Everyone who knows me knows I hate buzzwords, but the one I’m about to discuss is basically the only way to describe what’s been happening for as long as I can remember. I want to talk about the financial and economic gaslighting that’s been happening on an individual and societal level.
I remember when I was 18, and starting college. My parents, like most parents of their generation in our town, had worked their way through our state’s flagship university, without incurring any debt because my mom waited tables at Waffle House on the weekends, and my dad worked construction all summer long. They also had help in the form of my mom’s War Orphans scholarship and my dad’s NASA grant, but their living expenses were paid completely by their own part time work, and in the 70’s, that was fully possible to do. When I started college in the early 2000’s, they saw no reason why I couldn’t do the same thing, and basically threatened me within an inch of my life if I ever took a student loan. They were a trap. I just needed to live frugally, and make it work. That’s what they did.
The problem was that that didn’t work. I ended up working more than full time, while carrying a full course load, and was still barely able to make it. My parents were no help at all, and every month when they shook me down for my share of the car insurance and cell phone bill (I stayed on their plans for the first year after I moved out, but was expected to pay them for my share of it), if I didn’t have the money, they insisted that the only possible reason was because I was making stupid choices. They were more ruthless than any bill collector I have ever encountered, and would chew me out about being responsible, needing to work harder, and how I would never amount to anything in life if I couldn’t even handle this. I don’t know what they thought I was doing with the money. I’d been wearing the same clothes since sometime in the middle of high school, had about three pieces of thrift store furniture in my apartment, had never had cable in my life, and was thinner than ever because eating became somewhat of a luxury and one of my jobs was at a farm, so it was pretty physical. Yet, every time I didn’t have $100 to cough up on command, they didn’t hesitate to tell me that my own stupidity was the only possible explanation. They knew they raised me better than that.
Of course, this guilt, this constant looking over my shoulder, feeling like I did something wrong every time I spend more than $10 on an article of clothing or buy a breakfast taco because I’m fucking starving at my desk and can’t code like that, has remained well into adulthood, even as I got jobs that had progressively more respectable salaries (literally everything I’m wearing right now was bought second hand. This entire outfit cost like $15.) You tell someone they’re a financial idiot enough times, from an early age, they’re going to start to believe it on some level, even if it’s not true at all. It has only been recently that I’ve realized that I actually am not stupid with money, and that the hardship I’ve faced was primarily situational. Yeah, I did buy an occasional soda back then, but that’s not why things were hard for me. They were hard for me because $800/mo isn’t a lot of money when you’re having to drive a long way to two jobs, pay school fees, and keep a roof over your head. It was an objectively difficult situation, and my parents’ assertion that they did it, so I could, too, was unfair because it was based on an economy that did not exist anymore.
My parents didn’t mean to gaslight me. They thought they were doing the right thing and teaching me life lessons I needed. Most parents do. They just want their kids to do well, so they hold them to high standards. As a parent, I get that, and I support the general principle. The distinction comes when those high standards are based in a bygone reality that the person being held to the standards will never have the luxury of experiencing. Our parents were just born into a more affordable world than we were. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, tuition and fees at 4-year institutions increased roughly tenfold between the years my parents went to college and the years that I did. Wages did not increase that much. My jobs at that time paid me $6/hr. I highly doubt my parents were making $0.60/hr an hour at their jobs in college (minimum wage was higher than that). But no, this isn’t why it was harder. It was harder because I am a flawed and fallen human who has screwed up for the quadrillionth time, and some more shaming is definitely going to solve this problem.
I’m pretty sure my parents still think I’m financially irresponsible. I didn’t own a home until I was in my 30’s, and it totally doesn’t matter to them that I live in one of the most difficult housing markets in the country. The house they live in cost less than my previous car, and they paid it off the month after I was born. They have no clue what the housing market is like this century, but don’t hesitate to judge me for being what they consider a late entrant into it. This, again, represents my failing as a responsible adult. I should have saved up a down payment. I should have bought a starter home. I should have done, I don’t even know what, but something other than what I did, which was survive all these years the best way I could while steadily clawing my way up by the only means available.
This isn’t about my parents being assholes, though. The point is, they’re not a rare case at all. If anything, they’re just two of a hundred million mouthpieces for the messages our government and society want us to hear, because if we’re all convinced that if we were just a little more responsible, this wouldn’t be happening, they can keep getting away with shifting wealth upward to the elites, and away from the vast majority of people. If we believe, on even the slightest level, that we did this to ourselves, we are a lot less likely to call them out on picking our pockets.
The most insidious thing the politicians and their media messages do on this subject, is make common people like my parents perpetuate these myths and keep the people in line with them. They are basically making about 90% of the population gaslight each other into submission to their horrible economic policy. Think about the comments section on every article you’ve ever read about student loan reform, or helping people who have defaulted. What you get is about three people saying this is a huge issue the government needs to take on because it’s keeping an entire generation out of the housing market, and about 100 people saying things like, “Pay your own bills, you freeloading slackers!” The people who are making the hostile comments aren’t just older people or the rich either. They’re more likely to be 20-something, and in an income bracket that’s distinctly at risk for falling into student loan default.
So why are people essentially kicking themselves while already down? It’s not that complicated. Most of us were raised by people who grew up in a time when you actually could get far by just being generally responsible and not lazy. If you went to work and went to school, and you were born in the 1950’s, you could probably find your way into a decently paid job with benefits fresh out of college, and reasonably expect to live the rest of your life in relative financial comfort. Sure, they all knew poor people, but in those families, nobody went to college, or the dad was an alcoholic, or the mom had a gambling addiction. There was always some reason that was distinctly on them. We grew up hearing about this, not because our parents are awful people, but because that’s what their world was like, so we really thought that just doing these few basic things they told us would get us ahead, too.
Then we become adults, and politicians join the chorus. If you’re from the Deep South, as I am, those politicians love to talk about personal responsibility and rugged individualism. This is like crack to southerners and conservatives everywhere. We love to think that everything we got, we earned, because we’re just that good. Then these politicians tell us that if we’re not getting what we need, the problem is that we’re helping too many slackers, and that everyone who needs help is a slacker. So even though more people in red states are on welfare than in blue states, it becomes this shameful thing that people won’t talk about because they believe on some level that they’re only receiving it because of some personal failing of theirs, and if they work a little harder, they won’t need that anymore. What you get is a bunch of people who have been convinced that they’re failing, due entirely to fault of their own, and when they see that someone else might get some help for it, their knee jerk response is, “What makes that person so special?”
It becomes this vicious cycle of guilt, blame, and self-policing, which is exactly what the elites want. The rich are America’s abusive boyfriend. They keep saying, “Well, if you tried a little harder, maybe I wouldn’t have to kick you around like this anymore.” And we scuttle away and vow to try harder not to set him off next time. We’ll succeed. We’ll pay our taxes. We’ll be part of the minority of people who actually pay off our student loans before retirement age. We won’t default. We won’t need assistance. We won’t get sick. We’ll just stay young and healthy forever, and it’ll be ok. We just won’t ask anything because that’s what people who aren’t huge screw-ups do. Then we won’t be like the people the politicians are calling slackers. Then our parents won’t look at us with shame as we raise our children in rental apartments. Then we won’t have to make hateful comments to people on the internet whose situations are exactly like ours in ways we can’t even admit to ourselves, because admitting it would mean making a broad sweeping change that is extremely uncomfortable.
We are acting like a nation, and a generation, that feels guilty over screw-ups we did not commit. I obviously support the idea that everybody should live within their means, pay their bills, and be generally responsible, but when you’re doing your best, and you still can’t make ends meet, despite working full time, that’s a society problem, not a you problem. We need to overcome the lifetime of financial gaslighting we have received. Honestly take a look at your spending, and see if you’re as stupid as you’ve been lead to believe you are. I think it will be eye opening.