Debt-Shaming in Contemporary Capitalism

I know that Dave Ramsey’s advice has done a lot of good things for a lot of people. There are thousands of people who are currently living debt-free as a result of Ramsey’s approach to personal finance—that’s great, and I’m not trying to take anything away from that. I’m simply saying that, even though Dave Ramsey’s advice works very well for a lot of people, it also has unintended consequences with regard to the way our culture frames poverty.

Here are the main problems with the type of debt rhetoric that Ramsey engages in:

First, it’s colorblind. Ramsey starts with the assumption that all debtors are interchangeable—a single, white male with debt is no different from a black female supporting a family and struggling with debt. If a solution to debt works for one person, it’s automatically assumed that the solution will work for all people.

Dave Ramsey’s warnings about the danger of debt consolidation are a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. For many people, debt consolidation is an effective way to minimize debt. For some, it represents the only possible way of making debt manageable. Despite the fact that there are many debt consolidation companies that are actively committed to helping their clients, debt consolidation gets pushed to the periphery and labeled a scam, for no other reason than it doesn’t fit the Ramsey model.

Despite what Ramsey seems to think, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to debt. A person’s economic mobility is predetermined by their social location—i.e. a person’s ability to climb the economic ladder is a condition of their race and gender, among other things. To ignore these dimensions of political identity is to ignore the invisible structures that secure white privilege by locking target demographics in poverty.

There are, of course, people who will argue that it’s actually better for Ramsey to be colorblind. These individuals operate under the misguided assumption Ramsey’s refusal to acknowledge color will make his advice more objective and somehow level the playing field. The logic behind this assumption is that refusing to acknowledge the existence of diversity somehow makes it impossible to be racist—i.e. if you treat everyone like they’re white, racism will go away.

This is a problematic assumption—ignoring racial differences doesn’t make structural inequality go away. It’s the political equivalent of burying your head in the sand—you might not see racial inequality, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not there. Solutions to debt that ignore the role structural inequality plays in sustaining poverty do little to address the root cause of the problem, which is socioeconomic in nature, and can’t be wished away by thrifty living.

Second, Ramsey’s advice masks structural inequality. By framing debt as a question of fiscal intelligence and personal responsibility, Ramsey shifts the responsibility for poverty onto people who live in poverty. This kind of rhetoric frames poverty as a choice, rather than a result of class inequality, and constitutes a form of victim blaming that sets the stage for depictions of the poor as “stupid” or “lazy.”

Before you scroll down to the bottom of the page and start writing angry comments, allow me to clarify. I’m not saying that Ramsey is guilty of depicting the poor as “poor” or “lazy”—I’m saying that the financial advice he gives people only makes sense in a world where those characterizations of the poor are considered true. Ramsey might not be guilty of this type of victim blaming, per se, but he does contribute to a culture of debt-shaming that makes it more likely.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be held accountable for their financial decisions, but I do think we need to acknowledge the cultural and political dimensions of poverty. We need to examine the relationship between the way we depict debt and our society’s attitude towards poverty. Most importantly, we need to acknowledge the role that capitalism creates and sustains structural inequality—this is the only way to work towards more politically productive depictions of debt.

Gale Newell reviews debt relief companies for In her free time, she writes about capitalism, poverty and debt. Her three favorite things in the world are science fiction, feminism and Eddie Money.

3 Responses

  1. CntrlMssMAN-not boy

    “The problem is, he DOES do that. When someone mentions that they simply got dealt a bad hand and have little they can do about it, he actively tells them they were not trying hard enough. That’s the long form of “you’re lazy”. ”
    RRRRRRRR-ringa-ding-ding-diiiiingggg!!! My thoughts exactly, except that the excuse he makes is also the same excuse higher education makes with issues of poverty that get ignored because “you’re lazy”.

  2. Gale Newell
    Gale Newell

    @Shawn–I’m not saying that no one is responsible for the decisions in their life. That said, if you think the fact that you’re a white male doesn’t shape and influence your economic success, you’re kidding yourself.

    1. Don Schultz

      There are numerous examples of people of all races and ethnicities who have succeeded financially. If some people do it, others can too.

      There is also the flip-side where people of all races and ethnicities have failed financially.

      It isn’t the color of ones skin or their background that makes one have the ability to succeed, at anything, it is the choices one makes in the process of life. Viktor Frankl says in “Mans Search for Meaning” that “between stimulus and response there is choice”. What we do with the opportunities that present themselves is what makes all the difference.

      Regardless of whatever factors a person has in life, if they see themselves or present themselves as victims, they will never succeed at anything.

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