Debt And Middle-Class Identity

DH = Dear Husband

 “People in my class borrow . . . “           

              This past November, when it became clear that we’d soon pay off Debt #2, I wrote about the odd fact that our success made me feel uneasy.  My discomfort was rooted in an unhealthy money-guilt, and I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of it.  (See post “Debt Reduction and Guilt . . .”)  Like me, DH felt off-kilter with our good fortune.  “I don’t know if I’m going to be comfortable not having any debt,” he said at the time.  When I asked him why, he struggled to pinpoint the reason, but he came out with, “People in my class don’t have money to buy things.  They borrow money to buy things.”  It was the first time I had ever heard DH refer to “my class.”
            And he was right.  “Pay up or get out:  The middle-class life has been built on debt . . .  Now that bill is due.”  Jason Kirby’s article for Maclean’s magazine from March 19, 2009 supports DH’s self-identification with middle-class debt.  For most of the last century, debt was a dirty word in Canada . . . [Starting] in the 1990s our attitude to debt changed . . . [and] our nation of savers became a nation of borrowers.  Debt emerged as the great enabler, the ticket to the trappings of a better life, to flat screen TVs and shiny new SUVs” (Kirby).  In Katherine Porter’s book Broke:  How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class (2012), she introduces Kevin Leicht’s analysis of the same growth in household borrowing in the U.S.  “. . . [The] debt burdens of today’s families would have been unthinkable in the prior generation.  Leicht describes how debt is used as a tool to simulate social class.  He conceptualizes debt as a buoy to keep middle-class lifestyles afloat . . .” (Porter, 15).

The Debt-Matrix

            The picture of the middle-class that emerges is not very pretty.  We’re indebted because we want more than we can afford.  We use debt as an “enabler” to “simulate social class” – to fake being richer than we are.  We in today’s middle-class are not as wise as our predecessors, for whom “debt was a dirty word”, and who would look upon our debts as “unthinkable”.  But we can’t beat ourselves up for this collective lapse in judgement.  We’ve been subjected to powerful assaults by sophisticated ads that keep us dissatisfied; by “generous” banks eager to capitalize on that dissatisfaction through loans; and by the math riddles of “experts” who convince us that debt is a winning proposition.  And why save and wait when you can have it now?  The agents of debt in our society create in our perception a Matrix-like reality from which it is very difficult to unplug.
            A colleague who knows I write this blog said to me a few days ago, “Your blog is very helpful to people in the middle-class.”  I think that she meant it in its positive sense, but I also think she meant that it doesn’t apply so much to those who are less privileged.  She is probably right.  However, according to Broke:  How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class, debt is overwhelmingly a middle-class affliction, as “more than 90 per cent of bankrupt people are members of the middle class” (Porter, 10).  Debt, it claims, “is ubiquitous in the middle class” (Porter, 15).  

Middle-class mission

            I believe that the call to all middle-class debtors is to get real – to embrace the laws of addition and subtraction; to resist the urge to present ourselves as better off than we are; to make an intentional break from society’s Debt-Matrix; to develop the patience for delayed gratification.  DH’s expression of what it is to be middle-class in our times is accurate.  We don’t have money, so we borrow it.  But middle-class characteristics are not set in stone, and we can change for the better just as we have changed for the worse.  DH and I are facing down our discomfort with debt reduction, and we’re helping to break and reshape the mould for our class. 
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  1. I was partially raised by my grandmother. Recycling and Reuse were typical of her generation; not for the environment but because ‘waste’ was a ‘sin’ and money was scarce. As I recall, she also felt ‘Debt’ was a ‘sin’! I’m not a fan of those who use religion to make others wrong. We seem to be encouraged to incur and carry debt. Some are even labelled ‘good’ debt – i.e. a school loan. Keep up the good work, Prudence!! Help to re-educate the masses.

    1. My parents were raised during the depression of the 1930s, so your grandmother’s views sound familiar to me. Given the troubling circumstances in which so many of us find ourselves as a result of our indulgence in debt, I think the wisdom of people like your grandmother is gaining merit. As for the concept of debt as “sin”, Margaret Atwood devotes a whole chapter to it in her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Harsh as the word “sin” in that context sounds, I think your grandmother was being protective, keeping you safe from that shadow side. I agree that we are encouraged to incur and carry debt in our society, and I believe that banks and credit card companies are the primary beneficiaries of that norm – not borrowers. And although my focus is to get out of debt, I do still stuggle with the concept of “good debt” because I have to acknowledge the good resulting from the loan my husband took out to get launched in his business. Debt reduction for me has involved a constant navigation through battling points of view. You have raised some of the most powerful of them. Thanks for your comment.

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