All the Money, Part II

One of the headline news stories in the New York Times the other day was about the Providence hospital system, a “non-profit” organization required by law to provide free care to patients who make 300% below the poverty rate.

The deal they have with the IRS is that “in exchange for not paying taxes, they must provide free care to the poor in the communities they serve.”

Apparently, this is not what’s happened, and they’ve been exposed for hounding patients into paying for their care after all (sans itemized bills, of course) and sending them to collections agencies. Many of the patients’ credit scores are ultimately ruined. Doing this was, of course, illegal, but guess who paid for it? Absolutely no one… except for the victims. Doesn’t this just seem to be the way things work lately?

My mother worked at Providence Hospital in Waco after training as a respiratory therapist in the ‘90s, her first truly middle-class job. She liked her work and was proud of what she’d accomplished in learning an in-demand skill that could support herself and her daughters.

Still though, at least from what I can piece together from my memories, she was forced to take on debt to keep all the moving pieces together.

She switched jobs a couple of times as she moved up the ranks in reputation for her work, but in the spring of 1996, was fired, essentially scapegoated for a higher-up’s consistent mistakes with patients.

I first remember us getting several calls a day from collections agencies as a middle school student. In the beginning, I’d dutifully and politely pass the phone to my mother when asked. She’d try to tell me to say she wasn’t there, but I’d just stare helplessly as I tried to get her to take it (I’ve never been a good or willing liar).

Soon, she’d taught us to always say she wasn’t available for one reason or another when anyone called asking for “Miss DeVries” (always pronounced the wrong way), as they were always collections agency representatives.

I was not comfortable with it at all. I hated lying, and I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t just do what she was supposed to do so I wouldn’t have to. One time when I told a bill collector that she was “in the shower” he became aggressive. “I know you’re lying.” “No, I’m not!” I said nervously and hung up the phone. My heart raced for at least 15 minutes after that.

Now, I get it. And I wish I could apologize to my mom. She was literally doing the best she could, a realization that I think all parents hope their children have at some point in their lives.

It’s not that she simply didn’t feel like paying them back or was trying to chat anyone out of their money, which is what the cultural message was (and remains) about those who fail to repay their debts. But rent had to be paid, car payments had to be made, groceries had to be bought, and it would also be nice to give her kids some Christmas and birthday presents, which I now see she made a great effort to do.

I also see a few more layers of context at this point. First, the macro: our economy is built on debt; it enriches a lot of people and keeps things going, and keeps people spending on things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If everyone decided to “be responsible” and not use debt to buy anything, our economy would collapse, full stop. When people can’t pay, we scold them, but if everyone ceased to use it because they can’t pay, this would all be over.

A bit closer to home for me was the debt post-divorce.

I remember several tirades growing up from my father as he railed against credit cards and credit card companies. “They want people to spend money they don’t have so they’ll have to pay back even more money!” I didn’t pay much attention since I didn’t totally understand the concept of credit; I just knew he was against it.

Fortunately, for him, he could afford to eschew the system entirely. If things got tight, and they often did, he could always obtain “personal” credit through his older family members, and was helped out in ways that counted for so much… ways in which I can’t even imagine being helped myself.

How must my mother have felt seeing him being gifted several cars over the years, as well as the house where he lived (to be fair, half the house officially belongs to my sister and I, which is the only inheritance I’ll see) as she struggled to support us, even with child support, as debt collectors kept her own phone ringing more than ten times a day for years? Did she know about the shoebox full of “IOUs” that my uncle once gave to my dad as a Christmas present, all his “debts” forgiven? And how much was she kept up at night worrying about how she’d get everything paid for and about her daughters’ obvious discomfort with “covering” for her several times a day as if she were some sort of criminal?

Thinking about it inspires so much sadness and compassion.

Things got better when she married my stepdad, another respiratory therapist. Suddenly, we had money to spare. We moved to a nicer apartment, and got a better car, finally trading in the only new one my mother had bought years later.

But then, double-tragedy struck: Richard had a heart attack and needed bypass surgery. Right around the same time, the hospital they both worked at shut down from one day to the next for mismanagement and fraud. It declared bankruptcy, and, as far as I know, completely got away with having let go all of its workers at once, as well as not having paid the insurance premiums that had been taken out of their paychecks. Low and behold: the surgery wouldn’t be covered by insurance after all, and they were both out of work. Back to square one.

They both got new jobs, but my mother was not the same. She started having some more serious health problems around this time, and they soon realized she couldn’t work. And though she was fainting frequently, hitting her head and breaking her bones, she was rejected for disability benefits; “falling” isn’t a disability, they said.

Our economy, after all, is not made to help people that aren’t in optimal working condition. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick and can’t work. Though she clearly couldn’t work, the assumption was that she was a drug addict who was trying to live off the government because she didn’t want to. No one gets lectured on “personal responsibility” more than those struggling to survive, it seems.

I’ve had much better luck than my mother. To start, I had a great mother who took care of me the way she never had been through a childhood of abuse so bad it was a wonder she even survived long enough to have us; I also had two great dads, and a grandmother who was often there to help fill in the gaps with our care (and payments for ballet classes and braces). My uncle, the one who forgave my father’s debts and gave him the house, paid for the college of his nieces and nephews in full, so I am mercifully not saddled with student debt.

I am saddled with debt now, though. Partially, it’s just life: it’s expensive. Sometimes you have to pay unexpected taxes, or travel to another country because your mother is dying, and those things can get you into just deep enough a hole that the “what the hell” effect kicks in (what’s a little more debt?). It’s usually later that you realize your financial optimism was not a great position, and an endless string of independent contractor and freelancer gigs stop being as consistent as they once were. Savings are accumulated, then spent plus some for rainy days that come because gigs are, by definition, not that steady. A global pandemic hits.

But debt collectors don’t stop calling. Money from the poor doesn’t stop rolling endlessly up to those who have more money than they could ever spend. And we’re the ones who feel bad about it.

All the Money, Part 1

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about the connection between debt and shame. I then spent about an hour in the comments section. It’s not that I hadn’t thought about it carefully before, but something about it hit me.

This particular article was about the hypocritical rage of those who thought everyone should “pay their own way” (legislators accepting millions in now forgiven PPP loans while nobody blinked an eye, anyone?) toward the not-so-lucky who’ve spent their adult lives buried under student debt, the principal of which most have already paid off and others have paid off several times over.

But really, I consider most debt advertised to the poor and lower-middle class as fair game for ample criticism. If workers’ wages had kept up with the rising prices of everything else, after all – hell, if they’d increased at the same rate their CEOs’ earnings had – almost no one would need debt in the first place. For the ultra-rich and sometimes for the merely well-off, debt is a tool. They can leverage it (and abandon it without being judged) to build their wealth.

If they lend money themselves, they can ensure continued monthly income as those much poorer than they struggle to pull together and send an ever-increasing monthly payment from their limited monthly earnings. Interest, of course, is what makes any “investment” worthwhile and what keeps debtors continuing those monthly payments far after the original amount borrowed has been covered.

For most of the rest of us, it’s a delicious-looking house made of candy in the middle of a punishing forest. What could go wrong? Time to carpe that diem…we already know that none of us are getting out of here alive.

Spending is emotional. It’s also social. To refuse to take on debt is to face this difficult question: to what extent are you willing to not let yourself or your children be included in the name of playing it safe? And what, are you not going to buy them Christmas presents this year? The cultural messages are maddeningly contradictory: if there’s anything worse than spending money you don’t have, it’s not providing your children with absolutely everything in your power to provide.

Then there are the intentional (as opposed to latent) forces outside of you. With one hand, an offer of credit, easy, that speaks to the optimist in you. Of course things will be better for you in the future! How could they not?

With the other hand, elaborately-crafted advertising to make you feel just awful if you miss out, or worse, cause your children to miss out.

But then comes a third hand from behind the back, the archetypal devil coming to collect the soul you sold him much later when the effect has worn off: “You knew what you were getting into; what makes you think you should get to walk away from your responsibilities, hmm? What kind of person are you, anyway?”

The above, of course, is debt that’s more or less taken on consciously but unnecessarily. Lots of people take it on very necessarily as well: a job loss, an illness, a car emergency. When you don’t have a lot of resources, and many hard-working people don’t and won’t, the debt itself becomes one of your only resources (while it lasts) – a lifeline. These are the personal, micro-reasons, but we forget that there are macro-reasons one might require it, too: wages that haven’t increased with the price of living. Institutional racism. The failure of your ancestors to have both produced wealth and grown it exponentially to pass down to you. The failure to have a family that could have your back if you really needed it.

So as a society, we’re more comfortable talking about what most of us would see as “justifiable debt” – debt that can’t be helped, like to go to school or from medical bills even when we have insurance – than debt that came about from what we might consider bad decisions, like from buying unnecessary items on credit cards. It’s the same way we embrace a biological explanation of homosexuality (they were literally born that way!) but feel uneasier explaining women who have simply decided that they’re only going to be romantically involved with other women now to the religious right. Nuance has never been our specialty.

When it comes to consumer debt, our moral twisting gets uncomfortable. As a species, we don’t collectively appreciate difficult, multi-layered explanations, and the purpose of those exercises anyway is usually to arrive at a moral judgment.

But there’s a long list of ways, if you look closely, that this system of debt is here very much on purpose. If we must blame someone, I think our cameras are aimed at the wrong subjects.

Personal finance courses, for example, have never formed part of public school programs in a way that would make us believe the “powers that be” don’t actually want us to be falling into these traps. That’s because ensuring that people fall into them is by design: debt is what keeps this economy going, and what keeps a specific set of pockets filling each month while most others are quickly emptied.

That might be a cynical view, but far more cynical, I think, is setting up traps for people to fall into and then wagging fingers at them for having fallen in.

I have more to say on this subject on a personal level, but will be saving it for my next blog; I have no illusions about our collective attention spans for writing over 250 words in length. For those of you who’ve stuck to the end, thank you! More to come.