First Addie Polk, Now the Rajarams

The thing about financial crises is that they destroy lives. If you think I’m exaggerating, look back at 1929. It wasn’t that long ago, especially when you think about it in terms of how young the United States of America is.

When I was living in Durham, NC, having graduated, unable to find a reasonably well-paying job, unable to make payments on my student loans (which are totally unregulated and predatory, mind you), I was facing an increased sense of desperation.

This was before the sub-prime crisis and before people were honestly and frankly talking about debt and its consequences. To me, being stuck in a position of not being able to pay my loans was shameful.

This was what I was taught to believe – if you don’t have money, you ought to be ashamed.

It didn’t matter one whit that my family was in a much better place financially when those loans were taken out, that we were secure enough that we thought they wouldn’t be too big a problem. It didn’t matter that several members of my family had recently become seriously ill, making financial constraints even bigger.

It didn’t even matter that universities in general do little to explain the lending practices of Sallie Mae – the high interest rates, the protection that Sallie Mae enjoys from the government, and even the way that Sallie Mae seems to encourage the idea of people going into default – and simply encourage you to sign those forms insisting that they’re part of “financial aid” (“aid” is a misleading word in this context).

You’re supposed to feel ashamed either way, and while some people cope with shame better than others, I am not one of those people.

So while I don’t know exactly how elderly Addie Polk felt when she shot herself in the chest, I think I have a pretty good idea. When you’re in a panic, suicide seems like the “honourable” way out, a way to say “I was brave, see? I wouldn’t accept being humiliated.” It’s a horrible feeling. It’s completely wrong, but I know where it comes from.

I don’t want to in any way imply that Karthik Rajaram, who killed his entire family before killing himself, should not be blamed for his actions. There isn’t any excuse for what he did. Yet we can also imagine his desperation, and his pain. Think about it this way: many people still consider going to therapy to be something one must be ashamed of as well. I have almost no doubt that Karthik Rajaram was one of those people. His letters indicate that he meditated on his situation for a long time. He needed help, and he couldn’t get it.

And hell, with the medical industry being the way it is, who can say that he could even afford it?

I was lucky; after graduating, I discovered that Duke had a cheap mental health clinic run by PhD students that I could attend (God bless that place). I was also lucky in the sense that I had good friends and a good man I could lean on. Besides major dental problems, ones I worked to alleviate at the UNC School of Dentistry (God bless that place as well), I was able-bodied and could work. My family helped me out in all the ways they could.

I’m not out of the woods, and I won’t be for a while, but I can tell you one thing: most people in my situation were not nearly as lucky as I have been. And furthermore, we have been trained, like dogs, to write off any difficulty, any crisis, any unfair and unjust situation onto the person suffering the most. To have even the flimsiest of safety nets for people amounts to “communism,” and “they don’t deserve it,” and “they don’t work hard enough.”

The supposed “taint” of financial failure is like the “taint” of rape – it wouldn’t have happened to you if you hadn’t worn that skirt/let the nice man help you with the groceries in the parking lot/pursued your dream of getting an education or having a home.

Is this the result of the Cold War? The strenuous practice of constantly defining ourselves against the rest of the world? Against “evil Russians”? Against the “silly French”? I don’t know. I can only guess.

Is irresponsibility to blame for our present financial woes? Sure it is. But it’s the blame that we share as a society. The federal government sees no problem with massive, overwhelming debt, so why should the American people?

The funny thing is, people may be shamed for falling onto hard times, but in the past, they have been equally shamed for not being able to keep up with the Joneses. The credit industry thrived on this. It takes a strong and level-headed person to resist their advances, especially as they pile up in the mail. And then again, your situation today may be very different from your situation five years from now. We plan for the future, but we don’t control it.

As the presidential candidates argue over the economy – my only hope is that things are going to CHANGE. I don’t think they’re going to change much if McCain is elected; considering the fact that while Obama views health care as a right (the costs of health care is one of the main reasons why I eagerly took a job abroad), and McCain simply does not and is open about saying so.

When you, like many Americans, suffer from an illness, or simply get too old – the lack of adequate healthcare will send you into a tailspin. Reading the accounts of the relatives of people who killed themselves over their loans, I often run into a familiar pattern: the person gets sick, the person is unable to keep up with payments as the result, the person sees that the only way out is suicide.

The ones who don’t commit suicide and end up surviving? Well, they just get hounded by collection agencies, shamed and humiliated for essentially not taking the “honourable” way out. They get punished for living.

John McCain, with his who-the-hell-knows how many homes, is still a nice guy, I believe. But his desperate insistence that Obama simply “doesn’t get it” leads me to believe that he, McCain, is the one not kept up with the times much at all. In McCain’s mind, we’re still embroiled in the Cold War, greed is still good, and anyone who says otherwise is “un-American.”

Is Addie Polk also “un-American” for having nearly lost her home and her life?

4 thoughts on “First Addie Polk, Now the Rajarams

  1. I’m paradoxically getting more and more conservative in my lifestyle and more and more radical in my politics. I’m not at the “let’s pull the capitalist robber barons out in the streets and shoot them” stage yet, but I am getting there. I’m sick of people who would curb stomp a puppy for a .3% improvement on a stock return running things. Is that so wrong? It does destroy lives. We drive the poor off cliffs, then say they’re not flapping their arms hard enough to fly back up.

  2. YES.

    I am one of those people who got out of school having done everything right and still couldn’t get work. I’m in grad school now and terrified that I’m going to get out again and find myself in the same position, having once again done everything right, graduated top of my class, etc.

    It is just chilling. And to hear my own bloody parents, who know how hard I’ve struggled, write this stuff off as people being irresponsible–well, was it irresponsible of them to sign up along with me for student loans so I could attend $30,000 a year university?

  3. I know exactly what you mean about the desperation and shame. I basically owe the gubment a new car, and along with the financial crisis, the job market has gone to shit and I can’t find a job to start paying off my loans. There is lots of stigma surrounding inability to repay loans, and in a system where a job is the next step after graduation, not having a job immediately (and thus not having money) is seen as shameful.

  4. “The federal government sees no problem with massive, overwhelming debt, so why should the American people?” – Problem with this is that the people in government are usually the people with greater means than your average citizen. Watching from abroad (and given some of the reading I’ve been doing) I can’t help but feel the powers that be have turned a blind eye to the risks facing the majority, because they were among a minority with a lot to gain.

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