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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Strapped in the middle class

Do you remember the circumstances around obtaining your first credit card? I do in vivid detail.

It was a gorgeous early spring day in Athens, Ohio, and as I walked through Baker Center there were tables set up with representatives from American Express who were soliciting new members.

I was lured in and signed my name on the line. Soon I was an American Express cardholder, never mind that I had little means to pay off the monthly bill. “I’ll use it to help pay for books,” I reasoned to myself as I’m sure many others did also.

Long story short, I was 20 years old and incapable of handling the burden of a credit card. I placed a modest order at J. Crew and then charged a few other items and found myself later that year with a $450 credit card bill. I panicked and was afraid to tell my parents what I’d done. They had just moved to Columbus to start their own business. Money was extremely tight and the pressures of relocating, launching a business and paying for three children in college were, at times, more than they could bear.

I kept my mouth shut trying to figure out how to handle this on my own. Eventually, I called Danny and asked for help. I was fortunate in that he had a good-paying job on breaks and got so much money in grants and financial aid that he usually received an overage check. He lent me the money to pay the American Express.

It was a lesson I was doomed to repeat several times before I wisened.

Danny and I were saddled with debt from the very beginning of our marriage. We paid nearly $400 a month in student loans. My yearly income as a reporter was $17,000. Danny made a whopping $25,000 selling parking equipment. I had a cheap car, though it always broke down, and he got a car allowance. We lived in a duplex and yet we still were strapped.

He hates when I talk about this. I’m sure he’ll be mad at me even now if he sees this post. But it’s a fact of our early lives together and as I learned listening to a GREAT show on Diane Rehm today, we are NOT alone.

Sure things are better, but we’ve spent the better part of the past 15 years playing catch-up or operating just behind the eight ball. It’s a sickening cycle. You get ahead for a few months and then the roof needs to be replaced and you find yourself pondering (on dark days) how long it would take the bank to foreclose in the event of financial disaster.

Rehm’s guest today was fellow OU J-School grad, Tamara Draut, author of ”Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead.” She led an interesting discussion on the sad state of our financial affairs and lays the blame on public policy that doesn’t support: affordable higher education, regulation of credit card industry, quality affordable health care and child care, a workplace that insists on employees with advanced degrees when not always able to pay salaries to cover those costs.

She struck a chord. A man from Cleveland e-mailed into the show to say that he and his wife have a combined $240,000 in law school loans and have been unable to find employment (surprising given that Cleveland is a town of lawyers). Another man talked about how he has no credit card debt, holds a bachelor’s degree, rents a home and is stretching two cans of food to last until payday.

We’re all well educated (even if some are still paying for that education), but it’s high time we found our voice. Start making some noise, first at the state level and then the federal level. We’ve got a chance to make some changes in 2006. Let’s demonstrate how fed up we are with status quo.

The middle class in America is an illusion. Let's blast away the smoke and shatter the mirrors reflecting "all is well."

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