I’m traveling for business and that means several things. Most predictably it means come the evening, I’m getting on a tread mill to exercise.
I’m in Edmonton. It’s cold. Like -24C (-11F) cold.
For whatever reason, while running the TV in front of me brings up Til Death Do Us Part a sort of reality TV show about a pleasant but tough financial advisor Gail Vaz-Oxlade who descends upon impoverished couples and families and puts them on a tough regime to get them out of debt. The show is essentially a modern day morality play in which the excesses of the guest couple of paraded before the public as a cautionary tale. It is also the kind of show that I’m sure is mandatory viewing for any loan approval officer at a bank – since the guests are always friendly, exceedingly middle class looking people, plucked, it feels right out of the 905.
And this is what kind of grated on me after watching the show for a while. On the one hand, it is great. These people really are in way over their head. Often carrying burdens they can definitely not afford (one couple with several 100,000s of debt had a time share unit). They need help. And if the show prompts other couples to get serious about their finances, that’s great too.
But this is also the problem with this – and other shows like this. Debt is always described in middle class terms, and one of personal responsibility. The the world of Til Debt Do Us Part debt is always a case of middle class spending gone wild! Cut up the credit cards!
And the implicit message, of course, is that people who get into debt are responsible for their situation. I’m a big believer in personal responsibility and recognize that this is often true. But it is certainly not always true. People can be poor because they were unlucky, because they failed at something, they have an addiction problem or because they were born into an environment of weak financial and social capital. But on Til Debt Do Us Part none of this is talked about. The comfortable narrative the audience is fed is… if you’re poor, you’re probably doing it to yourself.
You know what I’d love to see Gail Vaz-Oxlade do? I’d love her to find 5 couples, or even just individuals, of various ages, who are truly poor. Five people who really do have to little to nothing to live on. People with real barriers to not just to clawing themselves out of debt, by of crawling out of poverty. The sad fact is, that is a reality show you will never see – unless of course, you want to count the various clones of “Cops” or the occasionally story on the evening news.
I’d love to see this so that we, the audience, through Gail, can see all the barriers that exist between that person and even the most basic elements of success that most of us take for granted. Gail seems like a smart person – who also is unwilling to take much crap. I’d love to see her reactions to these struggles, the advice she’d offer, and the ways she try to motivate people.
This isn’t to harsh on Gail – I think she is doing a genuine public service, teaching the guests – and the audience – communication skills and some basic fiscal responsibility. But every once in a while it might be nice is she was given a case so hard she was virtually guaranteed to fail, mostly because it might expose us all to what real chronic poverty and debt looks like, not the kind that emerges from what apparently looks like a credit card spending spree at a sub-urban auto-mall.
At best, she might occasionally succeed and really pull someone up and into a better, more hopeful and stable place. At worst, such episodes could help her shatter the uncomfortable subtext of her show that implies poverty is always the fault of the poor.
Added Jan 11 10:08am PST: Gail Vaz-Oxlade has a blog post where she talks about the difference between being poor and broke.