How did the United States become a nation of debtors? When did credit cards become popular? Did you know that many modern credit card policies are the creation of one man?
The Secret History of the Credit Card was a 2004 “Frontline” presentation from the Public Broadcasting System. The program examines the nation's use of credit and, more specifically, the methods used by credit card companies to obtain enormous profits. The Secret History of the Credit Card won the 2004-2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism.
PBS has made the entire program freely available online in RealMedia and Windows Media formats. The broadcast is divided into five segments of roughly twelve-minutes each for easier download.
When this program was produced, 145 million Americans carried credit cards. Of these:
- 55 million paid in full every month
- 90 million carried balances
- 35 million paid the minimum required
Of those who carried credit card debt, the average amount owed was $8,000. “It's nice to be able to spend what you don't have,” says man. But the show's panel of citizens didn't really understand how credit cards work. They were ignorant of their credit scores, for example.
The Secret History of the Credit Card provides a brief overview of credit reporting agencies and of the credit scores developed by FairIsaac. The median FICO score is 720 out of 850. Risky customers have scores below 600. Three-quarters of American adults have a credit score. A FICO score often determines how much interest a person will pay — terms usually spelled out in the small-print of the contract. (For more on this subject, see my previous explanation of how credit scores work.)
Credit cards are a relatively recent invention. Until the 1980s, they didn't play a prominent role in American life.