Monday, May 01, 2006

Poor America, Dumb America: The Mad Infinite Interconnectedness of Everything

Until recently, I accounted myself a die-hard liberal--a full tilt leftist ideologue. I was anti-gun, pro-choice, antiwar, anti-big business, pro-government programs, anti-free trade, etc, etc, etc... Now, I am still most of these things, to one degree or another. I am still pro-choice, antiwar, and anti-free trade. I think that to be otherwise would be to advocate harming other human beings by choice, and I can't live with that. But I have found myself shifting gears on a lot of traditional left-right split issues... not necessarily to the right, but away from the left. Currently, one thing is really ticking me off--the poor financial choices of most Americans.

I am twenty-four years old. My husband is also twenty-four, and we have a two-year old daughter. Today, we sat down and looked at our finances, and at first things looked pretty bleak. My husband is a police officer and a Marine Corps reservist, and I am a full-time mom and freelance writer. For our ages, and our geographic location, we do pretty well financially. The median annual household income in our city is just over $29,000 and ours is around $40,000--but we are in debt, and I couldn't really understand why. Aside from our collective college debt, there was really no reason for us to be behind on any of our bills, much less ALL of them.

So I pulled out our bank statement, and added up all of the unnecessary spending we have done in the last month--shopping trips, eating out in restaurants and ordering in, renting movies and whatnot. Since April 1st, we have spent a whopping $1,372.80 on crap we never needed. We have paid exactly 0 bills in that time.

What the hell were we thinking? And why I am telling you all of this?

Now, I know that a lot of Americans are legitimately struggling to make ends meet, without anything extra. But it's time for all of us to wake up a little bit when it comes to unnecessary spending. I see two major problems with the concept of poverty we have here in the United States. First of all, we (and by we, I mean Americans in general) have made it respectable to be poor in this country. There is no shame in poverty, even if said poverty is caused by a refusal to go out and take a job. Second, most Americans living under the federal poverty line (and remember, this is not ALL, but MOST) live in relative comfort--meaning, they have a warm place to sleep, clothes on their backs, food to eat, cable and internet and a car, and a few bucks "left over" to have fun.

This lifestyle may well be a facade, because these people live like the majority of the rest of the American people--like me and my family in fact. We are a nation of people living beyond our means. For example, so-called "poverty stricken" Americans are extremely likely to have cell phones (2 out of 3 Americans own cell phones, and this does not take adolescents into account). That's $50 or so every month that each of these Americans could be putting in the bank and putting toward paying off debts. Most Americans living in what we consider poverty have credit cards. I'm not talking about those suffering from extreme poverty, our brethren living in shelters and alleyways. I'm talking about the Americans most of us progressives spend a lot of our time worrying about--people living in inner cities and trailer parks and government subsidized housing.

Frankly, I'm getting a little fed up with the politically correct requirement set upon me by my contemporaries to feel bad for ALL poor people. I am fairly poor--and no one should feel sorry for me--it was my own doing, 100%. When I see most "poor" Americans, all I feel is disdain. I see people who don't understand the promise of living in a country where, even if you are born poor, you have opportunities unheard of in much of the world. (You may not have the same opportunities as a George W. Bush or his oil baron brethren, but there are still opportunities available to most of us to better our lot in life.) I see people who choose to throw money away buying things and services they don't need instead of saving for themselves and their children. I see people who have been living their lives exactly as I have been living mine--without a thought for tomorrow, without a sense of personal responsibility or what it means to be a productive citizen.

I see selfishness. I see short-sightedness. And I see ignorance to the nth degree.

And I'm sick of feeling bad about it.

Here's my solution: I want to make financial planning classes mandatory for all American high school students and I want it to be mandatory ALL four years. I want the United States public education system to start teaching our kids things they really need to know to succeed in life. IRA, 401K, and mutual fund should all be SAT words. Our kids should be able to understand the interest rates they are agreeing to pay on credit cards and loans. Of course, this is a lofty goal when we take into consideration that most parents don't really understand the finer nuances of personal finance.

I think that teaching the next generation to budget whatever money they DO have, pay their bills on time and consistently, avoid unnecessary credit card and loan debt, and prioritize their expenses, we could completely change the face of our economy.

In addition to that, we need to reformat the entire public education system and recreate it as it ought to be. Our schools still focus mainly on the skills we needed to succeed in the world 100 years ago--reading, writing, and math on a basic level. Today our kids need serious computer skills--not typing class and Excel, but programming and repair skills as well. Our kids need to be able to read techno-jargon and communicate in multiple languages. Without revamping education, there is no long-term hope for the economy. Skills-based jobs will continue to fly overseas, and unskilled service industry jobs will multiply until there are no Americans left who can afford to buy those services.

So, if that makes me a right-wing ditto head (and I don't think it does), then so be it. I think it's time for all of us to start coming up with some serious solutions instead of expressing our feelings of solidarity with the homeless by sleeping overnight in a cardboard box. Feeling sorry for the truly poor isn't going to save them--those feelings must translate into action--and better for that action to be preventive, rather than curative.

I am all for lending a hand to neighbors in need. I am all for making sure every American citizen has access to a good, free education and healthcare and housing. I just want ALL Americans to make an effort--sometimes you don't succeed--it happens. Sometimes you get a tough break--we all do now and then, some more than others.

Should those of us who are doing our best, trying to do the right thing and act responsibly--should we be paying for the mistakes and bad choices of others? Should we be paying for these things any more than we should be paying for a war we oppose, or fueling the coffers that dole out corporate welfare, or the salary of a president who makes our blood curdle?

I say the answer is no.

Now, let's give Americans the tools and information they need to live up to their responsibilities.

Katherine Brengle