Understanding the complexities of how people understand debt could provide a key insight into the ‘politics of frustration’ in the US
With thanks to the following students for their contribution to the research outlined here and for editorial assistance: Cesar Andrade, Nayelo Buenrostro, Kira Burnett, Behnaz Hekmat, Jane Kinner, Stephen Kwong, Brooke McMahon, Pia Pandolfini, Sharon Pneh, Brenda Ruiz Anaya, Anthony Tran, Catherine Williams, and Michaela Worona.
Economic anxiety is much in the news these days. It is often cited as a driver of the disturbing political ugliness we’ve seen in the 2016 US presidential election campaign, especially amongst supporters of Mr. Trump. As I discussed in my last SPERI blog, Bernie Sanders’ disproportionately youthful supporters indicate there may be a generationally specific economic anxiety amongst Millennials. But, at the moment, it looks as though we’re headed toward what Marx called a ‘conservative revolution’, of either a mild or a frightening sort.
Before this long, surprise-filled campaign, I taught a small undergraduate course here at UC-Davis on the history and consequences of debt. A main requirement of the course was an investigative project which involved each student interviewing six people. Each student divided their interviewees into two groups that varied in some way (e.g. across gender lines, age, economic position, or racial/ethnic self-identification), and began their interviews with a simple introductory question: what comes to mind when you hear the word debt?
Students found several dualities in the meaning of debt, which I detail below. But perhaps the most striking duality was that, for the young and the less well-off, debt cannot be avoided, but regardless of interviewees’ economic situation debt is also ultimately a personal concern. This, I suggest, may offer a glimmer of insight into the current politics of frustration that we are seeing in the US.
Answers to the interview questions pointed to three dualities in debt perceptions. A first, general duality was a bipolar moral and emotional meaning of the term ‘debt’ itself: some interviewees saw debt positively or as a useful resource but, for others, debt was stress-laden. Within this general view, there was a second duality: for college-age students debt meant, specifically, student debt -which also often led into the matter of stress. Older respondents understood debt in many ways, but always as problematic.
On the topic of student debt, the conversation often—but not always—transitioned to stress, worry, and family hardship. For example, student interviewers reported that:
‘before attending college all six [interviewees] weren’t really concerned about debt because they didn’t personally deal with it, their parents did. However, now that they are all in college, they constantly think and worry about their student loans and how they are going to pay them off after graduation.’
[My interviewees explained] that when they think of debt, it’s hard for them not to associate student loans with the word. …Priscila, a Latina/Mexican 19 year old, told me in the interview:
‘Debt has become such a burden on my family in the past years and I have seen them struggle to get back on their feet that it scares me to think of the future. I am stressed now because I carry the burden of debt on my back and this is only the beginning. I cannot imagine how much worse it’s going to get!’ Stress was the key word.
But the associations were not always so negative: one interviewer reported that she was ‘surprised by how, overall, there was an undercurrent of positivity to the idea of debt’. Things then got more complicated when interviewers differentiated responses by age:
A member of the young adult category said that she believed loans where good because they make money available when you need it while a member of the older adult category said loans caused her stress about whether or not she would be able to pay it off. …That is what is seen in these two responses, the young adult only thinks of the positive while the older adult…worries.
Another interviewer reported something very similar, even among age groups within college: the ‘two oldest individuals described debt becoming an economic burden to pay off in the future,’ but not the younger interviewees.
These first two dualities—that debt is a double-edged sword, and that it is understood differently across age groups and generations—more or less confirmed scholarship we read in the class (for instance, by Jason Houle and Rachel E. Dwyer).
But there was a third, and more surprising, duality. Students who decided to vary their subjects by debt and economic situation found that more affluent and debt-free interviewees associated debt with government (ir)responsibility and/or poor character. Indebted and less affluent interviewees, meanwhile, described debt as an important problem, a family hardship, and a fact of life—but, still, as a mainly personal issue. For instance, one student interviewed self-described middle class Asian students, of whom two had loans and four were debt-free, and reported:
U, X, and Y associated debt with public debt, that of the US government. All three were without student debt…This non-personal association is contrasted with the more individual level responses of W and Z, who both had student debt. W described how unemployment could ruin a family’s finances, sending a previously well to do family to the poor house. Z, in turn, talked about the effects of debt on an individual, how debt could lead to stress and health complications.
This student interviewer, argued that:
The two different sets of responses suggests that those without student debt, having lacked much personal experience with debt, viewed it as less of a problem to relate to as individuals, and more of a problem on an impersonal, national, level … In contrast, those with debt most likely have had personal experiences with debt, either having had debt themselves, or having known someone with debt and thereby linking their experiences with their perceptions of debt…Though by no means an exhaustive study, this correlation between student debt and personal association gives credence to the idea that socio-economic class affects debt experience and the perception of debt.
Another student found something very similar, and related her findings to those of sociologist Matthew Desmond, finding that more affluent students tended to describe debt as a reflection of bad decisions: ‘two of the three more-affluent students felt that debt could always be avoided or its burden could be greatly minimized by making wise choices’. The student elaborates on the pattern thus:
Natalie comes from a more-affluent family and immediately expressed her ignorance concerning debt. If she were in debt, she would not expect other people, even family members, to be obligated to support her financially. To her, debt is a symptom of an unsustainable lifestyle that should be rectified. …On the other hand, each less-affluent student had a unique perspective on debt, tied to their individual experiences with financial hardship.
In short, students found that, for the debt-free, debt was an issue of bad behaviour of either a public or private sort; for the indebted, debt was unavoidable, but it was also a primarily personal concern.
The surprise is that the two views have a sort of parallel morality to them and, by extension, neither implies public or collective redress. Arguably, personal economic hardship is now more politicized in the US than at any time since the Great Depression. Student debt, in particular, has leapt onto the political scene. And yet we find, on a college campus, that even the indebted do not see debt as a public issue. What could explain this oddly non-political politics of debt? It is possibly a fluke, of course – this is hardly a representative sample. Or, on the other hand, it could point to a politics of frustration. In the current moment, this seems about right.