My husband can pinpoint the exact week the financial crisis hit California. He received more bad checks from clients that week than he had in 20+ years of business combined. As the owner of a sole proprietor business that relies on people having disposable income, he’s the canary in the economic coalmine. His business follows a predictable pattern throughout the year, with high and low months being fairly consistent over time.
February and March are usually high months. This February, he didn’t sign a single new client, and March is looking only slightly better. Nothing changed about the way he does business. His website is working fine. He still has a fantastic reputation. Clients just didn’t call. We were obviously concerned, and did what anyone would do. We began to investigate. We already knew the stock market was low, but that hadn’t affected his clients much in the past, so we put that aside. It wasn’t long before we found the answer, in our mailbox, of all places.
We submitted our tax return on January 29, the first day filing opened, and on March 2, the IRS sent us a letter informing us that they could not finish processing it until we verified our identities. They thought we could have been compromised by the 2017 Equifax breach, so they wanted to make sure it was us before moving forward. We were annoyed since we’d already taken care of this with Equifax when the breach happened, but my husband gathered all the documents the letter said we needed, and I called the IRS. I was on hold for 58 minutes.
When someone answered, I was cheerful and polite, and gave her all the information she asked for. Abruptly, she became rude, and said, “Are you a third party or something?” I replied that I was not a third party, that this was my husband’s and my return. She said that we would have to verify our identities in person, and transferred me to a different department. They were nicer, and set me up with the soonest appointment they had in our city, exactly one month out.
For those keeping score, our tax return was filed on January 29. It will not proceed until after we have verified our identities in person in April. It probably will take a couple weeks after that to fully process, so mid-April. Normally, people who filed when we did could expect a refund in mid-February. A quick Google turned up reports that this identity verification was being asked of millions of people, and millions of others were asked to send verification of health insurance coverage. That means many millions of tax refunds are delayed. This explains my husband’s low revenue February. A lot of people use their tax refunds to pay for his services.
I had questions, though. Namely, why are we not seeing thousands of social media posts about this? I realized that I hadn’t seen any posts about people getting their tax refunds. I usually do see posts about that this time of year. This year, there has been none of that. This substantiates, at least anecdotally, that lots of people have delayed refunds. Why, then, are people not talking about how refunds are delayed? For every person who uses their refund for Disney tickets, there are probably three or four who use it to catch up on bills, pay off credit cards, or get a much needed vehicle or home repair. These people, a noticeable percentage of Americans, I would guess, are likely suffering due to the delayed tax refunds.
For us personally, we managed a small refund this year, mostly due to the fact that we got married, and I’d had taxes withheld as single, so we’re getting most of that back. Between my husband’s business being low and our refund being delayed, we’re not in a great place at the moment either. We’ll be ok. Our bills are paid and we’ve got plenty to eat, but our credit cards are higher than we’d like them, and every day that refund is delayed, we accrue more interest. Every day everyone else’s refunds are delayed, his business stays low. It’s a vicious cycle for us, and I know we’re not alone in that.
The question, once again, is why people in this giant boat, myself included, are not posting about this on social media. This is happening to a lot of us, none of us like it, yet, we’re not talking about it. I had to think about why that is, and while I’m sure there are many components to it, a huge part is America’s taboo around talking about money. Another huge part of it is how our society demonizes people who admit to not having enough money. Our culture openly despises the poor, but you don’t even have to be poor to catch hell for your financial practices, even if you did nothing wrong. Think about it. What would happen if you posted about having a hard time financially? You’d get a few people who were empathetic, and at least as many who gave either the worst advice in the world or some backhanded comment that implies you deserve it somehow. Where did this start? Why are we like this?
Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the rich have a tangible interest in the common people being divided and distracted by in-fighting. This allows the politicians they pay with lobbying money to pass bills that don’t do anything for the majority of us, and shift wealth in directions that benefit only approximately 1-5% of Americans. If we shush each other about our hardships, or smack each other down with trite advice and backhanded comments, we are doing this work for them, preventing ourselves from coming together and addressing the real issues that exist, the things that would have to change to make our government work for us. This is why we can’t seem to vote these bought and paid for politicians out. They have divided us well enough that we can’t seem to come together and agree that they’re the problem for putting us in this situation in the first place.
Anyway, this seems to have started in the form of distrust and dehumanization of the poor. In 1976, Ronald Reagan gave a campaign speech about a fictional woman in south Chicago who lived richly off government benefits, epitomized every racist stereotype of black people, and was definitely someone hardworking people should be mad at because as far as he was concerned, she was picking their pockets. While he never used the term itself, this became the myth of the welfare queen, the foundation for American distrust of the poor. This was almost coldly comical coming from the person who brought us trickle-down economics, which shifted more wealth away from the common people, thus creating more poverty, than nearly any other economic policy in our nation’s history.
Make no mistake, though, the myth of the welfare queen was an absolute game changer in the way our culture relates to its most vulnerable citizens. It gave people license to judge the purchases and practices of those less fortunate, and self-appoint as judge, jury, and executioner over who was deserving of help, and who wasn’t. After all, they’ve been told that they pay their taxes, and those people are just living off them. This divided people, and caused a profound loss of empathy on a societal level, not to mention a complete disregard for the facts surrounding social welfare programs and poverty in general.
While all this was happening, wealth was being shifted away from the common people, and toward the rich. Things have become drastically more expensive, and we’re not allowed to admit we’re struggling, lest we cop to being “the poor”, and open ourselves up for the judgment thereof. As a person who temporarily experienced poverty, I can attest that otherwise decent people are awful to the poor. You get the worst, most useless, advice ever, and everyone looks for ways that your own failures as a human being put you in that position. Nobody ever says, “Yeah, this economy is awful. Sorry you’re getting the worst of it right now.”, and leaves it at that. I think this is mostly to convince themselves it couldn’t happen to them, but I’m no psychologist.
As a society, our reaction when someone is struggling is to blame them, not look at the circumstances. This isn’t just a conservative thing either. People all over the political spectrum do this to varying extents. My parents, who have always voted Democrat and think Reagan’s economic policy sucks, are the worst offenders I know when it comes to this. It took until I was in my 30’s before I realized the hardship I’ve experienced at times is actually not the result of me being stupid, the economy is just brutal. That’s why I have student loan debt, why I rented for so long before buying, why I live a more modest lifestyle than engineers did in the 90’s.
People have been trained to assume the worst of one another. “They don’t have money. Must be gambling or alcohol.” While addiction is certainly a legitimate problem, it’s far more likely to be some combination of crushing student loan debt, medical bills, a savage job market, and runaway housing prices, which we absolutely could do something about if we could just come together and agree that they’re a problem for the majority of us. Nothing will get done as long as we’re insisting that we don’t have these problems, and that if those people over there just did whatever financial program is popular now, they wouldn’t either. (These programs work for some people, and that’s great, but they’re not a substitute for fixing the ways in which our economy isn’t working for the average person.)
In order for this change to happen, we have to talk about money, and not just bragging about all the nice stuff we just bought. We have to talk about how we put a month of daycare on a credit card because our ex-spouse was late with the child support, and we rely on that money. We have to talk about how we actually kind of wish we got free lunch for our kids at school, like our chronically unemployed cousin gets for their kids, because pretty much everyone would benefit from giving this across the board. We have to talk about how scary it was when we experienced a layoff, an injury, a corporate restructuring, and nearly lost our house because we missed a paycheck or two. We have to stop pretending we all have a cushion in savings, and be honest about the fact that most of us don’t anymore, if we ever did.
Above all, we have to stop judging each other for this. It’s ok to be mad because the government is taking too long with your tax refund. Please tell that Baby Boomer who thinks you can save for a house by forgoing your weekly Starbucks that they’re full of it. Avocado toast is delicious, and totally not the reason you’re in debt (seriously, avocados are like 39 cents at Aldi). Tell people who insinuate that your smartphone is the problem that it’s actually the reason you have a job, and selling it probably wouldn’t even pay off one credit card. Talk about money. Talk about your debt. Reply to trite advice by explaining logically why that won’t work. Do it enough times that the message gets through.
Then vote. Vote for people who won’t accept money from those who want to buy politicians. Vote for people who know what it’s like to be middle class or poor, and to raise a family like that. Vote for people who remember who put them in public office in the first place. Vote for millennials! Vote for people who see that most of us really aren’t ok by the standards previous generations knew. Vote for those who agree that it’s maddening that these politicians keep moving the goalposts like some kind of 4chan troll in a comments section. Be honest. This isn’t working for you any better than it’s working for me.
I’m Anastasia. I’m an engineer, and I live in a major metro area that is considered a great place for young professionals to accomplish things. I’m a millennial, a wife, a mom, and a homeowner. I have debt, not because I’m stupid, or because I love avocados and La Croix, but because education and housing are expensive! My husband and I pay about $10k/yr in state and local taxes. We are contributors to society, like everyone else. We want our tax refund, and for his business to pick up because everyone else got theirs, too, and that’s not a personal failing of ours. We won’t be shamed, and if you’re mad about this, too, you shouldn’t be either. The government isn’t functioning well, and we are seeing the results of that.
When the common people have money, the economy flourishes because we spend it. When it’s withheld, the economy lags. Let’s talk about money, let’s fix this for all of us, and let’s stimulate the economy.