‘A Wonderful Life’ built on thrifty foundation

Some social analysts observe the United States in the past half-century has shifted from a Bedford Falls-like culture of small businesses and community-friendly financial institutions to a Pottersville-style nightmare of predatory lenders and seedy businesses that target the poor. And for American society in general, the result is anything but “a wonderful life.” 

Some social analysts are calling for a renewal of a “thrift culture” in America.

“We have created a debt culture,” David Blankenhorn, executive director of the Institute for American Values told the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission’s statewide conference earlier this year.

Blankenhorn and some of his associates in related organizations insist churches can become instrumental in shaping a new culture built on an old virtue – thrift. But one Christian ethicist insists churches need to examine themselves before they can begin to preach stewardship effectively to the larger culture.

‘Thrift ethic’ in early America

In the formative years of United States history, prominent thinkers such as Ben Franklin promoted a “thrift ethic” that encouraged hard work, frugal spending on self and generous giving to charity, Blankenhorn said.

“Thrift,” he said, was simply the secular term for the religious stewardship principle. And institutions developed to support that ethic.

“Institutions that encouraged savings and thrift – mutual-savings banks, savings and loans and credit unions – once were part of the American fabric. They were a way to build financial independence, provide for others and give back to the community,” Blankenhorn said.

But in recent decades, “anti-thrift institutions” – particularly payday lenders that encourage rollover loans from one paycheck to the next and state lotteries that draw disproportionately from low-income Americans – have proliferated, he observed.

“Instead of a nation of small savers, we’ve become a nation of small wasters,” Blankenhorn said.

‘Anti-thrift institutions’

Payday lenders target wage earners with incomes under $25,000, offering “fast cash” to people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, and charging the short-term equivalent of up to 400-percent interest rates if calculated on an annual basis, according to “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture,” a report by the Commission on Thrift.

Payday loans typically are structured in ways that make it difficult for the borrower to repay in the required two weeks, the study noted. For instance, the loan – plus a significant fee – generally must be paid in full, not incrementally.

“Instead, many consumers are likely to take the option of ‘rolling over’ their original loan into the next payday, a practice that can lead to chronic dependency on expensive credit. And the profitability of the payday business depends heavily on getting borrowers into multiple rollovers,” the report stated. “Over half (56 percent) of payday lending revenue is generated by customers who take out 13 or more loans per year.”

Lotteries claim to promote economic welfare in their states, but they effectively turn potential savers and givers into habitual gamblers, the study asserted. People with low incomes tend to spend more on the lottery per year and play more frequently than people with higher incomes, the report noted.

“State lotteries prey on people in the bottom half of the income distribution. This is a moral outrage and a social injustice,” said Barbara Whitehead, director of the Center on Thrift and Generosity.

Recession leads to more savings

But the dark clouds of tough economic times may have a silver lining. The positive side of the current recession is seen in the rise in individual savings during the last year, Whitehead said.

“The rapid increase in the savings rate is a grassroots response to the high level of personal debt and reflects a determination by individuals and families to put their own financial houses in order – no matter what Wall Street or Washington is doing,” Whitehead said.

But the positive signs of increased personal savings could be a relatively short-lived phenomenon unless character-shaping institutions actively promote the virtue of thrift, she observed.

“If we want to establish an enduring culture of thrift, then we will have to re-engage institutions in the civil society – churches, families, youth organizations – with a mission or tradition of teaching the virtue of thrift and stewardship,” she said. “Some of these institutions have retreated from this tradition in the boom years, but this is a moment when they can provide new leadership for thrift.”

However, ethicist Bill Tillman insists the root cause of the “debt culture” is the worship of wealth, and churches should conduct a serious self-examination before they can hope to shape society’s attitudes.

“There’s an archetypal drive – the pursuit of wealth and accumulation of possessions – that comes from trying to find fulfillment in created stuff when we should be worshipping the Creator,” said Tillman, the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas.

Churches easily can become guilty of following the dominant culture rather than the teachings of the New Testament, he noted.

“The real values that drive a congregation can be seen by looking at a church’s budget statement,” Tillman said.

Congregations need buildings, and church buildings need maintenance, he noted. But if a church spends nearly all its resources on itself rather than on community ministries and missions beyond its walls, that can “distort the witness” of the congregation, he said.

Ken Camp is managing editor of the Texas Baptist Standard.

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