Used to, if I was driving around Austin in the late afternoon, I listened to the Dave Ramsey Show. His tagline was something like, “Putting the personal back into personal finance.” I enjoyed how he combined warmth with a blunt “Snap out of it!” demeanor. I liked hearing tired and worried people become a little less worried and a lot more hopeful. I liked how, if the caller was truly at the end of a rope, Dave would offer to connect them with a local class (also a support group) at no charge. I loved listening to the jubilant relief in callers’ voices when they had reached the end of their journey and had no more debt.
The “snap out of it” demeanor was an interesting component. Another tagline he liked was, “Advice your grandmother would give, but we keep our teeth in”—there is nothing fancy within the Dave Ramsey playbook. Hard work and thrift, with some thrift and hard work. It’s an extremely American ethos: you can dig yourself out of this hole, so pick up your shovel. He’s blunt enough to point out that you won’t like it, that it won’t be all sunshine and flowers for a while… but he’s confident you have the grit and moxie to get it done.
There’s an undertone to this American song: that if you have bad things happening to you, you deserve the bad things that have come. If you were only [something], this darkness wouldn’t have come your way. Sticking with the personal finance theme, if you weren’t thriftless and shiftless, you wouldn’t be in debt over your head. Not quite sure how, but recently in my social media I encountered a strand slanging Mr. Ramsey’s teaching for this very reason—the folk doing the posting are ones who have huge hearts for the least and lost, for those who are neither thriftless nor shiftless, but hanging on to the margins by a thread nevertheless.
I agree that there are plenty of circumstances created (inadvertently or ‘vertently’) by those with privilege that damage those without. That a person can land on the margins even when one individually does all the right things. And I haven’t tuned in for a while. The show may have taken a darker turn. But back when I was a regular listener, Dave Ramsey won me over by not shaming his callers. Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura…most of the talk-radio voices I’ve blundered across would end up calling their callers stupid. Dave didn’t. Even the twenty-somethings who’d gone to four years of a virtuous Bible college to the tune of $100K of student loans. (Dang, my parents didn’t even pay that much for my highly-selective schooling! Pro tip: don’t finance a liberal arts degree. I love them, but pay as you go in case you end up making a missionary’s wages.)
So here lies a place where I hold two opposite elements at the same time. Believing as I do that many (most?) who live on the margins landed there through no fault of their own, I also believe that there’s value—and hope—embedded in choosing hard work and thrift. That what Dave offers is a counterweight to standing in the victim’s place. The victim is stuck, because they are acted-on. Dave says: choose grit, and moxie, and act. You have agency; you can make things happen. Even if all you make happen is to put $10 in an envelope every paycheck until you have a $1000 cushion against misfortune. Even if all you make happen is to choose 7-11 coffee over Starbucks and put the difference toward a credit-card balance. You take one action, and you take another, and with your grit and moxie you “change your family tree.”
Living within privilege, I can afford to point to ways to bring people back from the margins, whether through healthcare reform or immigrants’ rights or mental health services for the homeless.
When I had no margin, I couldn’t afford to dwell on the ways the system failed me. If I did, I, too, would fail myself, stalled in a pool of despair. I needed to grab hold of my agency, to listen hard to the voices that said, “You have grit and moxie, or you wouldn’t be standing here right now. Go take that grit, and make that next step happen.”