The narrative of debt and poverty in America as I see it

I've been thinking a lot about debt recently, for reasons which I expect should be obvious.  One of the things that usually floats to mind when I start thinking about this is the Net Worth comic that often floats around the internet, embedded below.

Unfortunately, the original source of this comic appears to have gone offline.  (Or maybe they just crashed today.)  Apart from that, it's fairly unlikely that someone begging on the street has no debt -- that homeless man probably has quite a lot of debt, or at least terrible credit.

I've also been thinking about debt after watching John Green's latest Vlogbrothers video, in which he explains the national debt:

We tend to think about the nature of debt as being a very simple story, but in reality debt is an incredibly complicated social structure.  And that led me to think about the simplified narrative of debt that I grew up with in America.

My narrative leans towards the conservative political version of the narrative, because while one side of the political range wants to keep things the way they are, and the other wants things to change, our culture largely agrees on what the narrative is at the moment.

This is a post I'd really like to get responses on, if any of my readers have been considering commenting.  My experience of American life is far from universal, and I'm interested to see whether any of these aspects are less universal than I understood them to be.

Part 1: Birth and childhood

Americans are ostensibly born with a balanced ledger -- all [humans] being created equal, and all.  But if your parents keep you, you immediately start accruing debt.  (I'm okay with the idea that parents keeping their children from dying is awesome, but we tend to treat it like a service rendered for an ambiguous reward.)  Americans have a number of entitlements, such as a twelve-year education, food and shelter, some vaguely defined amount of medical care.

Straight up into our mid-teens, we aren't generally expected to go into any sort of debt apart from the nebulously defined debt to parents.  But at some point between 14 and 19, we're expected to get a job.

Part 2: Adulthood and debt

Whether we're supposed to go to college is sort of ambiguous right now -- as of twenty years ago, we were supposed to be heading towards an America in which everyone goes to college.  Mostly, we're supposed to do that by getting student loans, and going into debt.

During or after college, we're supposed to get a car that's more expensive than we can afford, and start making payments on that.  At some point later than that, we're supposed to get a house, with a mortgage.

At this point, we're supposed to have a job, and savings, which should be offsetting our debt.  At some point in the middle of our lives, we're supposed to be taking in more than we're spending, slowly reducing our debt-total.

At some point, our parents die, reducing the incalculable debt that we've had since shortly after our birth to one final payment, the funeral costs.

Part 3: Retirement and settlement

By the time we retire, we're supposed to have paid off our house, our car, have settled all our outstanding debt. Mostly, if we die with debt, that debt gets taken out of our estate, but can't be passed on to someone else, but that's not supposed to happen.  We're supposed to have an estate to leave to our children, helping them along their way in all this complicated stuff.

The end.


I'm writing this all out because, obviously, life, money, and debt are all more complicated than this.  But no one in my life has ever really gone through the complex considerations of debt, so what I have to go on is the vague impression I've gathered from a lifetime of innuendos, implications and fictionalized examples.

This is one version of the possible story, but for a lot of people it's not really how ti works out.  I don't know in great detail how this all ultimately shakes out for my life, but I know that I need a better idea of which parts of the implicit cultural promise I have an actual chance of looking forward to, and which things would be irresponsible and disappointing pursuits.

Again, I'm hoping to get comments on this one.  What kind of story do you feel like you've been taught to expect?  Do you think anything I've written is very wrong?