Debt and Disability

I stack my items on the conveyor belt. The cashier greets me then passes the groceries one at a time over the scanner. Beep. Beep. He peels open a plastic bag and fills it with my things. He announces my total and I swipe my credit card. The register spits out my receipt and the cashier stows it in my grocery bag and hands off everything with a retail smile. I thank him. Transaction complete, I leave the neighborhood grocery store.

Exchanges are temporary, once over so is the connection. But what if I cannot pay? A debt is an incomplete transaction. Most people feel guilt when in debt, things still undone. Stress builds.

Monetary debt or other kinds of debt, like time, knowledge, labor can be accounted. A debt is a quantified obligation. Recently, I heard historian David Graeber on a BBC Radio 4 program say:

“…What is a debt? Its simply A promise. And what is society itself? A series of promises that we make to one another.”

Money becomes more than a form of payment. Money symbolizes personal relations. Power and status are built in creditor accumulation. It remains to your advantage to have others in your debt. Who feels powerless? Those without means or opportunity to exchange equally.

When I am unable to carry out basic transactions like say regular shopping, my disability makes me feel indebted to others. This may not be a particular Stockton’s intention, but it happens.

This is why giving someone objects or money without an exchange does not work in the long run. It works better when the giver allows the receiver to repay the debt, whether in gratitude or perhaps in repayment if circumstances change.

Do you allow others in your debt to repay you?

American society with its focus on capitalism and independence and automobiles and instant gratification and tribute pushes certain groups–like those of us with disabilities requiring reasonable accommodation–into a tight spot with little or no safety net of resources and status.

It is the unicorn who thrives in the lifestyle of living paycheck to paycheck, nevermind in debt. Everyone needs a Stockton and everyone needs to be a Stockton to balance social accounts. We must live with purpose to feel worth.

Favors will always have strings of repayment, implied or stated whether you realized it or not. That is how our society works. Are we fully part of society if we feel indebted to others or relegated to be grateful for misguided charity? Does society owe anything to the disabled?

When I unpack my groceries, I am grateful for the resources replenished in my kitchen. I appreciate the employment of both myself and my husband that provides money to pay for the groceries. Everyday, I earn and pay.

What is your relationship to money? When are you a provider or debtor? When have you forgiven a debt and why? What is the relationship of disability and debt? Tell me about it.

Inspired by BBC Radio 4’s “Promises, Promises: The History of Debt.”


11 Comments Add yours

  1. Casee says:

    When I was younger I kept a running tab in my head of money owed and favors that should be repaid to me or favors that I should repay to others. As I got older I learned that sometimes it just doesn’t matter who owes who what favor. I have been is situations where the financial help of others has kept me from homelessness and I am so grateful to those who are willing to help even when it inconveniences them. It taught me that when my time came to help someone to give gladly and to be happy I was in a position to help. I live by a simple rule to pay what I owe and even pay for others when I can. I think of money now as a tool to help others. We are all on this earth together and we should all try to help each other when and where we can. That does not mean enabling people so that they never try to do anything for themselves but I think it means not being so caught up in who did what for who and how long it took. But I’ve learned to let it go. Sometimes I do more for other people and sometimes they do more for me and that is okay. I will never live long enough or come into enough money to repay all the people that have helped me over the years. I will have to learn to live with my indebtedness and I will happily do so. As I have grown older I’ve come to realize that not wanting to owe people favors puts me in a prideful state of mind. It means I don’t want to be beholden to anyone. And that’s just not real-life. We are all beholden to someone at sometime. It’s learning how to deal with that situation with grace and humility that helps me grow as a human being.

    I never lend money that I can’t afford to live without and if I happen to get paid back I consider it a bonus. I won’t break up a relationship over money I just don’t lend that person money ever again and if they ask why I tell them why. I have found that the people that don’t repay you never ask why you won’t lend them anymore money. They also seldom offer to settle up their debt either 🙂

    Of course when it comes to finances I do all in my power to pay all my bills on time.

    1. Great comments, Casee. Money as a tool to help others is a sustainable, positive outlook.

  2. Susan, thank you for this thought provoking blog…very timely for us in the UK with the General Election coming up. I’m frankly sick of the politics of debt, blame and guilt. What about mutual responsibility? I am happy to pay more tax for a more equal society and particularly to maintain our National Health Service. Certainly here, it has become evident that the disabled (whatever that implies) are paying the price for capitalism. Of course, debt is a complex issue. And there is als the Green Party’s concern about sustainability, rain forests, fossil fuel use and so much more. although Mrs Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society I believe there is and our so called debts, personal or public, should even themselves out. I didn’t listen to the BBC broadcasts but thanks for the link and I will do so now.

    1. Thanks Bridget. I’ve been seeing more and more headlines recently regarding the election and have been curious to hear more personal opinions than the general, on-message talking heads sound bites.
      The BBC doc is a ten parter, I hope you made some tea first, ha.

      1. I shall get the kettle on before I start listening! The election is getting near and it will be a close run thing. I shall vote Labour as I favour Milliband over Cameron. Both seem out of touch …one too wealthy and privileged, the other intellectual and more principled. Unfortunately Milliband lacks charisma. What a choice! But in the end I dont like the Toryphilosophy…. comes back to your point about debt and mutual support. Shall be interested to hear what you make of it all. Have started following your US election now. Difficult to understand another countr’s politics.

      2. American politics is usually all flash and no substance, leaves you wondering who owes whom on the campaign trails.

      3. And Bridget, I bought and consumed Darjeeling tea finally. Quite lovely.

  3. Casee says:

    I am currently listening to the BBC 4 podcast Promises, Promises: A History of Debt. I never would have discovered these wonderful podcast if you had not mentioned them in your post. They are just simply amazing. I love learning about finance and I had never thought about what debt is thank you again.

    1. I really enjoyed the series, it was well done. I figured others would, too!

  4. One example of a cautionary tale springs to mind:

    I remember hearing some time ago that one should not lend with the expectation of receiving what is owed, rather it should be given as a gift. At this stage in my life I’ve been the giver and receiver in many different situations but last year I found myself in a real pickle. I befriended a woman in my complex who I learned after a short while was struggling financially. She requested a small loan and while I felt weird because I really didn’t know her at the time I thought “why not” it’s only $20 and I gave it to her. She paid me back at the appointed time but then she requested another loan about one month later. What an eye opener. In summary, this became a “fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice…” type deal and I eventually had to break off the relationship.

    Coming from a struggling single parent household I understand need but I’m also a beleiver in being self sustaining if one is capable. The above acquaintence was, in my opinion capable of making some changes in her life to avoid using people yet she chose not to. There’s a quote by Joe Moore “Before borrowing money from a friend it’s best to decide which you need most.”

    1. Thanks for sharing a real life example Steph. Seeing a loan as a gift certainly helps to alieviate the disappointment if someone does not repay.

      The Moore quote is a good one. You always have witty and wise quotes on your posts, too.

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