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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

What Honey Boo Boo's Family Can Teach America about Smart Saving Behavior

Published:  January 9, 2013

Last Friday, I mentioned Justin Bieber's new prepaid card in the weekly news round up. This week, reality TV star Honey Boo Boo (Alana Thompson) is making headlines with news that her family has set up trust funds for their show earnings. TIME posted a piece yesterday with the snarky headline: Honey Boo Boo's Mom is Actually Doing Something Smart with Her Reality Show Money. (I know that sometimes journalists don't write their own headlines, but someone wrote this one.) The headline supposes that we should be surprised that a historically low-income family from rural Georgia would ever do something "smart" with an influx of cash. In fact, the way the headline frames the article sets us up not to explore the savings strategies this family is using, but instead to have a little "fun" at the expense of poor people. Not only are the assumptions that went into that headline wildly classist in nature, they also happen to be flat out wrong.

There's a myth (apparently all too common) that poor people can't save. Actually, they can and do. Decades of research from the asset building field (check out this 2011 Urban Institute paper for a sampling) show that while certainly a lower income can make saving harder, many individuals and families overcome low levels of earnings to put money away for a rainy day. Particularly when they have a support structure in place in the form of safe financial products, a community organization providing free tax preparation coupled with financial coaching, or access to matched-savings programs, lower-income people can be very successful at building a personal safety net.

So now that we've cleared that up, let's tackle the other issue here that the TIME piece didn't focus on: how the Shannon-Thompson family is actually taking advantage of an incredibly effective mechanism for saving: make it automatic. As TMZ reports from an interview with the family, the money made from each episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is diverted automatically into five identical trust fund accounts for each of the family's daughters. The family continues to subsist on the father's income and the trust funds aren't available to the girls until they turn 21, except for school or a medical emergency. As the family matriarch says: "I want my kids to look back and say, 'Mama played it smart.'"

I'm genuinely not sure why any of this is so funny or worthy of ridicule.

As any personal finance blogger will be happy to tell you, setting up automatic deductions from your paycheck is an excellent way to build your savings. As Jean Chatzky of the Today Show puts it, "It's easier to make a good decision one time and have it happen automatically than to make the same good decision over and over again." That's the same guiding principle behind programs like AutoSave, which is a pilot to test the feasibility of workplace savings for lower-income workers.

Here we have a family doing something higher-income families do all the time: putting assets into special accounts to ensure a secure future for their children. But Honey Boo Boo's family faces mockery for doing the same thing. Entrenched (and incorrect) class-based stereotypes about the financial decisions poor people are capable of making shouldn't guide news coverage of this family. I'd like to see news publications adhere to a higher standard of ethics here: making fun of a family who has lived in poverty and now has an incredible opportunity to help their children achieve long-term financial stability is tacky at best and downright offensive at worst. For what it's worth, I'd much rather see a story highlighting the financial needs, challenges, and successes of people living in rural America: maybe we could all learn a thing or two.

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