Five Incidents of Tuning in to Money

I.

I’m an AmeriCorps member, serving as a quasi-social worker helping low-income families with their financial difficulties. I’m explaining to my client in painfully incompetent Spanish that there’s nothing she can do legally, that the landlord’s letter she handed me says she needs to move herself and her family out of their apartment by tomorrow, that the county will probably offer her shelter since her kids have social security numbers, even though she doesn’t. She asks if ICE will get involved if she goes to the county. I say no, but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.

Tears well up in her eyes, but she doesn’t cry. This angers me. I want her to give into those feelings of despair and hopelessness. I want her to cry. I want her to yell at me and piss me off so that I don’t have to acknowledge the massive failings of the system that gives me so much privilege. I want her to do nothing but whine so that I can blame her for not trying hard enough.

She doesn’t cry. Instead, she thanks me and leaves. I will never see her again.

II.

The man hands me $600. He’d promised me more, but, despite my very honest craigslist ad, he’s a little taken aback by the severe angle of the broken wheel and the extent to which the rear axle is bent.

“You did this by backing into a pole?” he asks.

I had done it by backing into a pole, yes. I had caused $2,600 in damage in five seconds of reckless driving. I’d totaled the car—the car my parents gave me so that I could visit them with less hassle, so I could babysit my sister’s kids more often, so that I could get to job interviews or do any after-work internship, the car with the brand new ignition switch that my sister had paid for, the car with brand new tires for which I was still $500 in debt. I’d been too cool to check behind me as I peeled out of the parking space, hitting the pole with a nauseating crunch followed by the even more nauseating sound of grinding gears and creaking metal as I slowly drove home.

As the man drives off, I run my fingers over the grainy hundred dollar bills. Later, I will use the money to buy an iPad.

III.

I’m standing in front of a class of low-income mothers. They are required to be there by the county in order to continue receiving their welfare benefits.

I’m trying to explain to them the benefits of having a credit card and using it wisely. I outline the steps for good credit card use: using only 30 percent of your credit limit, paying the balance every month to avoid interest, applying only for a credit card you know you can get. It’s simple, I say, and if you do it right, it will really help you in the long run.

A woman raises her hand. “Why would I want to buy something with money I don’t have?” she asks, slouching in her chair, crossing her arms.

I explain to her that using a credit card wisely can help establish good credit.

“What’s the point of good credit?”

I fall back on the end goal of these financial workshops, the outcome my supervisors are pushing so that our reports look good to our funders, a goal which I have yet to see any of my clients realize.

Well, I say, in case you want to buy a house someday.

The woman rolls her eyes.

IV.

I’m at happy hour with a couple of friends. We’re discussing what we’d do if we won the lottery. I confess that I’d keep enough to live comfortably for the rest of my life and give the rest to various non-profits. My friends scoff at my idealism and suggest instead that I invest most of it and then give the money I make from the market.

I tell them I wouldn’t ever want to do that. I tell them that banks are what’s wrong with the world, that playing the market is basically validating a system where a bunch of privileged white dudes make money out of nothing but their own privilege, that an “investment” economy means siphoning wealth from people who actually work for a living and redistributing it amongst the mega-rich. I tell them that I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to buy a stock, because what is a stock, even?

A friend calmly points out that a stock is ownership of part of company, but I’m feeling confrontational. I tell him that this “ownership” is imaginary, that it doesn’t mean I have any say in the governance of the company, that I’m basically just using money to buy more money. “What does a stock actually get me?” I ask.

He looks at me with trepidation and I know I’ve been too forceful. You get more money to give away, he says.

Our food arrives. I feel naive.

V.

It’s Thanksgiving, and Levi’s is having an online sale.

I haven’t purchased a pair of jeans in two years. The one pair I own have faded from an unwashed cobalt to a grainy cerulean. The shape of my cell phone can be seen in the wash even when the phone isn’t in my pocket.

I look at the pair of dark blue 508s with a mix of desire and fear. I imagine myself in them, revelling in the thought of pants that actually extend to my ankle. A pair of jeans I could actually wear to work! I think. But even at 40% off, they’re more than I’ve spent on any article of clothing since I started my AmeriCorps term.

I access my bank account. This is usually a bracing reality check, a reminder of my permanent brokeness. I sigh in exasperated expectation of the bad news.

My first direct deposit from my new job has gone through. I am unexpectedly rich.

The jeans arrive a week later. They fit perfectly.

 

Sam Blackwell sometimes writes about TV for The Blogulator. He lives in Minneapolis. Photo: Jason Edward Scott Bain

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15 Comments / Post A Comment

Ellie (#62)

If you think about the concept of it, stocks are actually a really cool financial instrument but it’s totally stopped seeming cool by this point in time and by how they are used in society.

@Ellie I mean, the Dutch East India Company’s first EP was pretty cool, but I gave up on it after that whole tulip thing.

Joella (#2,917)

I just never like the idea of giving someone else my money so they can do what they want with it, and hopefully I’ll get some kind of return.

It’s like loaning them money, but we don’t get to charge interest. We just get to hope that the People In Charge don’t lose the money or use it for evil.

EM (#1,012)

@Joella I think if you can invest in a company you actually think is doing good work then it would be a fair trade, but that’s why microfinancing feels better to me, intellectually (as in I can grasp where the money is going) and ethically.

“I feel naive.”

You are.

With the exception of the stocks part, this sounds a lot like my AmeriCorps term. I remember the time the back end of my car fell apart and I could hardly afford to get it fixed. I remember finding out that my private student loans would no longer be deferred and I owed hundreds that I didn’t have. And then I remember getting a going away gift card to Target from my host site and being THRILLED to buy new socks, underwear, and a phone charger for my car. And then the first “real” paycheck after my 2 years in poverty…

AmeriCorps was HARD- for so many reasons. But it made me view a lot of things differently, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Markham (#1,862)

I hear people my age (mid 30s) saying similar things as the Author about stock ownership and it worries me, when I hear people in their 20s say it, it REALLY worries me.

When you buy a stock you’re just investing in a company, if your stock generates a return it’s due to your share of ownership in the company’s success. It’s not really about banks per se, unless you buy a bank stock, nor are you siphoning wealth from average people; that’s just not how the market works.

If a stock goes up it’s because there is a demand for it based on the company’s success, so rich people, institutional investors, other companies, pension funds, 401ks, IRAs, et, al are trying to buy it. No money is coming out of average Joe’s pocket, it’s probably some rich guy who buys the stock you sell, OR you get dividends and you’re getting cash direct from the company’s profits.

Not to mention the fact that any average person with a 401k or IRA is invested in the market.

Some companies do terrible things, the markets can be manipulated, but that’s a function of bad people, not the market in of itself. Investing is a good thing, it’s the reason we’re having this discussion because investors invested in the tech companies that created the computers, servers, networks, et, al that make this site possible.

So why being down on investing worries me, is because it makes me wonder if we’ll have a cadre of young people who don’t save and invest and then have nothing for retirement.

Very concerning.

I just got back from the US after traveling around Asia, and I think it was in Hong Kong where I read a news headline that said that people in their 20s want to become millionaires, but they don’t want to save or invest to get there.

Terrifying.

There are purportedly charitable programs out there that encourage women on welfare to get credit cards? What is wrong with America?

@Sarah Rain@facebook I rented a car over Christmas break and stood next to a woman who was asked for pay stubs, a utility bill, a few extra forms and an additional $250 deposit because she was using a debit card and not a credit card. If you want to rent a hotel room, and you use a debit card, most places will charge you for your entire stay up front, plus taxes and whatever they fell like charging for incidentals, as well as a deposit. Credit cards are a vital tool in making your life easier, and generally have to be dealt with at some point.

@Latoya Peterson@twitter I know a number of single moms on government aid, and none of them have ever had the money to pay for a rental car or hotel room themself. Sure, I find credit cards make my life a lot easier, but their main potential for low-income people is to make their live HARDER when they have to pay the bills or run from creditors. Considering them an important stepping stone is middle-class folly.

r&rkd (#1,657)

Do the credit cards available to poor people offer cash back rewards? Now that I ask, I have to imagine that the answer is no, but, if they did, that would be a pretty good incentive.

@josiahg Generally speaking, no. But first, understand that the concept of credit card assumes some kind of credit history, or one that hasn’t been destroyed for you before you come of age. Secondly, I’m going to separate actual credit cards from pre-paid credit cards (like the Kardashian Card, the Rush Card, etc).

If you can get a card with an actual line of credit, and you are poor, it generally comes with fees – annual fees, one time activation fee, etc. Some cards charge you for things like credit line increases. Most cards will have an extremely low limit – $250 or $500 at max. Cash back rewards and the like don’t come into play until your credit improves.

The concept of buying stock in a company, in the sense that you are supplying capital that allows the company to buy land, build plants, hire workers, pay them living wages, provide them with health care and a pension* (* look it up), and return a profit to shareholders all makes perfect sense. This is the ideal version of capitalism.

But Sam is right, your invested dollar now goes to a “bank” that makes its money solely by moving money, and scraping a percentage of your money off the top.

Most corporations don’t actually make products. They make money by moving money or reselling products (actual, physical things) made by other corporations (people, mainly overseas, who earn cents a day), and avoiding U.S. taxes.

Corporations exist to make money for their shareholders. Fine. But they do NOT have the right to run our economy and our government. They are NOT citizens, and they should not be allowed to control the media and to buy representation in our government.

I own stock in various corporations via mutual funds. I have bought into these funds because it is the only way I can attempt to accumulate enough money to survive when I am too old to provide a profit to an employer (corporation).

I do own stock in Ford Motor Company because my father worked there for more than 50 years, and Ford builds automobiles here in the U.S. and around the world for people to get from home to work and school and to babysit their sister’s children.

I am not an opponent of capitalism, but we (those of us who were not born with capital) need a government that protects us from those who were born into wealth and power, lest they again enslave us all in the name of maximizing return to shareholders. Read our history. We’ve been here before.

skeptic (#1,231)

The ignorance is pretty astounding. A share of stock gets you (roughly):
-participation in future price appreciation/depreciation
-dividend income (if applicable) and,
-one vote on governance issues

Also, the investment economy has nothing to do with siphoning wealth. How do you think companies get the capital necessary to start up factories and stores that then employ workers?

skeptic, apparently you’ve been astounded by Ayn Rand.

The financial industry is about 8.4% of the U.S. economy, generating 30% of all U.S GDP. (In 1950 it was less than 3% of GDP.)

The purpose of this industry is to move money from little people to big people. They produce nothing, and yet they are among the most profitable companies in the world. Their employees make up a large percentage of the 1% of Americans who have realized 93% of the income growth since the Great Financial Crisis (which, by the way, they created by pumping up the real estate market and selling inflated shares to the unsuspecting.)

Every financial transaction we make is skimmed by this industry. Every credit card or debit card transaction, every check you write, every ATM transaction, every mortgage payment, every paycheck or dividend you receive – they get “their share”.

The best stocks to own? Financials.

Most Americans’ involvement in the financial industry consists of constantly paying exorbitant “fees” to access their own money.

A small percentage of Americans (whom you clearly strive to be among, but realistically will never be) receive “inside” information and place their bets knowing precisely where the “equity” wheel will stop.

They also own the legislature, which passes laws that allow them to realize most of the profits from their endeavors tax-free through tax “relief” and outright subsidies – paid from our taxes. And the risk? Well, the actual cost of bailing out the financial industry has never been made public, but there are numbers floating around that have 12 zeros.

Where do companies “get the capital necessary to start up factories and stores that then employ workers?” From the bankers, who skim it 2 dollars at a time from their “customers”.

What Sam’s employer is attempting to do is to help their clients navigate through the shark-infested waters of the American economy while losing less than a pound of their flesh. The reason for teaching someone to use a credit card is to qualify them to avoid being outright robbed by “payday” lenders and the other bottom-feeders of our system.

And, skeptic, as I’m sure you know, corporations are not formed for the purpose of employing people. If a corporation could produce a profit with zero employees, it would be obligated by its shareholders to do so. What’s your job?

When they eliminate it – then you will know what astounding is.

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