Thursday, May 19, 2016
For the May issue of the Atlantic Neal Gabler, a writer, university lecturer, and erstwhile movie reviewer, wrote The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans, a piece about how he has struggled with his finances in silence due both to his family’s personal choices and the declining standard of living for middle-class Americans. This is an interesting piece, more for what it says about the author than the people with whom he’s trying to equate himself.
Gabler’s tale is another reiteration of Aesop’s fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, padded with statistics for more effect. The problem with this piece is that Gabler wrote it, and he’s hardly the spokesperson for the down and out in America. Even if he’s shedding light on a real trend, his motivation is to gain sympathy for himself while placing himself over the unwashed in the social hierarchy.
The fact is, it is hard out there for many, many Americans these days. The statistics Gabler cites are true. The standard of living for lower income, working class and middle class Americans has definitely gone down in the past decades. While the cost of items we’ve grown to think of as non-negotiable - like housing, education, and healthcare - has sharply risen. Many more people are living on the edge of bankruptcy. As the article points out, 47 percent of respondents to one survey said that they would have to borrow or sell something to come up with $400 to pay for an emergency expense or would not be able to come up with it at all.
$400 is not that much money. There are so many things that cost at least $400 to repair or replace. This winter my refrigerator died, my washing machine died, and my laptop more or less collapsed. Each of these problems cost at least $400 to resolve. A car repair, an unexpected tax bill, or a medical emergency will easily run up into that kind of money as well, and most of us are vulnerable to those kinds of issues since we drive, pay taxes, and have bodies that break down.
The bump in prosperity the United States experienced in the middle of the twentieth century got people out of the habit of behaving in the kinds of pragmatic, cooperative, and self-denying ways that our ancestors had to live in order to survive, as well. And, unlike previous generations, the Boomers haven’t saved much and are looking winter straight in the face at this point. It’s coming.
Gabler, however, seems to have managed to either purchase or achieve most of his life goals. As a writer, he works a job of his choice in a financially unpredictable field, getting paid sporadically rather than steadily. He lived in New York City, a very expensive part of the country. His wife quit her job and stayed home with their two daughters when they were younger. They purchased a house in the Hamptons before they sold off their co-op apartment in NYC. They sent their daughters to private school and then chose to use savings and an inheritance to send them to Stanford, Harvard Medical School, Emory, and the University of Texas. (The UT degree was a master’s in social work, so the ROI on that investment will be calculated in negative numbers.) They also paid for one daughter’s wedding.
Essentially Gabler had caviar taste on a tuna budget. He wanted certain things for himself and his family - a career as a writer/professor, posh schools, owning property in a high status zip code - and he got them. He mentions them all in this article so that we know that, while he doesn’t have any money, he is still not among the great unwashed and uneducated. He chose to invest in the finer things because he has taste and refinement. This money wasn’t blown on a drug habit, cruises to the Bahamas, or an unhealthy obsession with cars.
The problem is, he still couldn’t afford these things and have a retirement that’s something other than a lead slug. And it’s retirement time.
Historically, Americans didn’t make these types of choices because they didn’t have the option. Easy credit wasn’t available, so people could spend only until they ran out of money. As a result they didn’t get all new carpeting in their condo. Instead they made their own rag rugs and called it good enough. People didn’t have designer weddings. They got married by a minister in the living room of their parents’ home, and they sat down to a homemade dinner afterward. My great-grandmother insisted that all of her children go to college because it was the only way she could see them not following in her own path of subsistence farming/seasonal work in the pickle factory. All of them did a year at County Normal and then went off to work. It was an entry level option into a better paid field instead of status signalling to everyone she knew how smart they - and, by extension, she - were.
It’s okay to be proud of the intelligence and accomplishments of your kids. It’s fine to invest your money in them. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to live in a safe area with good schools or to work a job that’s better suited for your temperament than sales, accounting, or customer service. The problem is, you can’t make those decisions when you don’t have the money to pay for them and then lump yourself in with Americans who sell their plasma to pay bills because they can’t find any work that pays over $12 an hour. There are quite a lot of those people living in America today, and they don’t feel solidarity with guys who send their daughter to Harvard Med.
Neither do I.