Class Matters – Socioeconomic class that is

When you read this title, there are several interpretations that come to mind. While I am a firm believer in acting in a classy way, treating others like you want to be treated, the “class” I am referring to here is socio-economic class. There is a body of work spawned by research conducted by the New York Times, which led to the publishing of a book under this same title – “Class Matters.” It also led to a revolution of thought and I would encourage you to visit “www.classmatters.org for more information.

In essence, the term class matters refers to the tenet that your socio-economic class is a key factor in your ability to ask questions of those who are trying to serve you. The higher strata of socio-economic class is highly correlated with better education and more confidence. This translates into the greater ability and lesser reluctance to question things. On the converse, those in lower socio-economic classes tend to have lesser education and more self-esteem issues. They have a greater inability and lack of confidence to question those in power or who are trying to serve them.  As a result, those in the lower classes often make poorly informed decisions as they are:

  • too scared to ask questions,
  • feel threatened if they do so,
  • feel they will show their ignorance if they do,
  • do not know the right questions to ask, and/or
  • fall into a trusting mode, whether legitimate or not, that the person serving them knows what they are doing as they are wearing a doctor’s coat or suit and tie.

To illustrate this concept using a real life occurrence, the current housing crisis we are facing has many areas of cause from the lenders to rating agencies to investment managers to developers to buyers. At the heart of the problem, we had too many developers and realtors selling houses to people who could not afford that price of house and mortgage lenders providing mortgages to people who should not have that level of mortgage or who did not fully understand the terms of the loan. The buyers did not understand what a variable mortgage is or, using one of the lender’s terms, what a “pick-a-payment” or flexible payment mortgage entailed. The concept of negative amortization is term that was not well-explained or fully understood. In “House of Cards” a line that resonates with me is lenders were providing money to people who could “fog a mirror.” Then, they packaged up all of these poor risks in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and sold them to investors who thought they were buying a less risky product. The rating agencies did not help by stamping these CDOs with a AAA rating.

There are some who firmly believe in the concept of “let the buyer beware.” In their minds, the people who bought these houses and took out these loans should have been more aware “like I would have been.”  As a consequence, they believe the buyers should be held entirely responsible for the housing crisis. This school of thought has some merit, but misses two greater issues. First, if you have ever bought a house, you are asked to sign more papers than in any other transaction. I would wager that an exceedingly high percentage of buyers do not read every word of what they are signing. The legalese is too complex. More often than  not, they will ask the attorneys to explain simply what they are signing. I would also wager that in these transactions people actually sign papers they do not fully understand.

Second, with that context, people in a lower socio-economic class will be even more trusting of those in suits and ties. They would ask even fewer questions and understand even less of what they are signing. When the American Dream is to own a home and people in suits and ties paint a picture that you can afford this home, the buyers believed them more times than they should have. In some cases, the seller put “perfume on a pig” to dress up the sale as best as possible. Individuals were shown monthly payment numbers and did not realize those numbers could dramatically change every two years. In some cases, their income and wealth numbers were inflated to show they could afford a house and mortgage they otherwise would not. The buyers trusted people showing these numbers and signed on the many dotted lines.

Two true stories will embellish these points. The poster child for one extreme end of what happened was a builder based in Atlanta. The CEO and CFO were convicted of criminal and unethical actions they helped perpetuate with home buyers. In essence, the company-realtors representing  new developments did not represent they would make an extra bonus if you bought in this new neighborhood. They did not represent the inspector was being paid off to inflate the price of the house and show no problems existed. They did not represent that the mortgage lender they recommended was affiliated with the developer. So, along comes the buyer who does not know this, does not know to ask these questions and who sees a financial representation that they can afford this house. Even people above the lower socio-economic classes were taken in by this criminal behavior, yet the lower class people did not stand a chance.

The other anecdote took down a bank of which I was shareholder. This bank bought  a mortgage bank who had developed the concept of the “pick-a-payment” mortgage. This flexible payment mortgage concept was geared for a very astute buyer, not the masses of people who bought it. Mortgage people at this bank wondered why the CEO of the acquirer was pushing these mortgages even up to six months before the bank was destined to fail.  A mortgage person for that bank said we are having “pick-a-payment parties” to promote the sale of these mortgages. We are selling these mortgages to people who do not know what they are buying. They do not understand when they do not pay enough, their mortgage principal increases. Like with the above example, the lower socio-economic class buyers did not stand a chance. The people in higher classes suffered as well.

Yet, the class matters concept goes beyond these examples. It happens in everyday life, whether it is visiting the doctor, buying a car or something on credit or being served by the bank on other issues. We have people who will go into debt as they do not know the exposure they are adding with each purchase. In today’s world, there is a dearth of customer service. You have to be the navigator of your own customer service experience. Many people do not realize this as the case and tend to delegate the responsibility to the customer service person. We don’t ask enough questions of doctors seeking alternative treatments or payment plans. We accept the terms of a store credit card without knowing that if we fail to make one of the 30-60-90 day payments, we will pay back interest to the point of sale. We do not understand that we need to pay more than the minimum credit card payment as it will take 30 years to pay off a washer and dryer purchase. We do not ask the question, do I really need yet another credit card? We do not realize we have the power to say “no.”

I tell my children “people want your money, so you need to understand that.” Sometimes, they want it by legitimate means. Sometimes they have enticing commercials which are too good to be true. And, sometimes they will try to steal it from you online or by lying to you in person. You have to guard against this. With this backdrop, someone in a  lower socio-economic class will not ask enough questions to be served. They will take that extra credit card that arrives in the mail. They will sign up for the 30-60-90 day store plan to get a 10% discount not knowing the full ramifications of the transaction. I have also witnessed in helping homeless families, budgeting skills could be improved and asking questions about “must have” purchases are not done often enough. Sometimes these “needs” are actually “wants” and could be postponed. They do not know how to zealously navigate the use of coupons or the best times to buy products. They do not ask for the manager or supervisor when being ill-served.

This week I read a series on the inability of hospitals to uniformly offer reduction or the abatement in cost to those without health insurance and in an impoverished state. Someone wrote in that they successfully navigated payment options from one of the studied hospitals asking why couldn’t others have done that. When I read the letter critical of the people short-changed, the concept of class matters entered into my head. The people in need did not navigate the system as they did not know or have the confidence to ask the right questions. They did not relentlessly pursue options. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency of the payment system, so it takes a concerted effort to understand what is happening even for people in higher classes. There are other examples in our society where you have to make a concerted effort to understand the details.

In closing, my hope is for more people to understand that class matters in getting proper help and service. We have to make it easier for people to ask questions, search for answers and be better served or, at least avoid being ill-served. It is OK to ask questions. As the teachers often say “the only dumb question is the one not asked.”  Please help others remember that. Offer to go with someone to the doctor to help ask the right questions. Or, encourage people to write their questions down beforehand. Encourage people to not get into credit exposure beyond their means.  Share your wisdom of purchasing or not purchasing items. Sources like Consumer Reports, BBB , Angie’s List,  http://www.cars.com are vital tools, e.g. Yet, I guess the big take away is to not assume people are like you. You may have avoided stepping  in the hole, but you would have asked more questions. Not everyone will. Offer them your help and understanding.

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