn’t buy expensive coffee. “It’s simple math,” he said. “Depending on your habits … you could save $6,000 a year if you throw out smoking two packs a day and going to Starbucks every day.”
“If you don’t understand the math, you’re basically an economic prisoner,” Bryant said. “But I say that being broke is an economic condition. Being poor is a state of mind. You must vow to never be poor again. The definition of freedom is self-determination. You have to have the language of money and use it.”
In addition to Bryant’s presentation, the event featured a “Shark Tank”-style contest for high school students to create and pitch entrepreneurial ideas to judges. And, for younger visitors, the day included several money-related activities sponsored by area financial institutions and related organizations.
Information about the local “Money Smart” public awareness initiative is available at http://www.moneysmartkc.org/. The site includes a calendar of events scheduled throughout April. Primary sponsors are The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Commerce Bank and CommunityAmerica Credit Union.