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Debt Rhetoric and White Privilege

by GALE NEWELL

I don’t like financial “guru” Dave Ramsey. Don’t get me wrong—it’s nothing personal. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. He seems like an intelligent, responsible guy. If we were to meet in person, I’m sure we’d get along just fine. Heck, we might even have a few things in common.

Here’s my problem with Dave Ramsey: I feel like most of the financial advice he doles out comes from an unacknowledged position of white privilege. Ramsey promotes one-size-fits-all solutions to financial problems without ever addressing economic issues like structural inequality or classism. He completely sidesteps discussions of race and gender, despite the increasing amount of evidence that demonstrates a very real connection between a person’s social location and the amount of debt they have. He seems to operate off the (admittedly common) assumption that poor people are poor because they’re lazy or irresponsible.

Ramsey argues in “The Truth About Debt Consolidation” that the solution to debt is basically two-fold. You need to “get an extra job and start paying off debt” and learn to “live on less than you make.”

These suggestions make a lot of sense—if you happen to be an able-bodied, middle-class, white male. What about people who exist in a different social location? How is a single mother of three supposed to work a second job and take care of her family? How are you supposed to live on less than you make when you’re paying for life-saving medical treatments that your insurance company won’t cover?

Dave Ramsey, like many people, subscribes to the violent cultural narrative that sustains free-market capitalism (and the economic inequality it perpetuates). According to this cultural narrative, capitalism is an inherently fair system—if you’re smart and you work hard, you will inevitably climb the economic latter.

There are a few problems with this characterization of capitalism:

* Many of the people at the top of the economic ladder are not intelligent or hard-working. Some of them were born into wealthy families. Other got where they are by exploiting less-powerful people for profit.

* The assumption that smart, hard-working people inevitably rise to the top frames people who don’t (or can’t) climb the economic ladder as unintelligent or inherently lazy.

According to FeedingAmerica.org, African Americans are approximately twice as likely to unemployed (13.8%) as their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. How does the aforementioned “survival of the fittest” characterization of capitalism explain such glaring economic inconsistencies?

Either A) African Americans are disproportionately lazy and/or unintelligent or B) there are structural barriers that exist to keep some groups in power while simultaneously locking others in cycles of poverty.

I’m sorry, Ramsey, but it’s racist to talk about debt and poverty like they’re things that happen as a result of being foolish or irresponsible. When you write about how easy it is for people to get out of debt (without addressing the structural inequalities that create poverty) you’re engaging in a form of victim-blaming that obscures the role white privilege plays in determining who exists in what income bracket. It might not be intentional, but that doesn’t make it okay.

Gale Newell writes about the many aspects of debt, classism and structural inequality. She believes that consumers should be as informed as possible when it comes to issues like debt consolidation, and often writes reviews of debt relief companies for TopConsumerReviews.com. In her free time, she likes to go to sci-fi conventions and listen to Eddie Money. 

 

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