Job Loss, Debt, and Lower Salaries: Why We’ve Gotta Do What We’ve Gotta Do

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Just recently I read a couple of disturbing articles in the New York Times about debt. Helaine Olen’s January 2nd opinion column suggests that the reason we’re in debt and can’t save is because of unaddressed social policy issues -— things like flat-lined salaries and higher health care costs.

spinning wheel

Credit Image: tehbieber on Flickr

Then on January 14, Benedict Carey paints us a picture of spiraling debt behavior based on job loss and the hopelessness and downward financial spiraling that often attends it.

And while each writer has a point, I beg to differ with the premises. Carey’s article features folks who have been on the brink of disaster and who have been playing credit card roulette, and there is the strong temptation while reading it to say to ourselves, “Whew! Glad that’s not me,” or worse yet, as the comments page demonstrates, demean people who are in trouble and reach out for social services supports. And while lobbying for more salary increases as a policy, as Olen suggests, and petitioning our legislators to really DO something about rising health care costs is noble, it doesn’t do anything to help us with the day-to-day of debting and paying for our living expenses right now.

I use that word purposely -— debting: the active verb of running up debt. I want to state this loud and clear: We are not victims of circumstances regarding our train-wreck finances. Yes, there are factors that have jacked up the actual cost of living -— say, compared to our parents’ generation. But many, many families and individuals who don't look quite as desperate as the ones featured in the Times article are playing the same kinds of debt-roulette games to keep the balls in the air. It’s not a select few. There are millions of us playing the board game of debt. The intense borrowing against real estate in the last decade to cover high credit card balances is the quintessential example.

The research group Demos found that 40% of middle- and lower-income families are using credit cards for daily needs -- not luxuries, but daily needs. And, 44% of small business owners use credit to fund their businesses. The issue this brings up is much, much larger than what's alluded to in a quick and personal view of one person’s job loss.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing the personal angle of specific writers. What I’m saying is that the issue of personal debt is much more immense than we’re ready to admit. We are in debt, we're in deep, and we keep running up credit lines. And we’re talking about the “reasons” in the press as if our own personal behavior had nothing to do with it. As if forces outside ourselves (the crash, depressed property values, lower salaries, higher housing costs, job loss, etc.) are forcing us to run up balances.

The truth is, we feel entitled -— to everything from $200 haircuts, to a mindless $300 buy at Costco or Target, to swanky beauty products, to a quick $600 dropped for the latest i-something, to an outlet shopping trip on the credit cards, to trips we can’t afford. We’re putting our kids’ camp costs, our coffee bar habits, our dinners out, and even our boutique grocery buys on the card. When did we get the idea, by the way, that on a middle income salary, we should be able to buy wild salmon at $26 a pound at the boutique grocery? Or spend $275 on eye glass frames? We did this -— it’s not an abstract policy issue of diminished salaries. We invented every high-end specialty item we could think of, from gourmet cookies to designer shoes, and we’re buying them on credit. Many of us can’t even bring ourselves to buy a loaf of bread that costs us less than $8 a loaf. That’s our doing.

Read any article on college debt and you’ll see the same no-personal-responsibility angle: rising tuition costs, increased college housing, etc. But we’re not addressing the elephant in the room. College students are using credit lines to fund their living expenses -— everything from clothes, to food, to concert tickets, and yes, for tuition, too -— in hope of a better day: that is, the day they get that high-paying job. It’s a prequel-type of spending and tons of students are doing it.

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