99 Portraits Across America
by Brittany M. Powell
with a foreword by Astra Taylor
West Margin Press, 2020. 216 pages.
Review written October 29, 2021, from a library book
Wow. This book is simply photographs of 99 Americans from all over the country, sitting in their living space. Accompanying each portrait is a copy of a handwritten page by the subject talking about their debt.
Readers, there’s so, so much debt.
At first I was surprised how many people listed mortgages — I think of that as good debt, because a home equity loan allowed me to pay off $39,000 of credit cards. And my home now would sell for considerably more than what I paid for it. But of course a mortgage is indeed debt. Some of the people featured lost homes in hurricane Katrina or their home lost value in the recession, so they owe more than what it’s worth.
Many, many people were in debt after divorce, which was the source of my own credit card debt. But by far the most common source of large debts was student loans. Many of the portraits here were of young people with staggering amounts of debt they incurred in order to get an education. Many had debt from medical bills. Many are unemployed and have no idea how they’ll pay it all off.
Altogether, it’s a sobering set of portraits. Some of the subjects admit to making poor choices, but for many it was a matter of survival. Taken together, these stories show staggering debt is a common problem in America today.
I would have appreciated this book even more when I had the credit card debt. (And I was only able to buy the home that saved me from it because my dad gave me the down payment. On my own, the amount of debt continued to rise.) At least by looking at this book, you know you’re not alone.
It also brings home the point that this is a societal problem. So many young people are beginning their adult lives with crippling debt. Shouldn’t there be a better way to launch young adults? Shouldn’t there be a better way for older adults to get a new start with a graduate degree? This book left me asking those questions.
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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.
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