Swipe Right for the American Dream (And Lots of Debt)

While watching an episode of Broad City (a show whose audience is primarily made up of young adults like myself), I came across an ad for the Credit Karma app that sparked my interest. A young woman was lamenting at her credit score, displayed on her Credit Karma app, seeing a low score of 550 while surrounded by a small apartment with flickering lights and a roommate cutting her toenails only a few feet away from her. It was obvious she was discontent with her surroundings, surroundings that the average person her age is accustomed to. She looks back down at her app and swipes right on her score. All of a sudden, her score on the app is 700. Her surroundings change, and she finds herself sitting in a much bigger room with nicer furniture, her roommate further away and no longer cutting her toenails. Both of their outfits reflect trendier, more refined appearances. She looks excitedly back down at her credit karma app and swipes right again. Her score goes up another 123 points and she finds herself in a loft of her own, with even nicer furniture, and her roommate turns into a dog. You can see a city in the large windows behind her.

I too use the credit karma app, but only to check my credit score. My app doesn’t give me the magical ability to change my score and my surroundings by simply swiping right. Credit Karma’s ad offers its audience the false message that if you download their app, you too will find yourself in a new flat with a golden retriever by your side, promoting the idea that using credit in this type of way will improve your life. Credit Karma advertises a lifestyle of luxury: improving your credit score (most likely by getting more credit cards and consequently, more debt) and being able to purchase new furniture, new housing, new clothing, and a new dog.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Culture of Debt

Credit Karma’s commercial exposes the fact that we live in a society in which spending more than we have is encouraged and is the norm. At a young age, we are encouraged to apply for credit cards so that we may be classified as economically dependable in the future. Credit scores are used for a variety of privileges, such as gaining a landlord's trust in order to rent an apartment, getting better car insurance rates, and even getting a job. These privileges are meant to help us achieve the ideal lifestyle that Credit Karma advertises.

Similar to Ritzer’s discussion in “The Credit Card: Private Troubles and Public Issues,” credit cards allow the economy to function at a higher level because people are able to spend more money than they have. Because American society has a tendency to blame individuals for social problems, when things go wrong, such as bankruptcy and an accumulation of more debt than one can handle, individuals are blamed for their own spending behavior, despite the fact that individuals are very much encouraged to act in this way.

Banks and financial institutions benefit from people who obtain loans and credit cards and as a result, there is a lot of competition between banks as far as getting consumers to choose them for their credit needs. Leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, banks were giving out risky loans, including the infamous NINA (no income no assets) loans, knowing these people would not be able to pay them back (Planet Money 2008). Banks knew they could get away with this because other banks were doing it too. It did not matter how risky the loan was as long as the banks were able to make a profit. Eventually, this resulted in a crisis, but as we all know, the banks were bailed out, not the individuals. Do we blame the people who were simply buying the house they were falsely made to believe they could afford?

Banks are not the only ones to blame for this culture of debt. Governments are hardly role models. There are few governments that have not accumulated an exorbitant amount of debt. According to the US National Debt Clock, the US currently has upwards of 25 trillion dollars of debt. This creates a “climate” in which spending more than one has is seen as acceptable (Ritzer 1995).

Even entire countries have been screwed over by the ability of banks to put the pressure on the borrower. According to Joseph Stiglitz in Globalization and its Discontents, during the East Asian financial crisis of the 90s, countries were required to obtain loans from Western banks before they were approved as “creditworthy” for International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans. This forced countries into debt in order to receive desperately needed financial assistance. And yet, the IMF and their bank buddies are not blamed for the extreme debt we see in other parts of the world, but governments desperate to improve living standards in their countries are blamed for spending money.

Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash

Don’t Blame Yourself

According to the US census bureau, the average American household income is $61,937 and yet the average household debt amounts to $137,063, according to debt.org. This means that the average American household owes more than it can make in two years. This is not the result of individual behavior, but of a lifestyle of spending and consuming that is encouraged by our society.

Instead of looking down upon those, like myself, who engage in the lifestyle that is so often advertised to us in commercials like that of Credit Karma, we should hold banks and financial institutions accountable for the behaviors that they have been encouraging for years. Credit Karma’s commercials and those like it reinforce the idea that this kind of behavior is normal and is the ideal way to live in American society. Banks and other financial institutions that profit from the debt and credit card spending of civilians are at fault for the normalization of credit card spending. It is vital that we understand the broader social context of individual debt.

This article has been adapted and was originally published in Seeing Sociology on Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019.

References
Credit Karma (2019). ​New Flat — Your Score Can Do More​. [video] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU-IKwDquDg​.

Debt.org “Demographics of Debt.” https://www.debt.org/faqs/americans-in-debt/demographics/

Planet Money. 2008. “Giant Pool of Money.” This American Life.

Ritzer, George “The Credit Card: Private Troubles and Public Issues,” reprinted from Expressing America: A Critique of the Global Credit Card Society, ​1995. Copyright © by Pine Forge Press. Pp. 1–30.

Stiglitz, Joseph. 2002. Globalization and Its Discontents. W.W. Norton & Company

US Census Bureau. “Median Household Income.” data.census.gov

Usdebtclock.org. (2020). ​U.S. National Debt Clock: Real Time​. [online] Available at https://www.usdebtclock.org/​.

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Isabella Blair

Isabella Blair

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Road tripper, outdoor enthusiast, environmental studies student. Investigating inequality, climate change, and international affairs.