Interspersed with the rosy news stories about how the economy is improving, the recession is over, and the stock market is on the rebound, more and more often are stories that contradict any glowing reports about how great things are.
As is pointed out in this article I read this morning, things are not so wonderful for a lot more people than is usually reported, and the numbers of down-and-out are growing.
What's more disturbing, though, is not the numbers of people who are seeking food assistance, but the demographic of people who are more frequently visiting food banks. In a survey cited in the article, the number of college-degreed people who were having trouble affording food had increased to 30%. That's one in three people who are at the food banks and have at least a Bachelor's degree.
This is the generation of people - my generation - who've been told that a college degree guarantees a better job with higher wages. Yes, that's what we were told - in not so many words, but that was definitely the implied promise, and these people, especially my generation (the 36 to 50 set), are finding that the job market isn't as interested in their degrees as they were told it would be.
What's worse than the facts presented in the article, though, are the comments following the article, in which readers make all sorts of assumptions and proclamations and offer half-assed, oversimplified solutions when they don't really know enough about the situations to offer advice.
The point of the article is to bring to light the fact that the typical food bank "customer" has changed drastically over the past four years, and so to contrast what they expect with what they're seeing, one of the food bank volunteers mentions some food bank visitors who were wearing designer clothes and driving Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
And, of course, there is the one person commenting, who knows only that the person in question drives a Mercedes-Benz and wears designer clothes. His solution is that the person ... should sell [the car], pay off as much of that loan as possible, and buy a $2,000 beater car. They'll have less in monthly car payments to make on the remaining Mercedes loan amounts, as opposed to continuing to make payments for much longer.
The assumption is that the driver of the car: 1. has a car loan; 2. could sell the car for enough to significantly reduce the amount owed AND refinance the remaining balance for lower payments and/or a shorter loan period; and 3. have enough cash out to purchase a car that didn't require extensive maintenance and upkeep costs.
Suppose, however, that the Mercedes driver doesn't owe anything on the Mercedes. If this were the case, what would the advice, then, be? What if the Mercedes had recently been overhauled with new tires, had a recent factory-authorized service, and wouldn't need any repairs or maintenance for at least year? Would the advice to buy a "beater" change?
Perhaps the taxes, licensing and insurance on a "beater" would be less than those things for a Mercedes, but perhaps not, and would the savings off-set the cost of potential repairs for the "beater"?
Without knowing any of the background regarding the car, it's pretty arrogant of us to assume that simply selling the luxury car would solve any problems. Better advice, if we're wont to give our ill-informed, holier-than-thou suggestions, would be to sell the car and go carless or to sell the car and buy a bicycle.
Deus Ex Machina and I have two cars, both of which are paid off. I talk, all the time, about selling one - to save money on taxes, licensing, insurance, and maintenance, but we don't know if those savings would be off-set by the additional (albeit rather small, since I rarely drive anywhere while Deus Ex Machina is at work) wear-and-tear on the remaining vehicle, and then, for us, the question is, do we keep the 22 mpg SUV or the 32 mpg Honda civic? And the answer isn't as simple as "keep the one with better gas mileage", because there are a lot of other things to factor into the equation - like the SUV can pull a trailer full of wood and the Honda can not.
The problem is that the answers rarely are "as simple as ...." Referring back to the article, one of the volunteers observes that some of the recent visitors to the food pantry are wearing designer clothes. The suggestion by one of the people commenting, who knows only that those people are wearing designer clothes, is to sell most of [the clothes] at consignment [shops] and buy replacements at the local Thrift store.
Again, an oversimplication of the issue.
But let's look at why those people wearing designer clothes should NOT consider giving up their designer threads for thrift store finds ... unless said person has a lot of time to shop and can find replacement designer items for less than what they might earn for the clothes on their backs at a consignment shop (of course, a better solution might be to actually keep one's clothes, go the thrift store and find designer duds and then sell those at the consignment shop - for a bit more than they paid at the Goodwill or Salvation Army store ;).
First of all there is the issue of quality. If I had the choice of buying Missoni knock-off at Target (for myself, because I'm not going to outgrow it) or the real-deal at a significantly higher price, I would buy the real deal. A "real" Missoni sweater is made from real wool. Properly cared for, real wool will last for a very long time - perhaps longer than I will. By contrast, the knock-off brands use a blend of synthetic fibers and the only thing similar between the two products is that funky pattern (which is what makes the Missoni appealing to the masses).
Let's be very clear, though. I'm not saying go out and buy designer clothes, but what I am saying is that if I already had the designer clothes, and I fell on hard times, selling my designer clothes so that I could have a bit of extra cash - even if it was to buy food - would be foolhardy.
I'm reading the novel "Andersonville" and for those who are not Civil War affocionados, Andersonville was a confederate prison located in Georgia in which captured Union soldiers were interned. It was a dreadful place. There was no clean water, no shelter, and no toilets. It was over crowded and unsanitary, and by the time the confederates thought to build the prison, they could barely feed and clothe themselves, never mind providing sustenance and raiment for their enemies.
In John Ransom's diary, an actual account of Andersonville, he attributes having a blanket when he was put in the stockade with his survival. If not for the quilt, he says, he would have not had any shelter from Georgia's blistering summer sun or its wicked harsh winter winds.
Those people who believe that designer clothes or luxury (well-built and long-lasting) cars are simply status symbols that should be liquidated in the event that the owners fall on hard times are missing a very important point. Those higher end items are higher priced, often, because they were manufactured using more expensive and longer lasting materials. Hanging onto those items, ESPECIALLY for people who have fallen on hard times and, likely, won't have money for replacements, is the smartest thing those people can do.
Buying a poorer quality merchandise just means having to replace it more often, which, in the long run, costs a lot more money than spending extra at the beginning to buy a better quality item, and then, taking care to maintain it.
Today, I picked up my five-year-old newly soled Birkenstock clogs from the shoe repair shop. I expect I'll get, at least, five more years wear out of those shoes. Ten years is a very long life for a pair of shoes. My mother gave my father a wool sweater when they first started dating. When I was in college, I was wearing that sweater. Twenty years is a very long life for a sweater.
I think, in the end, it's our responsiblity as buyers to stop planning for obsolescence and to demand a higher quality, longer lived product - but if we already have those higher quality products, and we end up in a position in which we should not be able to afford them, we should not allow other people's assumptions to make us do something short-sighted, like exchanging our quality clothes for those disposable items found in discount department stores, because other people assume it's better to have a little cash than to have good, warm, solidly constructed clothes.
As a very sage woman once told me, "When you assume, you make an ASS out of you and me."