Credit is a big deal in 21st Century America. Even if you think you don’t need it, conventional wisdom says you should get a credit card and pay it off every month just so you can build credit. After all, you’re going to need to buy a house and a car some day, right? Chances are, unless you are extremely determined or extremely lucky, you’ll need credit for a lot more than that.
But why? What happened to old-fashioned wisdom like, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” or “Godliness with contentment is great gain”? Why has debt become such a large part of how people live? Whatever happened to saving up before buying things? Or just… living within our means?
It may be tempting to go off on a rant about Millennials (or Boomers), but we need to examine the systems that brought us to this place. While we certainly all need to focus on making wise choices, let’s be honest: this is no accident. We are where we are today because it is extremely profitable for a certain segment of society, and we are being intentionally manipulated into their vortex of debt.
Step One: Creating Demand
Wealthy corporations spend millions to convince us to give them our money. Ubiquitous advertising depicts a “normal” life in endlessly materialistic terms. We are told that we (and our children) deserve better than what we have. We are given the impression that everyone else is enjoying things we are not. Do we want entertainment, excitement, and thrills? Security, health, and independence? Friendship, love, and respect? The market is here to supply! Maybe money can’t literally buy happiness, but apparently it can buy everything that makes us happy.
Some of this advertising is direct and obvious, in the form of commercials and ads. Much is insinuated into programming such as extravagant home renovation and travel shows, and other “reality” TV. It even sneaks its way into educational programming and children’s books. From early childhood, we are told to dream big–that we can do or be anything we desire. And of course, the more people take the bait, the more this manufactured idea of normal is reinforced, as we see our friends buying the latest gadgets, taking that trip to Disney World, showing off their new car, or remodeling their home. Even our spiritual leaders have often failed us, leading the way into “Christian” consumerism or the prosperity “gospel” that offers material solutions to spiritual problems.
While many of the things being marketed to us are not inherently evil, they exert a strong pull away from the simple pleasures of life toward consumerism and materialism. We can know better and still be affected, as the potent poisons of envy, discontentment and worry seep into our thinking patterns. Remember, someone is paying millions of dollars, using both the oldest and newest forms of human psychology, to convince us that our life is inadequate if it doesn’t include X, Y, or Z. If only we could afford to live this normal, healthy, and happier life!
Enter: Easy credit.
Step Two: Easy Access to Credit
Once upon a time, sellers knew that it was against their best interest to sell to people who could not afford a product. But today, easy access to third-party credit means that sellers don’t need to worry about whether buyers can afford products or not. The vast majority of purchases will be made through a credit card (or a loan company, for big ticket items). Thus, there is no motivation to sell responsibly. And for the buyer, all too often, the ease of paying with “plastic” (or other forms of credit) leads to expensive impulse purchases or routine overspending.
To be fair, some experiences are priceless. Some relatively small expenditures may take the edge off poverty for a while. And sometimes we don’t have a choice. When a roof needs to be replaced, or a car, or a furnace, we cannot simply walk away if the price is too high for our savings. And some purchases are time sensitive. To maximize the benefits of a college education, one needs to pursue it earlier in life than later. Student loans, while controversial, are all-too-often the only way to get the degree that is needed for the career that is needed to pursue the American Dream, or at least avoid outright poverty. (True, there are alternatives, but if everyone pursued the alternatives, we would have no teachers, no medical professionals, no engineers, etc.) And don’t even get me started on medical bills, which can bury a person in debt overnight. Even if the medical debts do not charge interest, they can force people to take on other debts that do.
There are some people for whom credit is not an option, of course. But for the most part, the System tries to keep that number to a minimum. There is no profit to be had from a homeless person. On the other hand, even people who are poor enough to be at high risk of defaulting can be exploited through high interest rate loans, which effectively transfer the risk from the lender to the borrower.
When someone out there is fighting for your right to borrow money no matter what your financial circumstances, you can bet they are hoping to make a buck off of your “right.” Because anyone who knows what’s good for you knows that debt, as a general rule, is not.
Few consumers have the skill or ability to leverage credit to any long-term advantage. Anything purchased on credit (unless paid off immediately) ultimately costs more than what we are charged for it up front–sometimes exponentially more. But the more money we owe, the less purchasing power we have without credit. And so into the vortex we go.
Step Three: Welfare Slaves
A certain sort of person likes to depict people on welfare as lazy, entitled folks who enjoy spending other people’s money or “welfare queens.” This may be an intentional move to discredit the working poor, or it may be the expressed frustration of those who feel the injustice of working and saving as hard as they can and still being worse off than those on welfare. The problem is, our system does not really help those who work for independence. It helps those who work as perpetual slaves.
This is partly because our welfare system generally requires able-bodied people to work for any wage they can get, in order to qualify for assistance. On the surface, this sounds like a solid expectation. We cannot, after all, support people sitting on their butts taking handouts! The problem is, what we are effectively doing is using tax dollars to pressure them to sell their time and labor for less than it is worth. This, in turn, lowers the amount anyone can expect to be paid. This may help to explain why even in areas where unemployment is low, wages remain relatively stagnant.
Further, because welfare is means-based, it makes it hard for those who need it to work their way up the ladder financially. An incrementally better job may end up costing more in lost benefits than it does in higher pay–especially if there are any hidden costs, like a longer commute. Adding another income to the family may also turn out to be counterproductive, which makes it difficult for children of such families to get started in life. (“I’m sorry, Sweetie, but if you want to go out and get job experience while living under my roof, you’re going to have to be prepared to pick up the family grocery bill, healthcare premiums, and co-pays.”) Add to this the fact that assessments are typically made on monthly income, and families with irregular pay schedules can really end up in a bind. Even a few weeks of overtime or a badly-timed bonus could do more harm than good, requiring, at the very least, the submission of multiple stacks of paperwork to prove that this is not a permanent raise.
This is especially problematic because people are not allowed to accumulate any significant assets while on welfare, either. That’s right: scrimp and pinch to save up your money and you’ll quickly find you’re no longer eligible for food stamps or medicaid. Forget having a rainy day fund. Forget paying for your next car with cash. Even life insurance policies may count against you!
For some, the obvious solution is not to get welfare in the first place. But for those who are sick or disabled or caring for others, who have struggled to find a good job, or who are already financially burdened with debt, it may be well nigh impossible to live without it.
So the poor cannot really fight for better wages. And scrimping and pinching to save their money will only cause them to lose their assistance. But what is the one thing means-based welfare does not penalize? You guessed it: credit. They can borrow as much money as people are willing to lend them, and it will not prevent them from getting government assistance. Think about that now, if you will!
Step Four: Alienation and Fear
Those who profit from the weak benefit from a fragmented society. In theory, poor people working together could help to ameliorate many of their vulnerabilities. Unions, in the past, have done much to defend the common laborer against exploitation. Families would work together to create their own safety nets. Churches have helped the poor for millennia. The best defense of the poor is in their sheer numbers, and their willingness to help one another.
None of these things have gone completely obsolete, but they have been significantly undermined. “Right to Work” laws (and unrelated political divisions) have weakened unions. “Sexual freedom” has weakened families, as has the need to be geographically mobile in pursuit of work. Churches are rocked by scandals, divided over politics, and losing members.
The politicization of conflict has not, on the whole, made us better neighbors. We are suspicious of one another. We see needy people as failures–perhaps as liberal “snowflakes” who don’t know how to live in the real world, or as uneducated “Trumpkins” who are too stupid to know what’s good for them. We justify our lack of charity by determining never to rely on charity ourselves.
Among the many ways this weakens us is the fact that, more and more, if we need something we don’t have or can’t afford, we rely on credit. “Paying our own way”–even if it is with credit–feels more respectable than asking for help. Our neighbor might have a cup of sugar, but we’d drive ten miles to a grocery store before asking. We aren’t sure if we should join a union that seems to mainly be a way to tax employees and support the abortion party. We aren’t sure if we want to be part of a church that tells us Trump is God’s gift to America. Mom and Dad live in another state and, anyway, they’re struggling to save up for (or survive) retirement. We don’t want other people relying on us, and we don’t want to rely on other people. That’s what loan companies are for.
Fighting the Current
And so this is the position where all too many of us find ourselves: dissatisfied with life, deeply in debt, forced to choose between accepting assistance at the cost of our independence or fighting for better circumstances alone in a fractured society. And what is our natural response? To look for a fix, to gravitate toward whatever seems like it might make us happier. And so the vortex sucks us in ever deeper.
But we must resist; we must fight the current at all costs; we must not become a statistic of the System. So let us work our way backwards, against the flow, up the stream, looking for a better way for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters in the same boat.
First, we must fight socially, to unite with friends, neighbors, and family–with others who share our plight on any level. We must band together at the grassroots level, knowing that the Powers That Be are the biggest beneficiaries in the current state of affairs. Second, we must fight politically, for laws that will truly help the poor to get out of poverty, by supporting the ability to save and invest to the extent one is able, and by bolstering laws against unrestricted usury. Third, we must fight materially, to create non-usurious alternatives to the debt cycle. When people have real needs, we must band together to help them before they become prey to the lending vultures. Finally, we must fight spiritually, that those who are feeling empty may find joy and meaning in life in ways that transcend the siren song of the seller.
While I am not a proponent of replacing public safety nets with private charity, this is clearly an area where a healthy, trustworthy, and charitable church could make a tremendous impact. First, there is the aspect of guiding people to a higher purpose in life. Then there is the aspect of bringing people together into mutually supportive fellowship, friendship, and family. But there is also a financial aspect. Though the poor can be effectively penalized for putting too much money into savings, they are not penalized for giving money to the church. Nor is the church penalized for distributing the money back to them as needed. Naturally, a church’s business is not to create under-the-table savings accounts, and that is not what I propose. However, the normal operation of giving to and from the church, when faithfully followed, may do a great deal to fight back against the credit vortex. Rather than reduplicating the problems seen with overreliance on state-sponsored aid, rich and poor both contribute what they can for a shared and higher purpose, giving what amounts of time and money they can for God’s sake–and take heart in a disheartening world.
I am not saying that there is a quick fix. There is not. We are talking about beating the odds here, which, by definition, requires some exceptional skill and luck. But we do not have to roll over and play dead. We can, and must, fight for financial freedom, not only for ourselves but for our children, our neighbors, and those who are worse off than we are.