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Almighty Debt - Teacher and Parent Discussion Guide

  • "Almighty Debt" explores how one church is helping its 7,000 parishioners survive the worst financial crisis for African-Americans since the Great Depression
  • See inside Rev. DeForest Soaries's church as he fights debt from the pulpit and leads his members on a new revolutionary struggle
  • Use these questions and activity to facilitate a discussion about the programs

(CNN Student News) -- Teachers and Parents: Watch with your students or record "Almighty Debt" when it airs on CNN on October 21 at 9:00 p.m. ET. By recording the documentary, you agree that you will use the program for educational viewing purposes for a one-year period only. No other rights of any kind or nature whatsoever are granted, including, without limitation, any rights to sell, publish, distribute, post online or distribute in any other medium or forum, or use for any commercial or promotional purpose. To own "Almighty Debt" go to or download it on iTunes.

Program Description: Every leading indicator -- unemployment, income, wealth, educational attainment, homeownership and foreclosures -- demonstrates that the African-American financial foundation is crumbling at rates that are worse than other segments of the U.S. population. Reported by anchor and special correspondent Soledad O'Brien, "Almighty Debt" explores how one church is helping its 7,000 parishioners survive the worst financial crisis for African-Americans since the Great Depression. Rev. DeForest Soaries believes "debt is the new slavery." See inside his church as he fights debt from the pulpit and leads his members on a new revolutionary struggle.

Recommended grades: 7-12, Post-secondary

Before-Viewing Discussion Questions: Use these questions to initiate discussion with your students before they watch "Almighty Debt."

1. What role, if any, does religion play in your life? In your opinion, should religious institutions be involved in their members' lives beyond the spiritual? Explain.

2. What resources could you use to help make decisions about money? What do you think might be the potential benefits and drawbacks of receiving this type of information from people you have a relationship with, such as a church or civic group?

3. Why might a religious organization want to involve itself with the financial affairs of its members? What do you think are the pros and cons of a religious organization getting involving in its members' financial matters? Explain.

4. What is debt? What are some kinds of debt that you have heard about? In your opinion, what might be the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of debt? Explain.

5. What are your financial priorities? What influences your decisions about spending or saving money? What percent of your income do you save, if any?

6. What is a budget? Do you have a personal budget? If so, how does it help you in dealing with money matters? If not, do you think that a personal budget is a good or a bad idea? Explain.

7. How would you describe the current state of the U.S. economy? How has the economy affected people in your community?

Post-Viewing Discussion Questions: Use these questions to talk about the program and to promote critical thinking after students have watched "Almighty Debt."

1. Who is Buster Soaries? According to the program, what "provocative theory" does he have about debt?

2. Why does Soaries believe that, "Debt is a bigger problem than racism"? Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain.

3. According to the program: What is wealth? How much less wealth do blacks have, on average, than whites in America? According to Julianne Malveaux and Melvin Oliver, why does the "wealth gap" exist? Do you agree or disagree with their assessment? If you agree, why? If not, what do you think has caused this difference?

4. According to the report: What role does the church play in the black community? How do you think that this role has changed since the Civil Rights Era, if at all? Explain. What role does Rev. Soaries want his church to have in addressing the wealth gap? What are the three Ds in the "D-Free" program?

5. Who is Fred Philp? How would you describe Philp's family, as seen in the program? What challenges is he facing as he prepares for college? What impact do you think that his upbringing might have on the way he addresses his current situation? What role does the church play in his getting into and paying for college? What is your opinion of the actions taken by the church on Philp's behalf?

6. According to the program, how much student loan debt might Philp accumulate in earning a bachelor's degree? Why does Soaries say that student loan debt is "good debt"? What kinds of debt do you think that Soaries might consider "bad debt," and why?

7. According to the documentary: What proportion of black families is in danger of losing their homes, and why? Why are Doug and Mary Jeffries in danger of losing their home? How is their home described in the documentary? What was the basis of the Jeffries' previous wealth? How is commission-based pay different from hourly or salaried pay? What role do you think that the recession has played in their loss of pay? How much is their monthly mortgage payment? What options do the Jeffries have in order to continue to live in their house? In your opinion, what should they do?

8. What does Soaries say was the focus of his father's church? How does Soaries compare "the social gospel" to the way that he was raised in the church? What role do you think that a church that follows the social gospel might play in its members' lives? What is your opinion of this philosophy? Do you think that a church should involve itself in the financial affairs of its members? Why or why not?

9. Who is Carl Fields? Why did Fields lose his job? What actions has Fields taken to address his situation? What challenges does he face in his job search? What does he say keeps him going? Why do you think that Fields has been able to hold onto his faith?

10. According to the segment: How much are Carl and Lynette Fields' monthly expenses? By how much money are they short every month? What percentage of their income do they say goes to the church, and why? What other priorities have the Fields set with regard to how they spend their money? What is your opinion of their financial priorities? Explain. Do you think that tithing to the church gives the church an obligation to help its members in need? Why or why not?

11. What does Soaries mean when he talks about a "culture of debt"? Do you agree or disagree with him? State your rationale.

12. According to the documentary, what is Maya Jeffries' attitude toward her family's financial situation? Do you think that her behavior is similar to or different from the typical American teenager? Explain. Why do you think that Maya's parents have not discussed the family's financial situation with her? Do you think that they should? Why or why not?

13. What is it that the Jeffries would like their home lender to do? What is a "workout"? Do you think that the Jeffries deserve a workout? Why or why not? Do the Jeffries get their workout? Why do you think this decision was made? How do the Jeffries react to this decision? What does Soaries say is his mission with regard to the Jeffries' current situation?

14. How does Soaries try to help Carl Fields land a job? What is your opinion of this action?

15. Why do you think that Soaries says that debt is "most devastating in African-American communities"? Do you agree or disagree with this statement? What evidence do you see in the documentary of people taking on debt? In which cases, if any, do you think that debt helps the people involved, and in which cases does it harm them? Why?

16. Soaries says that the black church is "responsible for the entire health...of black communities." What is your opinion of this philosophy? Why do you think that Soaries states that he is "passionate today about this cause of financial literacy"? Do you agree or disagree with him when he says that debt causes "spiritual bondage"? Who or what do you think should be responsible for providing information and resources to help people make financial decisions?

Media Literacy Question:

What information about the economy can you gather from different news sources? What factors could you use to determine whether this information is factual or opinion-based?

Learning Activity -- Budgeting:

In "Almighty Debt", Rev. Soaries talks about his desire to help African-Americans close what he calls "the wealth gap" by teaching them to lower their debt. Help students understand the challenges of managing one's own finances and minimizing debt with this Learning Activity.

Introduce your students to the topic of financial literacy by asking them to think about the ongoing expenses common to almost all adults. Ask: If you were about to move out on your own, what monthly expenses would you probably have? Write students' responses on the board. The list should include general items, such as rent or house payment, car payment or mass transit fares, utilities, food, insurance payments, etc.

Divide the class into small groups. Direct each group to choose one of the expenses cited and conduct research to determine an approximate monthly cost for that expense in your area. For example, the group that examines rent might want to find three properties in the area and average them to determine that monthly expense. The group that looks at utilities might want to interview a few residents to get their average monthly water, gas and electric costs. Have each group report on its findings and explain how it arrived at its numbers.

Write each estimated monthly expense on the board.

Next, ask students to assume they could find jobs making the current federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour). Assuming that they could work four 40-hour weeks in a month, could they cover all of these expenses? (Remind students that federal and state taxes have not yet been factored in, and that these amounts will vary based on marital status and state.) What hourly wage or salary do students think that they would have to earn in order to cover these expenses? Approximately how much do students think that they would have to earn each month in order to be able to pay for additional expenses, like a night out to the movies or their favorite restaurants? How would they be able to purchase items like computers, TVs and other extras?

Introduce students to the concept of a budget. Discuss the benefits of budgeting as an empowering way for consumers to maintain control of their finances. As a class, create a budget for a new high school graduate based on the monthly expense estimates gathered by the class. Review the budget and talk about ways to be able to meet monthly obligations while being able to purchase other things students may need or want. Talk about the benefits of saving, investing and planning for the future.

Finally, refer students back to the individual stories in Almighty Debt and the debt that some have incurred. Review the circumstances, both positive and negative, that have led to the incursion of debt for these individuals. Discuss the role that budgeting could play in each person's life going forward, and possible challenges to each budget.

Curriculum Connections


5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions;

7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people organize for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services;

The Curriculum Standards for Social Studies ( are published by the National Council for Social Studies (


Standard 2: Decision Making

Students will understand that:

Effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits. Many choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something: few choices are "all or nothing" decisions.

Standard 18: Economic Fluctuations

Students will understand that:

Fluctuations in a nation's overall levels of income, employment, and prices are determined by the interaction of spending and production decisions made by all households, firms, government agencies, and others in the economy. Recessions occur when overall levels of income and employment decline.

The Economics America National Standards ( ) are published by the National Council on Economic Education ( ).