A Culture of Debt

Another day older and deeper in debt.” In the old country song, that’s what you got after you loaded “16 tons of number nine coal.” That was back in the day when a hard-working man could still die singing, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

Today’s information-age proletarian may owe his or her soul to Wal-Mart or Citigroup, instead of the “company store,” but the effect is the same. Today the personal debt of the working class is, as it always has been, a favorite economic management tool of the owning class.

And debt has become a way of life for many middle-class American families. As far back as 2004, the average American household carried a credit card debt of $9,312. In 2007, the number of Americans filing for bankruptcy increased by 40 percent. The number of home foreclosures last year was 79 percent higher than in 2006. And every forecast says that those numbers will only get worse in the next couple of years.

How did this happen? Well, one small part of the answer is human nature. We see a shiny toy or a McMansion on the hill, and we want it. And there’s always some creature of serpentine descent ready to say, “Sign right here, and it’s yours.”

But that is only part of the story. We also have the levels of consumer debt that we do because they are beneficial to the overall U.S. economy. Just like the debt of those old-time mineworkers, ours serves to keep us on the job, productive, and, most of all, consuming.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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