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personal responsibility
the most annoying phrase of the day
by katherine l (aka clevertitania) (@CleverTitania)
3.18.10
news

In the last two weeks, I’ve had two different people refer to ‘personal responsibility’ in regards the way normal citizen’s deal with banks and their ilk. Both times; it seriously cheezed me off. The first one thought it was rather ridiculous that the banks were being forced to abandon their overdraft fees on checking accounts. After all, if someone spends more money than they have in their accounts, of course the bank should be compensated for their oversight and/or irresponsibility. The second individual thought it was unnecessary whining for people to complain about harassing behavior from collection companies like; calling you at work repeatedly, trying to coerce you into giving them your bank account information and setup automatic payments that you simply have no money to accommodate, telling an individual they should get a second job to pay off their debts (including saying that to people who fell into debt thanks to disability and in a job market where finding one job is hard enough), etc. Apparently, all of these lucky individuals who’ve never had to struggle financially think they have the right to judge people who have found themselves under hard times. I imagine these individuals would also be in favor of reinstating debtors’ prison.

Current data puts over 16 million US residents out of work. More than 10% of the US population was unemployed in January of this 2010. That is almost double the average for 1998-2008. Millions of hard working and responsible residents have found themselves out of work through no fault of their own, thanks the collapse of financial institutions, manufacturing companies, and retail stores, just to name a few. These aren’t people who did a lousy job and got fired; these are people whose jobs simply evaporated into the ethos of a recession people are still comparing to The Great Depression.

(Side note: In fairness to those who dislike that comparison, unemployment rates during The Great Depression peaked at about 25%. The population of the country at that time was about 126 million. It’s estimation for 2010 is about 316 million. So in 1933, at the peak of The Great Depression, there were about 32 million US residents unemployed. That’s of course quite a bit higher than our current numbers.)

Now, that 10% of the population only includes individuals who don’t have a job. That doesn’t include those who have taken jobs well below their salary requirements out of desperation. We like to call those individuals under-employed. Then there’s those who still have decent jobs, but who have still found themselves in tough financial situations thanks to bank collapses, bad mortgages increases in local property/sales taxes (our property tax went up 75% this year), and inflation going up while salary levels aren’t rising to meet it. Then there is the working poor; individuals with jobs but still living below the poverty level. In 2003 that number was estimated at 24% by Business Week. The section below is taken directly out of Wikipedia’s entry on the ‘Working Poor.’

The Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative that examines the conditions of working families both nationally and at the state level. In 2005, using U.S. Census American Community Survey data, the project found that 2.8 million working families are poor (earn less than 100% of poverty) and that these families constituted 12.2 million people. In addition, 9.6 million, or more than 1 out 4 working families in America (29%), are low-income, earning less than 200% of poverty. The 200% of poverty threshold is considered a reasonable estimate of the amount of earnings needed to be economically self-sufficient ($39,942 for a family of four in 2005). Among states, the range for low-income working families extends from 15% (New Hampshire) to 42% (New Mexico).


So, if 29% of the country is working but still not making enough money to live on, and 10% of the population is unemployed, that means that almost 40% of US residents aren’t currently not making enough money to live and pay any outstanding debt they’ve accumulated. And that’s just people who are in seriously destitute situations. For instance, the 29% are people living 2005 below the poverty level. So it doesn’t include those living closer to the poverty level and just about it. Based on this information, it’s a conservative estimate that at least half of this countries inhabitants are facing a financially daunting situation with little hope of recovery without serious financial reform and an improvement in not just the job market, but also the pay coming out of those jobs.

Now let’s look at banking fees a bit. I bank with one of the larger chains in the country (sorry Arianna). Overdraft fees are $30 for each instance. Now that’s not for the month or the paycheck. For instance, if I make a single $15 error, but I do that by using my debit card three times for small items, I’ve just accumulated $60 in fees. Well, that’s what overdraft protection is for, right? I pay at least $10 if my bank transfers money from my savings to cover shortages. That’s$10 for moving my money from one account to another, in a time when the process is completely automated and doesn’t even require a single employee of my bank to do a damned thing. When that fee was first introduced, it was supposed to be one time a month maximum. Now it seems to fluctuate based on how many times it’s had to happen over the month. I’ve paid 3 or 4 of those fees in a month before. So, for their computers to automatically move money to my checking account (again, no human intervention required) I could rack up $40 in fees. In a time of online shopping and automated payments, it’s a lot easier than some people realize to make an error on how much money is in your account. Some people also think the banks will just waive these fees if you call them an inform them of an unforeseeable error. I’m sure they do that for clients with more money in the bank. I can assure you, they will not bend over backwards for those living paycheck to paycheck.

So what about those pesky bill collectors? Sure, they are annoying, but are they really bad enough for people (you know, that 40% plus) to complain about it. When I was pregnant with my son, I had to stop working by around 8 months into the pregnancy, and I had to cut back on work earlier thanks to toll it took on my body. As expected, I fell behind on the two credit cards I had back then. I had one bill collector suggest that I should take a second job... on medical restrictions at 9 months pregnant. Incidentally, I was maybe 2 months behind on my $30 payment at the time. She also asked if I had any jewelry or electronics I could sell. Right, because I had a few huge TVs and diamond necklaces I’d bought on the less than $20,000 I was making a year? I’ve dealt with debt collectors at several points in my life (including a few at the moment), and I can say without hesitation, they’re behavior is by and large rude, and in many cases harassing would not be an unreasonable label to put on them. More recently, it seems that each one of them believes they have the right to ask for my banking account information (both accounts numbers and current balances), my job history, and ask how much money I spend on groceries every month. Guess what? They don’t have the right. They have a right to their money, there’s no doubt about that. Both most of them seem to behave as if everyone they call has the money, they are just spending it on crap they don’t need or refusing to part with it. It’s not only a rather brainless conclusion, it’s insulting to the hard working people who are struggling to stay afloat.

Back when there was a real middle class, it wasn’t so frustrating for those with means to assume that poor people are all just lazy, stupid or otherwise the cause of their own fate. But in this day and age, it’s not just thoughtless and judgmental, it’s actually dangerous. Excessive fees, bad loan terms, insane interest rates, and other tricks of the financial industry are no longer just unfair or unrealistic; they are actually proving to be highly dangerous to our overall economic fate. The burst of the housing bubble alone has left thousands of responsible, hardworking citizens facing a bleak and harrowing future. Those who would once have thought their lives stable and good are now facing unemployment and even homelessness. And the more people who end up with that fate, the more our nation’s economy suffers, placing even more people in view of that fate. And people who are suffering the most from this economic crisis aren’t financially irresponsible. People who pay their bills on time for 20 years, only to lose their job or their home, are some of the most responsible people in this country. They are simply trying to make the best of a horrific situation. And the last thing we should be doing is accusing them of lacking personal responsibility. What we should be doing is taking responsibility for doing whatever we can to help them get out of the mess, especially backing the new financial reform policies and the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

So, for those individuals who would still like to label about half the population as lacking in personal responsibility, I have a choice internet acronym for you; STFU. If you don’t know what it means, look it up.


ABOUT KATHERINE L (AKA CLEVERTITANIA)

When I grow up, I want to be; whoever Joss Whedon wants to be, when he grows up. I am a writer because it's the first thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning; aside from eating and using the lavatory of course. My work includes screenplays, short stories, film/TV/music reviews and socio-political commentary. The last one is a fancy way of saying I like to shoot my mouth off on many topics. I excel at using $1.50 words. They gone up, thanks to inflation. Isn't our economy awesome?

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