Recently I’ve made a couple of grownup moves, more of a series of symbolic accidents than a wholehearted stab at adulthood. After years of freelancing, I got the kind of job that’s easier to explain at holidays. I moved out of the eight-bedroom, 10-person house I’d lived in for seven years with kids like me who were simultaneously trying to never be lonely and make something of themselves. I rented a more spacious place with a person I date in a neighborhood that, in comparison to North Brooklyn’s endless wine bar parade, feels practically suburban. My partner, too, had recently slid from a gig-to-gig hustle into something with a regular paycheck. The lifestyle change has been swift, the kind of thing I never thought I’d do.
Buoyed by the shock of these weird, fresh, gainfully employed versions of ourselves, we recently decided to embark on a long summer weekend vacation, like regular couples with regular jobs do. We deposited our payroll checks, rented a car using my Visa debit card, and headed to the Budget Rent-a-Car. Unfortunately, the rental agency is one of the many who require an actual credit card before they hand over the keys.
Neither of us have them—he because of some bad decisions he made when he was younger, me because I never wanted the opportunity to make them in the first place. I grew up surrounded by the specter of payments and interest. In my early twenties it felt like everyone I knew was throwing money into an endless gaping hole. I wanted to stay out of trouble while I could, despite being vaguely aware that good credit paved the path towards functional personhood. So instead I paid my electric bill on time and, because I’m extremely lucky, graduated with a manageable amount of student debt.
My anxiety isn't unusual: Today the percentage of Americans under 35 with credit card debt, the most reliable and low-impact way you’re supposed to rack those scores back up, is the lowest it’s been since the Fed started keeping track in 1989. Ask around about credit cards and you’ll find extreme wariness, despite the promise of points and shopping sprees and travel miles. “I don’t have one cause they scare me,” says a friend with a stable career as a producer; “I don’t because I don’t trust myself,” says another. Even my most responsible acquaintance, a guy with an economics degree, tells me he never got around to it, though he admits sheepishly he "probably should.”
The people I know who aren’t terrified or apathetic tend to have more than one credit card. I suspect it’s one of those semi-hereditary values, passed down from parent to kid, dictated by how well you’ve seen it work out and, of course, how much of a cushion you already have.
The keys to that particular rental car never made it into our hands. It's a microcosmic symbol of the ways in which having money doesn’t help you if you didn’t have money before—a fact deeply understood by low-income communities and those trapped into cycles of debt since the invention of credit itself. The metric of the credit score, the standard-issue system to prove a person’s financial stability specifically (and their general trustworthiness by extension) comes along with a wealth of hypocrisy, not least for a generation in which an estimated 43% of credit scores are considered sub-prime.
We talk a lot about the ineptitude of the Big Three credit score companies and what it’s like to carry $30,000 in credit card debt. We talk less about how all these sub-prime borrowers will age if their credit scores don’t improve. All the trappings of a stable middle class life require decent credit scores: leases, vehicles, mortgages, and still, in many states, getting hired. We’ve come a long way since the early years of charge cards, when credit was vendor- or neighborhood-specific—basically an extension of your local grocer account.
A few years ago, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission filed suit against Kaplan higher education, arguing that screening prospective employees using credit checks is an inherently discriminatory practice. Black Americans, the EOEC argued, tend to have lower credit scores than white ones; the metric has been proven to have little impact on either performance or the likelihood to commit fraud.
But the judge handed out a mocking dismissal of its position—even the very government agency tasked with litigating against discriminatory practices was running credit checks for 84 of its own 97 positions. As Judge Catherine Kethledge quoted, directly from the EEOC’s handbook, in her decision: “‘Overdue debts increase temptation to commit illegal or unethical acts as a means of gaining funds to meet financial obligations.’” In other words: Debt and the inability to pay it isn’t an issue of entrenched poverty or predatory lending practices, but a useful measure of a person’s tenacity and principle. (See also: the 1960s three Cs of credit, wound back in a John Oliver spot, where “character” comes before “capital.”)
Now, 11 states significantly limit the use of credit checks on job applicants. When New York City passed a similar bill its sponsor referred to it as a “civil rights issue.” But such are the odd, moralistic politics of credit scores. Recently, the New York Times ran a story on the phenomenon, hitting stats about student debt and the terror of watching a parent go under while also equating credit with some kind of principled position—the main character, who works at an equity firm, cut up his Capital One card. “I don’t want to go out and buy, buy, buy, even though that’s what society wants me to do,” he told the paper.
On the other side of the equation, a much-aggregated article from the New York Post interviewed women who wouldn’t date men with low credit scores, a decision explained in terms both pragmatic (for when you want a partner with long-term purchasing power) and emotional. “A person with a high credit score shows they’re trustworthy, responsible, and reliable,” said a financial advisor.
All of which can be difficult to square up with the reality that defaulted debt, and the low credit scores that result from it, have within a generation expanded from the purview of the historically disenfranchised to what would have been the middle class. Look at lists of cities with the highest credit scores and you’ll find the number one spots often go to retirement communities in Florida. Luckily, lenders have come up with workarounds to the problem of a faultily indebted America. If you have a sub-prime credit score and need a car, someone will lease it to you…but it’ll come with a device that can keep your engine from starting should you miss a payment.
Today, “secured” credit cards—basically prepaid cards with collateral—are offered by every major bank for at-risk credit card applicants; to get one, you put down a chunk of money, usually equal to the card’s spending limit. In a country where nearly half of all Americans can’t come up with an extra $400 bucks in an emergency, the safe way to build better credit is to save up for a credit card to prove you can borrow your own money from the bank.
Recently, the New Republic’s Laura Marsh looked into the myth of the millennial as cultural rebel, the pervasive story put together over decades that framed “precarity” as a “lifestyle choice.” For example: that young people are choosing to live with roommates out of some allegiance to the sharing economy rather than, you know, the high price of real estate. Or that the refusal to Grow Up into those long-term financial commitments—the mortgages and leases that require good credit—are the result of a lack of gumption and responsibility instead of a system that makes those over-700 credit scores harder, or nearly impossible, to achieve.
Bolstered by my rental car issue and some aspirational impulse, I recently applied for a credit card with the institution where I’ve kept my money since I was 16. I was swiftly denied. Last year I owed a debt to my cell phone provider for calls made on my stolen flip phone, which I reported just a little too late. I paid them eventually, but with so little credit history to balance it all out I’m functionally tanked. I’m lucky to have been able to sign a lease. I’d like to say it’s not a problem, that I don’t have a credit card because of my ideological purity, but that wouldn’t exactly be the truth. I just thought credit card debt—like the apartment and the job and the fleeting sense of stability—would be something I’d get to have when I was grown.