Published: February 26, 2008
My start as an opinion columnist was quite unintentional. Nearly 25 years ago, a naïve, liberal staffer, for a Georgia newspaper, authored a feature story about pitiful starving residents of her city, whom couldn't possibly exist on the $1,000 a month they received from welfare.
She was obviously irrationally and emotionally involved with the subject, when she wrote that the starving persons would have expired, had she not saved them with "a sack of peanut butter, crackers and tuna fish." That grabbed my attention, so I wrote a letter to the editor, detailing why "It's a good trick to starve on $1,000 a month" (Keep in mind that we're talking 1984 prices here).
My letter easily showed how irresponsible and emotionally directed that neophyte reporter had been, because if used responsibly, the $1,000 would have paid all of any average family's necessary bills (in that location), while leaving $464 for discretionary spending. The paper was so impressed that they ran my letter as a feature, and asked if I would provide similar opinion on a regular basis.
Well, things haven't changed much over the years: Far too many of us are still so unbelievably ignorant of the most basic elements of economics that we are, literally, incapable of managing a simple, family budget.
Look, for example, at a case recently reported in the crusading St. Pete Pravda. In this instance, a pitiable woman, whose husband is forced to quit his job because of a life-threatening illness, has a major gripe against the Verizon communications company. As reported, the woman, knowing that her husband would likely soon lose his job, signed a new contract with Verizon to provide high-speed internet service, along with multiple cell phone service, which even included (so she thought) unlimited text messaging for her teen-aged daughter. The distraught woman was shocked by her first bill — well over $200 — and immediately attempted to have the contract revoked. Unsuccessful, she turned to the Action editor of the paper, to which she wrote, "(Although Verizon did make some changes once my husband died)…my bills are still more than $200 a month…I'm barely making my mortgage payments. Where do I go from here?"
That is an appropriate example of why so many of us are now defaulting on loans, while blaming everyone but themselves and expecting the good ol' gubbermint to bail us out.
Clearly, the subject woman was grossly irresponsible in signing a contract for any cell phone service, at a time when her husband's income was in question. That she eagerly opted for just about every costly extra (especially text messaging for her 14-year-old daughter, for whom "texting is a way of life", is particularly telling.
It's interesting to review budgets of persons who're either already in bankruptcy, considering going there and/or are expecting government aid; I've done that, on numerous occasions. Here is some of what I have been discouraged to discover. Most of them were living in homes they never were able to afford. Usually they had at least two motor vehicles, none of which were paid for. They had cable TV with several monitors, cell phones and computers with high-speed access to the Internet. They dined out several evenings each week and ordered pizza delivered at least once on most weekends. When they did eat at home, the avoidably expensive meals were often semi-prepared by the grocery store's delicatessen department or else they used their new microwave to nuke those awful frozen TV dinners. Beer, soft drinks, bottled water (even the new "power" drinks) were always available. Children wore $100 sneakers, and other "must-have" fashions. And the family occasionally bought tickets to movies, sports or other entertainment events.
When I sat down with such a family and began suggesting ways to cut their expenses (e.g., Get rid of all but the oldest motor vehicle; close cell phone accounts; stop cable TV; eat only at home and fix all meals from scratch, using healthy but inexpensive ingredients) they inevitably exclaimed, "But we need that!"
It is that erroneously perceived "need" that is at the bottom of many of our economic woes today. Some "needs," such as that for multiple motor vehicles, are self-imposed when families choose to live far from their places of work and where there is no public transportation. Others, such as cell phones and television, are simply "wants": No one needs television; almost no one needs a cell phone.
It seems to me that there is one pressing "need," which is not being filled. Our public schools must teach financial responsibility to children in the final years of high school. Even exposing children in grade school to the subject would be beneficial. Reportedly, most children now have their own cell phone before the fifth grade.
We may not be able to educate adults already convinced that they need the unnecessary things they can't afford, but perhaps their children may accept the message — may!
The great philosopher/humorist Will Rogers once observed that: "We are the only nation in the history of the world to go to the poor house in an automobile." To update that perceptive comment, we would today have to add that said automobile would be equipped with television, telephone service and a mini-fridge filled with bottled water from Fiji.
John G. Nash is a widely experienced and traveled journalist and photographer. His works are regular features in this paper. He welcomes applicable comment, which may be sent to email@example.com.