Personal finance vs. social justice
The personal finance world is inundated by articles and advice that focus on individual empowerment and responsibility for wealth generation. Essentially, the messages emphasize an individual’s ability to overcome debt through some tried and tested methods: hard work, side hustles, penny pinching, and highly restrictive lifestyles.
At times, I feel frustrated because it doesn’t properly account for countless variables that affect another’s ability to overcome financial hardship. Simply put, this advice places the burden and responsibility for financial success on the individual — and solely that person.
The reality is murkier, with various responsible parties and reasons for financial insolvency. Sudden job loss can leave families homeless. Medical bankruptcies can lead to awful credit scores and drained savings. Corruption in the banking system might prevent home owners from reducing their mortgage rates (despite receiving government funding to do just that). When persons blame or support the idea that personal finance solely rests on the individual, an injustice is committed.
Encouraging support, dialogue
Today, I wanted to write in a different voice. I guess you could say I’m feeling… creative.
Whether you call it a piece of “fiction” or “creative writing,” my hope is that you can better empathize with those from diverse backgrounds. More importantly, my dream is to respectfully tell a fictional tale that’s all too close to reality.
While reading this piece, I encourage you to think about how you can best provide support and advice to a family suffering in similar circumstances.
Let the story begin…
I know we’re broke, but the kids can’t know. They’re too young to understand, and I’m ashamed. I’m not supposed to be here financially or geographically. We live out of suitcases with broken zippers. We duct tape the lid whenever we move again. I wish we had closets and dressers.
There are five us. My eldest is 12 and the youngest is 2, with two others aged 4 and 6. Together we make a handful.
They call me “Mah.” I call them my “Brats,” but I love them dearly. They’re the reason I’m still alive and kicking — fighting to get out of here and better my life. But every time I try, I’m sucked back down. Perhaps this is what the dinosaurs felt, as they got trapped in the La Brea Tar Pits.
My eldest is smart. I know she is. I can see it when she blasts through math assignments from school. I hear it when teachers remark about her rapid and accurate in-class participation. She could go to Harvard, if we had the money.
She whispers into my ear at night, when the lights are out and the other kids are fast asleep. She asks me if a woman will ever be president. She asks me why the stars seem so much brighter here, as opposed to the inner city.
My youngest is curious about the walls around him. He runs all around the shelter and tugs on the coattails of other residents. He draws pictures of a man, brings it to my face. I can’t avoid it. He calls the unknowable figure, “Daddy.”
His hair matches his father’s — unruly and brilliantly soft. Two-years-old and I can already see his father’s face on him. That button nose makes me grimace, because that man was horrible. I hide it from my youngest; at least, I try to.
He never met that man. No, he never met that asshole. He beat me to a near-coma, and then left me and my kids to fend for ourselves. Sometimes I have flashbacks of him coming for me. I fear that he’ll find me — even here in another state.
Could he find me, us?
As soon as I get a place of our own, I’m buying a gun. I’m sick of this shit. Sick of feeling defensive — like he could get us at any time, anywhere. Trust me, I’ve known quite a few assholes over the years.
I had my first child at 16. That was my first boyfriend. He was 22 and worked at the liquor store. Hell, he held a job and paid for our daughter’s clothing. My mother liked him. I liked him. But he couldn’t help making a few bucks here and there; you know, “on the streets.”
Eventually, he left us. Suddenly, I couldn’t afford not to work, nor could I afford our current place. I was alone and lonely. The kids were devastated.
In a rush, I buried the thoughts of that man and found work at a donut shop. If you knew what goes into those disgusting circles… Well, let’s just say you wouldn’t be chowing down on that next dozen. It paid the bills — sort of. It’s not like we didn’t get extra help. We were on food stamps and Medicaid. It never seemed like enough, though.
I was able to hold down that job for a while, but I struggled to sleep at night. The background hum was the din of people yelling, and the occasional crack of a pistol’s chamber. The streets were alive, while I “slept.” Every night was the same.
Men have been in and out of my life — out my kids’ lives. I must’ve been ignorant — stupid — because each time I thought this was the one. The one who would give me and my family the security we need. That never came.
Soon, work fired me. I was late to too many shifts — tired from taking care of my kids and sleepless nights.
I had a hundred dollars, bills to pay, and rent that was overdue. I used my credit card and filled up my tank all the way. Then, I drove as far as I could to safety — from my past, haunts, creditors, and landlord.
I hit the reset button.
But, I never expected to be here. I never expected to be away from home. I never wanted to put my kids through this mess. But now I’m here, without any money, over-drafted and maxed out.
I don’t know what to do.
Putting the person in personal finance
Sometimes, people that need the most financial help are coming from poverty, discrimination, and poor socio-economic backgrounds. Their way out is obscure and unclear. Providing a blanket list of “5 tips to reduce debt” can help, but too frequently, it downplays the history and subtly provides judgment for those who cannot meet the prescribed solutions.
Problems come from somewhere — they don’t magically appear. By acknowledging an individual’s entire story, we can begin to provide help and systemic support. Advice and feedback must be provided through a lens that helps to incorporate how an individual got there in the first place.
Personal finance requires social justice. It takes a village. It takes understanding. It takes resources, because everyone starts with a different amount. Debasing and downgrading a struggling family for being “financially irresponsible” is intended to shame — plain and simple. Psychologically, this method is flawed and does not tend to lead to positive outcomes. Instead, we must come to the aid — without judgment.
When we realize these values, people can better accomplish personal finance dreams and follow goals.