BLACK RIVER FALLS — Troy Wallace fell in love with the car as a student at Black River Falls High School. It was a Pontiac GTO, black with tinted windows, 6.0 liter V-8 engine.
As a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, he knew the expensive muscle car could eventually be his. Once he was 18 and had his high school diploma, he’d come into about $110,000, his share of tribal casino profits accumulated since birth.
It’s called the Children’s Trust Fund, although young people call it “18 money.”
“I was excited, definitely excited,” Wallace said with a smile of the day in summer 2006 he saw the deposit in his bank account. “What kid wouldn’t be? It’s like winning the lottery in a way.”
The salesman started drafting loan documents. Wallace told him not to bother, pulling out a $34,000 cashier’s check and speeding away into his future.
Wallace also bought his brother a used Chevy Monte Carlo. He paid off debts. He gave his dad about $4,500 for bankruptcy-related legal bills. He took about 10 family members to Disney World. He and a friend spent a week in Cancun. Instead of making good on plans to go to technical college, Wallace joined the Army and became a paratrooper.
His story is not uncommon for Ho-Chunk’s young adults: They get the money, they burn through it, they regret it.
“Regardless of who you are or your background, most people have not had the experience of dealing with large sums of money,” said Tom Chambers, principal at Black River Falls High School. “With large sums come great responsibility and, frankly, danger.”
The outcomes run the gamut, although a recent survey of past “18 money” recipients suggested it’s more common for the stories to end with hard-earned lessons and long-term regrets. The survey was sent by the tribe to all Ho-Chunk members ages 18 to 30. Ninety-three percent said they would change how they used the money.
“I was way too young and reckless to receive that kind of money,” reads one of the 466 responses. “Seemed like I had so much that it would never run out. Everyone wanted to borrow and no one paid back. Wish I was older when I got the money.”
While Ho-Chunk adults get a $12,000 annual dividend payout made in four installments, children have to wait for the money, which builds in a trust fund throughout their childhoods and is given in one lump sum after they turn 18 and earn a high school diploma. The new prosperity has been welcome relief for a tribe coming out of nearly two centuries of poverty and oppression.
When it started in the mid-1990s, the “18 money” payout was modest, about $17,000. But it’s skyrocketed along with the tribe’s profits. This year’s graduates enrolled since birth will come into more than $200,000 before taxes.
Now tribal lawmakers have opened a new conversation about the money with a proposal that would stagger the payouts and tie some of them to college, military service and employment.
The tribe is one of about 70 nationally — of 225 operating gaming facilities — that distributes some profits from its gaming operations directly to members via a quarterly dividend payment, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Social Development in St. Louis.
Two other Wisconsin tribes with significant gaming profits — the Oneida in Brown County and the Potawatomi in Forest County — distribute accumulated trust fund money to 18-year-olds in a manner similar to the Ho-Chunk.
The money has helped to transform Ho-Chunk youth’s outlook on education. In just one generation, the tribe’s high school graduation rate has increased dramatically, in part because since 2001 the payout has been delayed until age 25 if the youth don’t earn a diploma.
But what comes after graduation?
New model for distributing funds
The tribe has in recent years taken more steps to prepare students for the windfall. In order to earn a diploma at Black River Falls High School and get the money, students must take a financial literacy class. The tribe also sponsors “Game of Life” events meant to teach young people about money and to show how fleeting even $200,000 can be.
The Ho-Chunk have added staff in the education department to help students prepare for college and survive challenges once they’re on campus, even sponsoring a Ho-Chunk Ivy League Tour each summer to get high schoolers acquainted with life on some of the country’s most elite campuses.
The efforts have yielded plenty of success stories. Zayta Thundercloud, a 2013 Black River Falls graduate, took her haul and enrolled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where she’s finishing her freshman year at the Ivy League school. Four of her high school classmates — out of 18 Ho-Chunk grads at Black River Falls in their class — are on four-year college campuses across Wisconsin.
Spurred by years of study and the results of the survey of past “18 money” recipients, the tribal legislature recently proposed changes to the “18 money” policy that would dramatically scale back the amount of money given at high school graduation and pay out the rest over a period of years when the students meet certain benchmarks: go to college, join the military, work full-time, take extra classes in financial literacy and Ho-Chunk history.
The proposed changes, which the Ho-Chunk legislature put out for a 90-day public comment period that ends this week, are hardly cheered by all. Some families rely on the money for basic needs and one-time splurges. Some older tribal members distrust the government’s intentions and think the tribe has no business telling its youth how and when it can spend the funds.
In the survey of recent recipients of the windfall, 58 percent said they supported changing the rules. While a majority, it’s far slimmer than the 93 percent who said they regretted how they used the money.
A step too far?
Robert Mudd lives a street away from Troy Wallace. The 66-year-old also is a former Army paratrooper. He served a year and a half in Vietnam. He still wears a military brush cut.
Mudd put himself through college at UW-Eau Claire while helping to raise a family. He later earned an MBA. He’s served two partial terms in the Ho-Chunk legislature and got in on the ground floor of the tribe’s casino operations, serving as general manager and consultant at various facilities.
“It’s helped out quite a bit,” he said of the casino profits’ impact on the nation’s people. “I think it’s done a world of good.”
Mudd’s five grandchildren are in line to get their “18 money.” The oldest is 17. Mudd opposes changing the current policy.
“I just don’t think it’s fair for a government body to dictate how adults spend their money,” he said. “You’re taking a social program to somebody’s life. You’re trying to make somebody go in a direction you think is right no matter what the person thinks.”
Mudd noted that the legislature in July 2001 changed the rules requiring 18-year-olds to get a high school diploma before collecting the money. At Black River Falls, about 48 percent of American Indian students graduated in 2001. In 2002 the graduation rate jumped to 86 percent, and it didn’t dip below three-quarters through 2012.
Changing the policy further doesn’t make sense, Mudd said, because recipients are 18 years old, the age at which society gives them the right to vote and serve in the military, among other adult options.
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“Do I want my grandkids to go to college? Yes,” he said. “Can I force them? No.”
‘Third rail of Indian politics’
Ho-Chunk president Jon Greendeer oversees the sprawling Ho-Chunk Nation, with more than 7,200 enrolled tribe members. About 5,100 live in Wisconsin, with the rest mainly in Minnesota and Illinois. The tribe operates six gaming facilities in Wisconsin with profits of $200 million annually. About 3,500 people work for the tribe, which is headquartered in Black River Falls.
Greendeer’s daughter, Brittany, got her “18 money” in 2012. He said he trusted that years of formal and informal family talk about money and financial management would guide her. When she got it, he decided to be hands-off. She bought a car but it was a used minivan that she’s using as part of a dog-training business.
“Fortunately, she’s been fantastic with the money,” Greendeer said.
He understands both arguments about the windfall and recognizes that, no matter what position he takes, he can’t win politically.
“The third rail of Indian politics is the trust fund,” he said. “It’s something you don’t really want to mess with.”
He cautioned that the current proposals to change the “18 money” face long odds and a thorny political path.
If the 13-member Ho-Chunk legislature passes the proposal, it would then require approval by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and face another challenge when the tribe’s General Council — a gathering of tribe members who can introduce any resolution and pass it with a simple majority — meets in September. Each member who attends is paid $150, an incentive to draw as big a crowd as possible. The tribe’s attorney general can overturn resolutions passed by the General Council.
For Greendeer, the best argument for changing the rules of “18 money” is workforce development. He said the tribe’s rapid growth has led to a dire shortage of qualified applicants in fields like accounting, management, IT and health care.
“We need talent here and we just don’t have it,” he said. Of the tribe’s employees, less than 30 percent are tribe members. Tying the “18 money” in part to college would put more Ho-Chunk on campus and lead more of them to filling key professional roles in the tribe, he said.
Though he called the proposed changes “level-headed,” he said he’s not fully on board due to his libertarian leanings.
“To support it is to tacitly agree that the legislature has the authority to decide what happens with your children’s money,” he said. “I’m not totally there.”
People ‘going crazy about it’
In Montana Youngthunder’s dreams, there is a large garage. He’ll build it behind his grandparents’ house in rural Black River Falls. It will house the young car buff’s 1994 Ford Mustang, paid for with three years of summer jobs, and his dad’s Ford F250 diesel truck, which he plans to buy. A back wing will house the family’s two horses.
Youngthunder, 17, won’t have to wait long for his dreams to materialize. Finishing up as a homeschooler, he said he’s just three credits short of high school graduation and plans to be done by early fall. After he turns 18 in October, he’ll get his trust fund money.
He plans to put $20,000 into a CD that he can’t touch for five years. He’ll use more to pay for tuition at nearby Western Technical College for a degree in HVAC repair. He has solid plans for the money but also is aware of what it means to be 18 years old.
“I know a lot of people who blew their money as soon as they got it,” he said.
The proposed changes likely won’t affect him. But they’re a hot topic of conversation among his family and friends.
“Right now, I know a lot of people who are going crazy about it,” he said. “They think they’re going to get robbed out of their money.”
He tells them that’s not quite right.
“You’ll get all the money, just not in a lump sum,” he said.
Living with regrets
Add Troy Wallace to those who say they regret how they spent their “18 money.”
“If I had used it for college, I could have been in a lot different place,” he said. “If I invested it, I could get it out and buy a house. It could be very useful to me right now.”
Now 26, Wallace has two young children. He’s between jobs and living with his grandmother. He’d like to get into a welder training program. He got out of the Army in 2011 and calls the experience a life-changing one. He just wishes it had come sooner, before he got the money.
“When you get it all at once, it goes to your head a little bit,” he said. “You’ve got all that money.”
All that’s left of his “18 money” is the Pontiac. It has just 68,000 miles but could use a new transmission. Wallace can’t foresee ever having $110,000 in his bank account again.
“Not unless I win the lottery,” he said.
He approves of the proposed changes that would delay some of the payout and tie it to college, military and employment.
“You’re going to get the full amount regardless,” he said. “It’s just going to make you strive a little harder and think a little harder.”