When former Georgia state lawmaker Stacey Abrams ran for governor in 2018, she had to publicly report her personal debt, which amounted to $50,000 in taxes to the IRS and $170,000 in credit cards and student loans.
She shook off the criticism that came with her disclosure early, writing in Fortune last year that her story of debt isn’t the exception, but the norm—of people going into debt to support themselves through college and then supporting their families after becoming the highest earner. However, the shame persisted.
Speaking on a podcast by The Cut and Gimlet Media out Tuesday, Abrams spoke openly about the shame she was made to feel about running for office with debt and criticized the dehumanization of people who have debt.
“People who’ve known me my whole life, especially my political life, said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t run for governor, because they’re going to find out you don’t have money and you have these debts,’” she said on the podcast. “My answer was, ‘You think I’m not worthy of this job that you’ve pushed me to run for years because I have credit-card debt and tax debt?’”
Abrams told host Molly Fischer that she went into credit card debt from paying her way through college—her parents couldn’t afford to help pay her way—the interest accumulating on the cards she used to support her education, paying for her brother’s drug rehab program, supporting her parents after Hurricane Katrina, after which the church where they were pastors was unable to pay their salaries, and, later, her father’s cancer treatment
Abrams said that before becoming a tax attorney, she had to fill out a “moral fitness” test, in which she had to disclose her debt then, too. However, in order to become a lawyer in Georgia, she had to pay off all her debts other than for student loans—so she did. But the responsibility she felt to take care of her family made all that work became undone.
Abrams detailed some of this struggle in her Fortune article last year. However, her openness didn’t stop her opponent, now-Gov. Brian Kemp, and his supporters from trying to leverage her debt as an attack on her character, despite having $500,000 in debt himself. The Republican Governors Association went so far as to call Abrams “self-serving” and “fiscally irresponsible” for lending money to her campaign instead of paying off the tax debt (for which she, a former tax lawyer, arranged a payment plan with the IRS), saying, “If that’s not criminal, it should be.”
Here’s what Abrams told The Cut about her finances in the interview, in which she also calls President Donald Trump the “king of debt.” From their transcript (emphasis mine):
Stacey Abrams: For me, I knew I had a long-term plan to pay it back, but under Georgia law, I had to report where I was at a certain point in time. That meant that I had to report that I had tax debt and credit-card debt, as well as owing a lot of people for my education.
Molly Fischer: How did that feel?
Stacey: It’s horrible, because I had worked hard to climb out, and to be stable, and to be able to take care of myself and my family — to be able to fill out an application, and if I needed to request credit, I would get it. I reached this moment where all of that was undone, not because I’d suddenly become a bad person, but because circumstances had coalitioned against me.
But it was also embarrassing, because these are things I’d been able to take care of quietly. I didn’t talk about my family and their financial needs. I didn’t talk about what I did. I was being encouraged by those who knew that it was going to come up. People who’ve known me my whole life, especially my political life, said, “Well, you shouldn’t run for governor, because they’re going to find out you don’t have money and you have these debts.” My answer was, “You think I’m not worthy of this job that you’ve pushed me to run for years because I have credit-card debt and tax debt?”
Whereas we were in the process of being governed by a man who called himself the king of debt. There was this greatness to debt for some, but for the rest of us it was stigma and it was an invalidator. And while I knew I didn’t agree with it, it still doesn’t make it less embarrassing, and there’s a bit of shame attached to it.
Molly: How would you say that having debt has affected the choices you’ve made?
Stacey: It made me very conscious of the fact that the stigma of debt precludes women and people of color in particular from striving, and it gave me the space to say, “You can do this anyway.” If I have to be the poster child for why indebtedness is not a disqualifier, I’m okay with that.
The entire podcast episode is worth a listen, particularly if you’re someone who has struggled or continues to struggle with debt, or grew up “genteel poor,” as Abrams said her mother called it, with access to resources such as PBS and libraries but sometimes going without basic needs (her interview begins at 26:10). Abrams’ message to other people living with debt at the end of the podcast is clear: The people who try to shame you are wrong—it is not a shame to be in debt, it’s a shame that those in power wield it as a tool to dehumanize you and keep you powerless.