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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007 11:37 pm

Buy into a holiday shopping boycott

Why the urge to overspend hurts women more

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Untitled Document Female shoppers, beware. Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving, considered one of the biggest shopping days of the year — is lurking at the end of the month, raising the risk of a postholiday debt hangover. Twenty-three percent of Americans will not pay off their holiday debt until March or later, equaling $14.6 billion in interest-accruing debt, according to a 2006 Consumer Reports survey. More than one-quarter of Americans use credit cards most often when holiday shopping, contributing to the $63.6 billion charged on credit cards throughout the shopping season. Because as much as 75 percent of retailers’ profits accrues during the holiday season, Black Friday represents the point in time when retailers’ account books shift from red (debt) to black (profit). But black fades into red when we switch our standpoint to the consumer’s perspective. The money flowing into cash registers accentuates the red tide of consumer debt, which is especially toxic for women, whose bankruptcy filings have increased ninefold in the past 20 years, according to research published in the Brooklyn Law Review. It’s not that women are profligate in their spending, at the holidays or otherwise. Yes, Women’s Wear Daily may tell us that “yuletide bling” appeals to multiple generations of women and that “jewel-encrusted bras, camisoles embellished with feathers and silky crotch-less panties sold like hot cakes last year.”
This could tempt you to think that women have become downright hysterical in their spending, but more methodical research tells us that when it comes to overspending, our society has achieved a rare gender balance; the two sexes do it to pretty much to the same extent. Instead, overspending during the holidays is a women’s issue in particular for a very simple reason: Women can afford it less. That’s because women continue to earn less — 75 cents to the dollar earned by men, on average — and women are also less likely to have other financial safeguards such as jobs with good health-care and pension benefits. Much more often than men, women are using consumer credit to pay for life’s necessities. Retailers, meanwhile, are clearly worried that spending will not match the double-digit sales gains of the last several seasons, which gets us to the real warning of the story. In 2006, companies spent a staggering $209.74 billion on advertising. The results of all that money are, in their immensity, difficult if not impossible to either avoid or ignore. Advertisers target women because they’re responsible for about 85 percent of all consumer spending. The constant buzz of advertising is, as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, “relentless propaganda on behalf of goods.”
The array of available goods grows daily, and so inevitably does the list of what we know we don’t have. This induces a perpetual state of wanting, and millions of us heed the siren call of malls, department stores, upscale boutiques, downscale discounters, and everything in between. It’s all particularly dangerous for women who head households. Saving a portion of your earnings is an essential element of long-term financial security, but a recent report in the Survey of Consumer Finances, says that 53 percent of female household heads spend all or more than all of their incomes. The dominant media don’t want to focus on the systemic reasons for women’s financial problems. Instead they focus, as usual, on self-improvement, running endless how-to articles about ending impulse spending, making a list and sticking to it, cutting back on your makeup routine, and finding a less expensive hair salon, and don’t forget the $64,000 question: Do your finances need a makeover? This individualist focus misses a deeper point: There is no social policy working to protect people from the aggressive influence of marketing, and not enough is being done to make sure women have more workplace equity. Women as individuals and consumers should, of course, develop habits that get them off the consumer escalator. Read a book, take a walk, talk to a friend instead of reaching for that credit card. Sure. But there’s more to the story than any one woman’s individual behavior. For one thing, there’s recent political history. Over the past 25 years, kicked off by the massive tax cuts of the Reagan era, income in the United States has been distributed less and less equally. That has created a huge gulf between the very rich, the posh well-to-do, and the rest of us. Not only ads but also entertainment programming such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous make people earning $35,000 a year desire the ways and means of those earning $135,000. Economist and social commentator Juliet Schor describes the new consumerism as a cycle of “See, want, borrow, buy.”
So when we think about consumerism as part of social policy — rather than as a simple set of “free” individual choices — it becomes obvious that our national fascination with “more” is being driven by policies designed to reduce public attention to the values that sustain us as a community. As citizens we value parks, clean energy, recreation, housing, and the environment, but the share of federal spending devoted to these public goods has been declining since the beginning of the conservative attack on government in 1981, when these were 11 percent of the federal budget. Spending in these areas is now a mere 8.6 percent of federal spending. Households finding it hard to make monthly home, car, and credit-card payments are not likely to look fondly on spending to enhance community life. Funding for health care, parks, public recreation, elder care, child care, transportation, and education becomes less palatable. So with that in mind, maybe the best approach to the day after Thanksgiving this year, rather than rushing around the mall, is to join anti-consumer, pro-environment activists in Buy Nothing Day. After all, it’s a political campaign season. With all the time we save by not shopping, we can start looking over the candidates. Who’s talking about women’s pay and benefits disparities? Who’s talking about health care, park, public recreation, child care, transportation, education?
Susan Feiner is professor of women’s studies and economics at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
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