Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Blaming The Victim

I've been pondering this article all morning, amazed at the truths it tells and the things that it gets, well, if not wrong, only, at best half right. The point of the NYT story is that average Americans have been sinking deeper and deeper into debt, while the companies that loan them money have been doing very well indeed. And that's an important point that needs to be made.

What intrigues me, though, are the points that the article can't help making, although it does try and elide them. Note that the financial troubles of the woman in the story are, more than anything else, the result of the fact that she needed a hysterectomy and had a burst appendix. In many countries all across the globe, those events wouldn't threaten financial ruin.

But as happens with many debt-laden Americans, an unexpected illness helped push Ms. McLeod over the edge. In January 2006, her doctor told her she needed a hysterectomy. She had health care coverage, but she could no longer work at a second job.

She made matters worse during her recovery, while watching home shopping channels. “Eight weeks in bed by yourself is very dangerous when you have a TV and credit card,” Ms. McLeod said. “QVC was my friend.”

Later that year, Ms. McLeod realized she was in trouble, squeezed by her mortgage and credit card payments, her $350 monthly car bill, rising energy prices and a stagnant salary. She started to sell knickknacks, handbags, clothing and other items on eBay to help cover her heating and food bills. She stopped paying her credit cards so that she could afford her mortgage.

A year ago she was back in the hospital, this time with a burst appendix. Her condition worsened, and she lost the use of one kidney. She spent 19 days in the hospital and six weeks recuperating. Her prescription-drug costs added to her expenses, and by September she could no longer pay her mortgage.

Throughout the article, there's an emphasis upon the woman's responsibility for her own problems. (Ms. McLeod, who is 47, readily admits her money problems are largely of her own making.) She left her husband! She wanted some nice handbags and some jewelry! (NO discussion, at all, of the role that advertising may play in this issue.) There's no discussion about how government-paid-for health care and government programs to force employers to give employees time off from work for health problems could have helped Ms. McLeod. Nor is there any suggestion that perhaps some visiting nurse services (remember visiting nurses? from the 50s and 60s?) could have helped her to focus on other activities during her recuperation. I'm not sure exactly why, but something about this reminds me of how absolutely horrible the waiting area was in the local 24 hour drug store when I had to sit there at 2:00 am a few years ago to fill a prescription for an ear infection on a Saturday morning after a Friday night in the emergency room. And I just kept thinking, though my pain and exhaustion: lots of lost opportunities here. Lots of lost opportunities to foster health and healing and better lives.

Similarly, "rising energy prices and a stagnant salary" are mentioned in passing, as if they were simply facts of life, and not deliberate policy decisions by a Republican-controlled Congress, WH, and court-system (and, since 2006 by completely ineffective Democrats. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, I'm looking at you).

Should Ms. McLeod have done a better job of understanding the terms of her credit (babe, I want a Kelly bag worse than almost anything in the world, but NO handbag is worth 28% interest!)? Sure. One wonders how she graduated from high school without a basic understanding of this concept. (Oh, yeah, that's right. To the extent that high schools even teach consumer math, they generally do so with materials provided by BANKS AND CREDIT CARD COMPANIES!) But Ms. McLeod isn't the problem here. Where's the NYT story where the chairman of Wachovia gives up his stock options and golden parachute while readily admitting that the bank's money problems are largely of his own making?

And, explain to me again, why aren't we in the streets with pitchforks? Well, being told that the problems are our own fault plays a role in keeping people at home and depressed rather than in the streets and angry. And the NYT, where do its interests lie?

Extra bonus points: Count in comments the ways in which the photo is judgemental.


nunya said...

Hello Hecate,

Nice blog you got here. I'll be back to visit :)

dan mcenroe said...

Bed-ridden, sick, marriage troubles - she also sounds like she was depressed and depression can fuck up your impulse control. Again, this is a situation that in other parts of the world wouldn't necessarily lead to financial ruin.

....for BSERI said...

What do you propose to do about the victim blaming herself, Hecate?

We see that a lot in the work that we do with women who have lost a child to adoption. Our solution is education. We maintain a ton of resources and a couple of forums and mailing lists to educate them as to the forces that were arrayed against them.

Sometimes we get through, sometimes we don't. I don't think everyone is educable, myself. I think the self blaming is so much a part of some individual's identity that there is no way (short of years of psycotherapy,) to dislodge it.

The problem with it, besides the obvious personal destruction, is that such people can become poster children for the very forces who fostered her destruction. In this way, she may actively collude in her own destruction.

The very worst of it is : When she does that, it makes it more difficult to reach the women who come after her.

Anonymous said...

thought you might like this though, Hecate
or one of the other similar ones from The Real McCain.
hattip to
Voices of American Sexuality

Aquila ka Hecate said...

Today, the Congress of South African Trades Unions will be out in the streets, en masse.

We're also sick of being told it's our fault by the electrcity company, the government and various other lackies of the system.

I'm not a COSATU member, unfortunately, but I'm cheering for them.

Terri in Joburg

crowsfoxes said...

Hillary said it best -- all of us are one job loss, one medical crisis, one divorce/death of a spouse away from financial ruin. As for the comments regarding the woman's size, try being laid up unable to exercise and see how svelte you become. Goddess help us all.

Anonymous said...

Women, set up a financial plan, hire experts to work with you, cut out all unnecessary purchases until you have one year of fixed expenses saved. Do it now!

Don't wait around and NOT fund 401(k) plans or IRAs!

I hate this I am a victim thing.

Working in finance for a couple of decades, it really is hard to get women to pay attention. "Oh my husband handles all that," is an answer I still get from women and this is 2008!

We have more financial info available than at any time in history, and disaster does happen. People get sick, emergencies happen.

No one I work with stays stuck in a low wage job for more than a year! We move on and negotiate up.

Money is not passive, it is a lifetime art, one women have got to go out and learn, and stop waiting until it is too late.

Nancy said...

visiting nurses are not a thing of the past. i am one. we keep people out of hospitals and nursing homes. i like my job.

Anne Johnson said...

At my school we preach the evils of credit cards from grades 9-12. The textbooks we use for business and workplace readiness are pretty straightforward on the subject. But I teach at a Vo-Tech, kids from a poor city. They've seen family and friends deal with this issue. They're pretty savvy.

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