From the Cut and Gimlet Media, this is the Cut on Tuesdays. I’m your host, Molly Fischer.
When Rachel Khong was growing up, indulgence could only mean one thing: Sizzler.
RACHEL: It's so funny to me to think about my parents deciding, like, Sizzler is gonna be the treat. Like, we're gonna go to Sizzlers and it's gonna be our special meal.
Rachel’s family had moved from Malaysia to the U.S. when she was little. Money was tight, especially in the early years--and even once it was a little less tight, her parents were still painstakingly careful about what they spent. One time, Rachel remembers her mom refusing to buy glue for a school project. Instead, she boiled rice down to a paste…. Which, it turns out, actually kind of works.
But every so often--usually when they had a coupon--they’d take Rachel and her brother out for an experience of bounty.
<< Sizzler brings the choices that you’ve been looking for, giving you the right to choose, we’re offering much more>>
RACHEL: You walk in, it's very, in my memory I guess very 80s, glass bricks and booths, and just like abundance, these really laden salad bars, potatoes in many forms, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, there were always soup wells. There's the soft serve machine-
MOLLY: Gotta have a soft serve machine.
RACHEL: -with these tiny marshmallows and sprinkles. Like things just ready for you and just things that I didn't have at home, but I imagined kids did. Like I imagined like all the white kids feasting every night on piles of shrimp and cocktail sauce. So, yeah. It was just like a dreamland.
It was a dreamland that Rachel was expected to navigate while keeping certain strategic principles in mind. She was very interested in salad, for example, particularly salad with thousand island dressing--but her parents had made it clear that salad was unacceptable. So was bread: it was cheap, and too filling. This was no time for a carbohydrate. This was Sizzler.
RACHEL: You should be picking up the things that are high value, so you need to be getting any kind of beef, any kind of shrimp, chicken is fine-
RACHEL: Acceptable. Clam chowder was great because clams are valuable.
And there was this expectation that you would get your first plate of food, your first plate of hot food, and eat it pretty quickly, get back up, leave your old plate, your soiled plate there, go get a fresh plate, eat that, leave that there, get up, get another plate, and then we could get our soft serve.
RACHEL: There was this pressure. If there was some kind of lull between my first plate and my second plate, I would get a look from my parents like, "Are you finished? You can't be finished."
RACHEL: I always kind of felt a little guilty if I wasn't getting my parents' money's worth, because they had worked so hard for this very special meal. It was discounted, of course, with a coupon, but I had to make them proud.
MOLLY: Proud of your ability to house shrimp.
In the years since Sizzler, Rachel’s gone on to greater culinary horizons. She used to be an editor at the food magazine Lucky Peach, and she’s published a cookbook. Her parents aren’t watching her plate anymore--but those early trips to the buffet left their mark. Put her in a restaurant with a meat-based deal, and the instinct for high-value proteins comes rushing back.
Like at the House of Prime Rib, in San Francisco.
RACHEL: It's very old-timey. You go there, you get a martini, you get a huge slab of prime rib, but one of their deals is that if you eat a full prime rib they'll serve you a second one, and it's mostly a thing that I don't think most people do despite it being a great deal, of course. But when I've been with friends I mean for some reason I can't help it, I'm like, "I must finish the prime rib, and I must receive that second slice." You know, it'll prove something to my parents, to myself, but really it's almost like a habit now, like not even slowing down, just thinking like, "I've gotta make this worth it."
Not everyone’s parents teach them the importance of chugging meat. But MOST of us have internalized some ideas about money from our families, and on this week’s show, we’ll be hearing two more stories about what that means. Whether you inherit a trust fund, a debt, or a buffet mindset, you inherit something--it probably shapes the way you live.
That’s true for Stacey Abrams--the rising political star from Georgia--who you’ll hear from in the second half of the show. She told us what her parents taught her about responsibility, and how she found herself with more than $200,000 in debt .
First, though, we’ve got a woman who knows what it’s like to have more money than any one person can ever spend. Abigail Disney is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker--and she’s also the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, who co-founded the Walt Disney Company with her great-uncle Walt.
Abigail remembers that when she was a kid, her mom was always vague about the family’s wealth.
ABIGAIL: I remember saying to her one night, "What class are we?" And she said, "Middle," and then she said, "Upper middle." Upper, upper middle, that's where she settled.
MOLLY: Upper, upper middle.
ABIGAIL: She just couldn't say upper.
Abigail’s dad had followed in his dad’s footsteps--he worked at Disney, and the family lived right down the street from Disney Studios. She went to school with other kids whose parents worked in film, and lived in a neighborhood that had been filled with Hollywood types for decades.
ABIGAIL: We lived in this place called Toluca Lake. It was built in the 1920s by a Hollywood developer, property developer. It was a fake lake. And they brought in swans to live on the lake, and at the end of the lake there was a golf course. And then there were pretty big houses around it that had all been bought by 20s movie people. So, WC Fields lived on the lake, Amelia Earhart lived on the lake, the house that we lived in had been built by the guy who directed Marx Brothers films.
MOLLY: Oh, wow.
ABIGAIL: And WC Fields, every time he saw a swan, would come out with a shotgun.
MOLLY: Oh, God.
ABIGAIL: And he would scare the swans away. So, every year they would bring in new swans, even long after WC Fields was dead the swans would just fly off. It was like they all knew genetically that somebody was gonna shoot them.
Bob Hope lived in the neighborhood for years; Ronald and Nancy Reagan had their wedding reception there. And Abigail’s family house was one of the big ones.
ABIGAIL: So, we would get two doorbell rings from everybody who trick or treated from us, because it was such a long distance from the front door to the back door.
It all added up to a particular kind of childhood.
ABIGAIL: We had a lemon tree in the backyard and it was called the martini tree; we left scotch for Santa.
At first, Abigail had no idea that there was anything out of the ordinary about her family.
ABIGAIL: I remember when my uncle Walt died in 1966, and they took us out of class, and they brought us to the principal's office, and they said, "We're so sorry to tell you your uncle died." And we were like, "Which one? I don't know."
So, I had never really actually thought of him as anything other than another uncle, and then I remember seeing the cover of Time magazine, and I thought, "Well, that's interesting."
MOLLY: Do all uncles end up on the cover?
ABIGAIL: Yeah, exactly.
After Walt died, Abigail’s grandfather ran the company for a while. But after he died, what had once been a family business became something much bigger. Abigail watched as Disney grew into a corporate behemoth--an operation with fighting shareholders and soaring stock prices. And as the business got bigger, Abigail’s family went from being merely rich to being EXTREMELY rich.
ABIGAIL: My parents bought a plane when I was about 16 or something, and it was like a little plane with propellers, and they thought they were a big deal, and it was really exciting. We had this guy who flew us around on it, and it was nice, but it didn't get anywhere very fast, and so we bought a jet, but it was like the worst jet made.
MOLLY: It was a jet, but it was the worst jet.
ABIGAIL: It was. It was just not a classy jet. It didn't have thrust reversers, and so you couldn't land on certain kinds of runways and whatever else. So, then he got a bigger jet that had seats for like 14, 16 people, and a flight attendant now, and you could actually stand up in it, and all sorts of exciting things. So, he was feeling like ... You could see it. You could see him expand into the space he was giving himself, and always there was this pressure from people around him like, "But so-and-so has a bigger plane." There's always a bigger plane. And then they bought a 737.
The end of Abigail’s childhood arrived in the form of a family tradition--it was something her older siblings had already experienced.
ABIGAIL: If you grow up in a family with some money you've got a long time family attorney, and he's always like an uncle to you, and the accountant is kind of like an uncle to you. And so, it's a weird thing. And he would take us out to lunch when we were 18 and tell us how much money we had.
It was a lot to take in.
ABIGAIL: My older sister actually had a blood sugar problem and he told her and then she fainted.
MOLLY: Oh god
Abigail’s grandfather--the one who founded Disney with Walt--had left all his grandchildren money. So, starting when she came of age, Abigail would have an independent income.
ABIGAIL: In 1978, I was making what a CEO would make.
On top of that, she’d get an inheritance that paid out in three installments: one when she was 25, one at 30, and one at 35. Abigail didn’t want to put a number on it. But she told us that if she wanted to, she could be a billionaire. It’s easy to make money if you start with money, she pointed out.
Anyway, all of this all seems like the kind of thing you think you’d want to talk about with one of the few people who could understand… but Abigail says she and her siblings never talked about it.
ABIGAIL: And it's a very strange thing, but none of the four of us, even though we were somewhat close, ever shared ideas with each other, or shared experiences. Each of us handled it as though we were all alone in a little silo.
But if it was awkward to talk about with her siblings, it was even more awkward to talk about with people whose last name was not Disney. That became very clear when Abigail went away to school.
ABIGAIL: I would meet someone in college and they'd say, "Oh, I've heard about you." And I'd be like, "What the ... ? How did you hear? Why did I come up in conversation, except for my last name?"
So, that was the first I got a sense that it was a big enough deal to people that they would talk to each other when I wasn't around about me. It just made me uncomfortable. I mean, I wanted to be able to make my own way. I thought I was in college to start my life over, as everyone thinks, and I wasn't getting a chance to do that.
There was always this thing. Like I dated a guy who used to call me Miss Free Enterprise, because he was from Cuba, and so I was politically suspect automatically because I came from the family I came from.
If I didn't go into every interaction in a kind of position of apology for it, then I could pretty much guarantee people would hate me for it.
For a while, Abigail handled the social weirdness by just trying to pay for everything. She was a college student and then, later, a PhD student, so it wasn’t like the people she was hanging out with were making much money.
ABIGAIL: I lent friends a lot of money over the years. I made it my policy always to treat everybody to dinner, and they'd be like, "You don't have to treat." And I'd be like, "No, really. Each according to his abilities. Let's just be real about it." But I now understand as I look back, that that was actually a bit of a power move and made my friends uncomfortable. So really, I had a magic wand, but it was also a bit of a weapon, and when you're young and stupid, and you don't understand how the world works you hurt people, and you make all kinds of people feel ashamed. It takes a long time to figure out how to work it.
Sometimes she’d send checks to strangers, if a sad story in the paper caught her eye. She felt guilty about her money but unsure what to do--with the money or with the guilt. And the guilt made her feel, increasingly, like she didn’t belong in her own family.
ABIGAIL: If you amass a lot of money, you're not just any person. You're usually a massive patriarch. You're usually a big, angry, macho bullying man. So, families don't amass money unless they're highly patriarchal, and inside of those highly patriarchal families, a girl like me has no place.
This was not a family that was interested in redistribution of wealth.
ABIGAIL: My uncle Walt, actually picked up the phone and called Joe McCarthy. You know how everybody was getting subpoenaed, and said, "May I please testify." He doesn't just name names. He spells them out and gives home addresses.
MOLLY: Oh my God.
ABIGAIL: It's awful. So, that's the background I come from.
But when Abigail was in her 20s, she started to meet some other people like her -- rich women who didn’t think it made sense to be so rich. And that’s how she got her start giving away money: through an organization called the Women Donors Network, a group of female philanthropists dedicated to progressive causes.
ABIGAIL: You know, I had been spinning my wheels about this whole thing, and just hating myself for it, but not knowing what to do. And then when I found some support, I could think about it in a concrete way, and then I started realizing, "Oh, I know how to do this."
As Abigail had been getting uncomfortable with her money, though, her dad was getting more comfortable with his.
ABIGAIL: There was a way in which, when he got on his 737, that he settled into a comfy seat and got handed a drink, and lit a cigarette with such a sense of like, "Yeah, I belong here." It was hard to watch.
It was on the private 737 that Abigail experienced an epiphany: having a private 737 is crazy.
ABIGAIL: The plane took off and I realized there were three pilots and two flight attendants and me in a 737, all alone. The next time you get on a 737, I want you to notice the size of that plane, and then I want you to imagine it with like basically a living room, and a study, and a dining room, and a kitchen, and a bedroom with a queen-size bed in it, because that's basically what it was. And okay, I love Ruffles potato chips and French onion dip. They always have that for me when I'm on the plane. They brought me in like Waterford crystal and whatever else, and then they were like, "Okay, time for you to go to sleep," and they tucked me into my big bed, which had a seatbelt that went all the way across it.
MOLLY: Oh my God.
ABIGAIL: Like the only way FAA would approve it. And I just lay there wide awake staring up at the ceiling thinking that I can't do this. This is not right. That nobody should have this. No one on this earth should have this. I mean it's just wrong.
Private planes, Abigail was beginning to realize, are a way for rich people to keep their distance from the rest of the world.
ABIGAIL: What it does is it allows you to never have to walk through a hallway in an airport and go through security and have to sit on a chair next to somebody you don't know while you're waiting for your plane.
And the danger is, when you’re never around other people, other people can start to freak you out -- and that’s what Abigail saw happening to her parents. The choices they were making were the ones she wanted to avoid.
ABIGAIL: The more money you have, the more people want it from you, and it is very difficult not to become a suspicious person. And if you let that suspicion start to really guide your thinking, then you put a wall up in front of your house and a gate with a camera and the massive alarm, and you don't want anyone near you. And when I started my own foundation my mother said, "How do you handle that? People are just gonna be asking you for money." And-
MOLLY: That's the point.
ABIGAIL: Exactly. And it was like she would do anything to keep herself out of that position.
ABIGAIL: She just couldn't stand it. And look, it's the worst reality of my life, I hated that everybody, everybody's asking for something, but I would rather have that downside than to have the downside of the isolation that my parents just imposed on themselves.
MOLLY: As you were coming into your adulthood, your relationship to the money was evolving. How was that affecting your relationship with your parents, do you think? How did that change?
ABIGAIL: I think that my parents had a hard time with the fact that we were all independent so young, and so they had lost control of us. And I think once they realized they didn't have any control over us, they drifted a bit away from us. So, they took less and less of an interest in our lives, and so I heard from them less and I talked to them less.
And frankly, when their drinking had gotten really bad, it really wasn't worth calling them anymore. So, I'd talk to my mother at most maybe once a month. Very often, it was kind of unpleasant. And they couldn't really remember the names of my children and didn't remember their birthdays and didn't really show up for me as a mother.
And when I had my fourth child I was in the hospital for 10 weeks because I hemorrhaged at 24 weeks. I mean, it was terrifying. And my mom showed up about six weeks in and spent an half an hour visiting me and then left on an already scheduled business trip.
So, what happened was I just, I stopped relying on them or thinking of them as anyone to go to for help or anything.
The change hadn’t happened all at once. But she’d watched as something fundamental about her parents had shifted.
ABIGAIL: I think of it as slouching. It's like an existential and moral slouch and it sneaks up on you. You know how when you're trying to sit up straight, it's just like, "When did you start slouching?" "I don't know when it happened."
That's what happened with my dad. And of course the ultimate slouch in his case was leaving my mother for another woman and just presuming that he didn't owe anybody anything.
He just left, he just left. They had their 50th wedding anniversary in September and in March he decided to leave and he moved in this woman. And my mom was just beginning to have Alzheimer's. She was just showing the beginning signs.
MOLLY: Oh God.
ABIGAIL: So, he up and left that behind. And for a year and a half she said, "Where's your dad?" When you'd see him, he never asked how she was.
He could fire anybody who didn't agree with him, and one by one he lost friendships over time. He would just sort of shed them. And I know he was totally lost when he fired my mom, 'cause that's what he did, he fired her. And he was beginning to see that she wasn't gonna be capable of doing the taking care of him that he had assumed would be her job, and in fact the reverse was gonna happen. And he was just not gonna do it.
The way Abigail sees it, he got so used to the power his money gave him over other people, he didn’t feel any obligations to anyone else.
The woman he left Abigail’s mother for was Abigail’s age.
ABIGAIL: She was a young woman that both my parents had known since she was 19 years old, and had helped get through college and and nursed her through broken relationships, one of which was with my older brother.
Molly: Oh my God.
ABIGAIL: Yeah. There comes the Dynasty theme. Middle-income people, poor people do horrible things all the time. This is not totally something you can chalk up to money.
But I do believe money eroded his sensibilities. Money gave him a sense of himself that was so big, and so much bigger and more important than everyone else, that I think maybe another person wouldn't have left if they hadn't been quite so privileged.
Abigail said that she lives in “a constant state of tension” about how to deal with her wealth.
She doesn’t love calling herself a “philanthropist”—she feels like it’s “an off putting word.” But she has a foundation, and she focuses on women who are dealing with issues like incarceration and HIV. Sometimes Abigail calls what she does “strategically losing money.”
At the same time, though, having money has not been all bad.
ABIGAIL: Something I love that money gets me is foie gras. My liver has become foie gras because I really like the food that money buys you. So, I'm very fond of a good bottle of wine, I'm very fond of a very fatty steak. It's not like I haven't enjoyed the shit out of this. And yes, I have given away about $70 million so far in my life, since starting when I was in my 20s. And I'm 59 now, and I don't have any intention of slowing that up.
Coming up after the break… possible future president Stacey Abrams.
Welcome back to The Cut On Tuesdays. On today’s show we’re talking about family money--all the financial baggage we inherit from our parents.
And the next person you’re going to hear from is one of the small handful of politicians capable of making Americans feel excited and hopeful about politics in 2019.
Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in one of the most closely watched races of last year’s midterms: she was competitive as a Democrat in a deep red state, with a powerful effort to turn out new voters. She was also--and I had not realized this until we were working on this episode--the first black woman even nominated for governor by a major party in ANY state.
She only narrowly lost, and she’s become an even bigger deal in the months since then. People have been floating her name as a possible candidate for a senate seat--or maybe a run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Back when she was running for governor, Stacey released a report on her personal finances--and it showed that she had more than $200,000 in debt. We wanted to hear the story behind those $200,000, so Stacey came by the studio to talk.
She started by telling us about growing up in Georgia, as one of six kids. And, just like Abigail Disney’s mom told her daughter they were “upper-upper middle class,” Stacey’s mother had her own careful way of describing her family’s circumstances.
Stacey Abrams: So, my mom referred to our family as the genteel poor. We had no money, but we watched PBS and we read books. They tried to make sure we had what we needed and that was usually not enough.
Stacey Abrams: Mom and dad both worked full-time, but my mother sometimes made less money than the janitor who cleaned the college where she was a librarian. My dad worked full-time but did not have union protections which meant that he didn't get the support he always needed. And so I also watched them work second and third jobs trying to make sure that they were able to meet our financial need
Stacey Abrams: And it didn't always work. Sometimes we had no running water, sometimes the lights got cut off. It was hard.
Molly: Yeah, so how aware of all that were you as a kid growing up?
Stacey Abrams: I was aware of it wasn’t juxtaposed with some greater capacity, because we lived on a street where everyone was in the same boat.
Stacey Abrams: But we went to a school, elementary school, my colleagues had more money. And I remember we would drive through parts of town where my siblings and I would fantasize about being able to live in these nicer houses and on these nicer parts of the city.
Molly: What did the houses look like that you fantasized about living in?
Stacey Abrams: Turns out they weren't that spectacular. We were eight people living in the house that was not designed for eight people. And so usually they had two stories, which to me suggested you could have your own bedroom and that was pretty much enough.
Stacey Abrams: A pool was just crazy talk.
Molly: Yeah, wild, wild fantasy.
Stacey Abrams: Exactly.
Molly: Is there a particular moment you could describe that remember feeling an awareness that things were tight?
Stacey Abrams: Probably the moment that was most acute to me was when I was in the 10th grade. I was in the debate team. And my parents wanted me to join. They knew it required that I travel to Louisiana every Friday because we were the only debate team in our part of the state and so we were part of the Louisiana Forensics League.
Stacey Abrams: Well, that travel was covered, the costs were covered by the school except for meals. And so my mom would give me this $20 bill every week on the Friday before I would leave, and I knew that $20 could pay for lunch for a week for me and my siblings. I knew it could pay for gas. And I made it my mission to never spend that $20.
Stacey Abrams: And so every weekend I would go, I would eat what was ever at the debate tournament itself, but I would never go out with my friends because I would have to spend that $20. And every night, that Sunday when we would get back, I would proudly go in there and give the $20 back to my mom and dad.
Stacey Abrams: But I remember this moment where my mom, she complimented me on returning the money, and I said, "Well, yeah, yeah, I refuse to spend it." And her smile became very sad and she said, "Stacey, we gave it to you because we didn't want you to miss out. I'm proud of you for being thrifty, but I'm sad that you may have missed experiences. That's why we did it, we wanted you to have this."
Molly: Yeah. Did you feel guilty getting that money from them, or what was going through your head?
Stacey Abrams: I did absolutely. In part because I knew what it meant. I knew how excited we would get if somebody found $5 under the couch.
Molly: Did your parents talk explicitly with you about money very often?
Stacey Abrams: They didn't. And I think that was part of the challenge as I grew up. My parents never talked about money as a, "Here's how you do a budget." My parents didn't have a checking account, so I didn't know how to use a check until I got to college.
Stacey Abrams: the first time I had a credit card, I had no parameters for it.
Stacey Abrams: Because I'm also 17, 18 years old and suddenly somebody's giving me unlimited access.
Molly: Imaginary money forever.
Stacey Abrams: Exactly.
Stacey Abrams: I was good at Monopoly. Like, imagine what I can do with a credit card. And so while I wasn't, again, I wasn't a spendthrift, I also didn't have the right frame of mind for understanding what the consequences were.
Molly: Yeah. Well, so let's talk then about what that was like, to first get a credit card and be able to think about money or relate to money in that new way.
Stacey Abrams: It was awesome. My parents could not economically help me with college.
Stacey Abrams: My entire college career, I funded it myself, either through jobs or loans or scholarships. And college is expensive. The things you need to do, but there are also those unexpected pressures. I was at a women's college with some fairly well off people, and there's this tension of wanting to be in and wanting to keep up. I'd never shopped at The Gap. I didn't know what The Limited was. When my friends would go to the mall, I would go with them, and when they would buy things I thought, "Well, I should probably do it too." There's the peer pressure.
Molly: Yeah. Well, and it's like the $20 on the debate travel. Again, like you don't want to miss out-
Stacey Abrams: Exactly.
Molly: If your experience is going to college and making friends.
Stacey Abrams: Exactly, so I didn't buy as much. When I bought a pair of jeans, those jeans were going to last me until my senior year, but I bought jeans that cost more than the jeans we used to get at Sears.
Molly: Yeah, yeah.
Stacey Abrams: Part of it was also recalibrating my sense of what things cost, going from Corn Flakes to Frosted Flakes to, "Oh, my God. These are Fruity Pebbles."
Molly: The really premium cereals, yeah.
Stacey Abrams: Exactly. There were no conversations about how to adjust and how to level up. I figured it out on my own, and sometimes I did it well, and sometimes I did it poorly.
Molly: Do you remember the first non-necessity that you bought yourself?
Stacey Abrams: I bought a TV.
Molly: You bought a TV.
Stacey Abrams: In our family, we had one television. My older sister, her senior year of high school, got the television. That was like someone won the lottery and it wasn't me. I remember Andrea would deign to let me come into her room to watch the television
Molly: Oh, my God.
Stacey Abrams: I love television. Television makes me very happy. When I got to college, I had this roommate who had a TV, and she watched terrible things. I just remember thinking, "Why are you watching that when this is available?"
Molly: When what is available? Okay, so what was your preferred viewing then?
Stacey Abrams: I loved Star Trek. I watched General Hospital. I think she watched CBS soaps and I watched ABC soaps. It was those incredibly important decision when you're in college about television watching. I had this credit card, and I thought, "I'm going to buy myself a TV." It was the biggest expense I'd ever had other than college.
Stacey Abrams: When I finished law school, I had to fill out this form. In order to sit for the Bar exam, you have to fill out a form for financial fitness. It's a moral fitness test, but they look at your finances. I had to list every debt, and I pulled my credit report for the first time. I mean I owed tens of thousands of dollars, mostly because of interest rates. There were a lot of people who were mad at me.
Molly: What did just on a literal level that credit report look like the first time you saw it?
Stacey Abrams: It was really amazing, because I'm looking at what the credit limit was and what I owed, and the fact that I'd been paying for that television for six years. It wasn't that nice a TV. It was good, but it should not have cost that much money.
Stacey Abrams: And like any young person who didn't have a lot of economic background, I hadn't paid every debt. I hadn't paid my bills regularly. I paid when I had it. If my student loan didn't come in on time, then they didn't get paid. They didn't come and take the TV back, so okay.
Molly: It seems like this is working, yeah.
Stacey Abrams: Exactly. I had to clear up every single debt that I had outstanding other than student loans in order to become a lawyer in the state of Georgia.
Stacey still had her student loans to pay off, but she’d taken care of her credit card debt. And after law school and the bar, she became a tax lawyer. She was making $95,000 a year-- enough money to support herself and help her parents out, too.
Then, a few years into her career, Hurricane Katrina hit. At this point, her parents were both working as ministers in Mississippi--and after Katrina, Stacey says their church couldn’t afford to pay a full salary anymore. The right thing to do was obvious to her--she was going to support them, even if it meant taking on more debt.
Stacey Abrams: When Katrina hit, it was around the time that my younger brother was having more troubles with drug abuse, and I had been paying ... I was the primary person who supported his rehab. He'd been in and out of rehab, which is an extraordinarily expensive proposition.
Stacey Abrams: Then after my niece was born and my parents adopted her and she became part of it, there was a period of time where I actually claimed my family as dependents. I was the head of household, because ... I didn't want to do it. In fact, I didn't do it for several years until my accountant looked at me and said, "This is stupid." Then I called my mom and dad, and I said, "Well, mom, my accountant says I should count you as dependents," and I'm like, "I don't want to do it if it's going to be ..." My mother's like, "Why haven't you done this already?"
Molly: Why didn't you want to?
Stacey Abrams: Because it seemed a usurpation of their role. It wasn't a tax write off for me. It was my job. My parents gave me an extraordinary life, and it was my responsibility to do what I could. I was making more money than anyone I knew, so why not?
But even though Stacey was making more money than anyone she knew, that money still wasn't enough to cover everything..She was dealing with the expenses of her brother’s rehab, of her niece’s care, and of her parents’ day-to-day life.
Stacey Abrams: They used my credit cards. I was credit worthy enough that I had a lot of credit available. And I used it. And for a lot of people, that usage collapses in on you.
The credit card debt was mounting, and so was the money she owed in taxes on her small business. Then she got the news that her dad would need cancer treatment. So, like the tax attorney she was, she called the IRS to figure something out.
STACEY: So I went on a payment plan, because I'm not going to lose my father. As I say, I can defer tax payments. I cannot defer saving my dad's life.
STACEY: That then led to me having outstanding tax debt.
Last year, when Stacey was running for governor, she knew that her finances were going to become public. At that point, she owed $50,000 in deferred tax payments, and $170,000 in credit card and student loan debt.
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: You said that some people feel like carrying that debt sort of closes in on you. How did it feel for you personally?
Stacey Abrams: 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.
Stacey Abrams: 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. I was encouraged my people who've known me my whole life, especially my political life, who 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
Trump: I’m the king of debt. I’m great with debt. Nobody knows debt better than me. I’ve made a fortune using debt.
Stacey Abrams: 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 Abrams: 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 debt came, in part, from caring for her family. But her family also gave her a way to think about money that helps her live with that debt.
Molly: What would you say your family has taught you about money?
Stacey Abrams: They taught me that money does not determine the value of a person, and that I couldn't let my value be ascribed based on my debts. And my family taught me I should do anything I can to get good for others and that they will be there with me.
Molly: Yeah. What do you say to people who try to cast debt in a negative light or try to hold the situations you've had against you?
Stacey Abrams: They're wrong. For the millions of people who are doing the very best they can and who still have to struggle, I want them to know that they are right and the others are wrong. It is not a shame to be in debt. It is a shame to let debt crush you and rob you of your sense of humanity.
That’s it for this week’s show… we’ll see you next Tuesday
<<POST OR SOMETHING FUN>>
Molly: Then I have to ask, do you want to run for president?
Stacey Abrams: I want to run for president. The question is whether I want to run now or later.
Molly: Okay. Someday
Stacey Abrams: That is my plan.
Stacey Abrams: Thank you.
Molly: Thank you.
SMV: Seems like it might be now.
Stacey Abrams: I'm thinking about everything.
The Cut on Tuesdays is produced by Sarah McVeigh and Olivia Natt.
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