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Robbing Peter

posted by Katie Porter

How exactly do people make ends meet? While there are a few formal studies of "payment hierachies" courtesy of the big data organizations, there is little ethnographic work. A new contribution in this regard is "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul":  Economic and Cultural Explanations for How Lower-Income Families Manage Debt by Laura M. Tach and Sara Sternberg Greene. The authors interviewed 194 lower-income households, finding that debts generally receive less attention than regular monthly expenses where credit cannot substitute for meeting the need (e.g., paying rent). The best findings of the paper describe how households choose among debt coping strategies, which Tach and Greene categorize to include debt juggling such as rotating which debt to skip paying, rejecting responsibility/ignoring debt, using an EITC refund to make a large payment, and others. Tach and Greene sketch out an "Injustice Narrative" based on respondents' own understandings of why certain debts should be ignored or rejected. In their sample, these debts were frequently subprime credit cards or debts ballooned up with fees. By contrast, the authors present an "Economic Mobility Narrative," where debtors prioritized and paid consistently if they believed repayment was required to achieve a goal, like improving a credit score enough to qualify for a home loan. The overall perspective of the paper is that cost-effective approaches to debt repayment (highest interest rate first), or logical approaches (last in, first out), are less prominent than cultural narrative strategies that allow debtors to explain their payment--or lack thereof--using cultural sociological norms about mobility and justice.

The paper is a nice addition to the generalized reporting that focuses on middle class people--those with mortgages and credit cards. As Nick Timiraos recently reported in the WSJ, mortgages are once again the king of the bill heap. The article has some nice graphics that illustrate regional differences in payment hierarchies that appear to correlate with property values.

p.s. There was a rumor that I would never blog again. I started it. But it just didn't catch on, despite my dissemination efforts.  I'm back . . .

Comments

Glad you are back.

Enjoy your posts.


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