The Shaming Of The Middle Class
The Federal Reserve has found that 47 per cent of middle-class Americans are no longer able to come up with $400 in an emergency.
Recently, I asked the readers of my blog to consider helping me purchase a new black and white monochrome camera, it cost $3,000 and I did not have that much money in the bank. I promised, as always, to share the photographs. Within three days, several hundred people send me contributions via Paypal and my Post Office Box, most of them in small denominations – from $5 to $25.
I bought the camera. I am very glad I asked for help, and most grateful people thought me worthy of it.
People sent many beautiful messages, most thanking me for giving them the chance to help and for sharing the photos with them. There were also five or six outraged messages from people chastising me for asking for donations to buy a camera, and suggesting I was lazy and irresponsible. One sent me a dollar bill and the message "take a good hard look at who you are screwing, jackass!"
I have the dollar bill taped to my keyboard.
These few people were seeking to shame me, not a hard thing to do to someone who has worked hard all of his life and never needed or wished to ask anyone else for money. Our culture has promoted the idea that people who struggle financially are somehow to blame, much like my father told me I was to blame for wetting my bed so long. Show some character, he said, wake yourself up.
I do not accept those accusations or labels, but beyond that, there was this very powerful realization on my part that the reasons so many people sent me so much money so quickly were varied. But one of the most poignant was that almost all of them were in the same situation.
It was not that I was screwing them, but that they had been screwed.
They were happy to send me small amounts of money, it was healing for them as well as me. They knew.
They understood what it meant to be pressured financially. I am coming to understand that almost everyone I know understands what it means to feel this great American shame, like me, most of them hide it. This used to be the struggle of the few, it is now the struggle of the many.
This idea was profoundly reinforced this weekend when I read a piece in the Atlantic (thanks Veronica) Magazine by Neal Gabler, a brilliant author whose works I have been reading for some years, including highly acclaimed and best-selling biographies of Walt Disney, Walter Winchell and the Jews who invented Hollywood.
People often tell me the are amazed that "someone like you" could possibly have had financial struggle, let alone bankruptcy. They all saw me as very successful, I was a best-selling author, often on TV giving interviews. And they are right, I was successful. I am successful.
That's what I felt when I read Gabler's piece. Him? Really? By now, I know that almost everyone I know is experiencing financial struggle and its attendant stress. We are all just reluctant to talk about it, there are a lot of jerks out there eager to jeer and laugh.
In 2013, wrote Gabler, the Federal Reserve Board conducted a survey to monitor the financial status of American consumers. The answer to one question, overlooked by almost all of the media, was astonishing. "The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 per cent of respondents said they either would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?'
Well, wrote Gabler: "I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 per cent."
This shocked me, not only because Gabler is a highly successful, even famous author, but because I knew also. I have also been in that 47 per cent many times these last few years.
I knew what it is like to have people calling me on the phone, even coming to my house to demand money. I know what it is like to juggle bills, to swallow my pride, to ask for time, or even, to ask for money. I know what is like to have $200 in the bank that has to last two weeks, including food, fuel and medicine. I know what it is like to ask the pharmacy to sell me insulin pens two or three at a time, because I couldn't afford the insurance deductibles that money. Or to ask my nurse for samples to hold me over. Or to go without the medicines I was told I needed after my open heart surgery.
I know what it is like to watch my wife shudder or making these Solomon like decisions over who will get paid this month, and who will not. I so wished she could have been spared. I think every day of the good people who gave us time to recover from our bankruptcy – we were caught in the real estate crunch, we lost just about everything avoiding foreclosure. Who waited patiently until we could pay them back for what we owed.
People who get divorced late in life understand this. People whose work changed radically during the recession understand this. People caught with real estate that was supposed to be their most reliable investment understand this. Now, it seems most Americans are beginning to understand this.
Some people do not understand this.
I am ashamed not that this happened to me, but that I have not written about it more.
If Neal Gabler can write about it, I will stand with him and do him the honor and service of writing about this too.
The good people who sent me money help me continue my art and passion while I use these tools to work hard to pay off all of our debts and recover financially – we are getting there, we will get there. I am blessed with a new publisher and some wonderful people who support me completely and without reservation. Lots of them are people I have never met, but they know what Neal Gabler knows also, I can see it in their messages and the crumpled $10 and $20 bills they sent me for my camera. They know too.
Like Gabler, I appear prosperous, some people even think I am famous. I've written 29 books, taught at universities, been a fellow at Yale University, been interviewed hundreds of times all over the country. I did not speak about my financial struggles until the worst was over, and I was careful to present them in the past tense. But they will not be over for some time, and I am one of the lucky ones. I am still earning money, still writing books, still in the public eye through the blog I love so much. I will recover, my wife and I are determined and very much together.
We will get to a better place, we already are.
We have resources, experiences, contacts and gifts. We will get there.
I will also never forget the experience of financial struggle. I will never look at the poor the same way, let alone the middle class. I am moved by the fact that half of the middle class people in the country are now experiencing the same thing. If you ever sit at home and wonder why so many angry and wounded people flock so passionately to the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, just read Neal Gabler's piece and you will understand why.
It seems the corporate media is now far too corrupted to get out of their studios in Washington and New York and speak to real people. No one seemed to grasp it or try to face it. I have worked hard and paid taxes all of my life, and it did seem that the system had abandoned me. I refuse to live in anger and self-pity, I am responsible for me. But it is an emotional and branding experience. I will be marked by it for life.
This is happening to graduate students, holders of PhD's, those who are retiring, those who are starting out, to skilled workers and middle-aged executives. The poor already know what this is, it is new to many of us.
I have not had $400 for an emergency more than two or three months for some time. I am now used to pleading for payment, demanding detailed estimates for even the smallest of work, letting urgent repairs slide by, learning how to buy inexpensive foods that can get us through some weeks.
Gabler reports that a 2014 Bankrate survey, echoing the data of the Federal Reserve, found that only 38 per cent of Americans could cover a $1,000 emergency-room visit or a $500 car repair with their savings. The Pew Charitable Trust has found that 55 per cent of households didn't have enough liquid savings to replace a months' worth of lost income, and of the 56 per cent of people who said they'd worried about their finances in the previous year, 71 per cent were concerned about having enough money to cover their daily expenses.
I can only grasp how fortunate I am. Maria and I are creatives, it is our work that will get us through and help us to survive and recover and become more secure. I have a book coming out next year and another in the works. I have hope and options. I have no desire to retire, no way to do it if I did.
Maria is selling everything she makes in her magical Schoolhouse Studio. We are confident and committed, our love reaffirmed, not strained, by our struggles.
My new camera will help me recover, will draw people to my blog, share my animals and my work. People have begun to pay me for my work online, and I believe my publisher will pay me for my books. In this vein, I am going to New York City next weekend to take three of my good lenses and one camera body to B &H Photo to trade and haggle for the money to buy a new 35 mm lens for the camera so many of you helped me buy.
I will never give up on my zeal.
This will leave me with two cameras, one for digital color, one for black and white and several good lenses. How can you part with them, Maria asked me? Because I will have enough, I said, and because we can't have everything we want. I am no deadbeat, I have worked hard every day of my adult life and before. I did not spend my way into trouble, I was nearly swept away by some sudden and savage storms, one after another.
I am a writer, and I will write my way back or go down trying. I worry about how so many others will climb back. I hope at least one of these politicians promising to help means it. I am grateful to Neal Gabler for giving me the strength to write about this again. My writing and my creativity is my survival, my security, my insurance and my future. Maria's art will never fail here. That is why I will even swallow my pride to keep creating.
Gabler wrote that financial impotence has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not the least of which is the desperate need to mask it. There is, of course, a shame that comes from needing money, and a shame that comes from asking for money. Pride is a poison pill sometimes. But the humility and compassion and empathy that follows the loss of pride – and the goodness of people – is nothing but a gift.
When I wrote about our bankruptcy on the blog, it was healing and liberating. I got an overwhelming and supportive response, and the most surprising part of it was that so many people understood precisely what it was I was feeling. Because they had felt it.
They knew. That makes their generosity – and mine – all the more profound. I will continue to use my work, my blog and my books for good, the real debt I have to re-pay is to the many wonderful people who are helping me get to shore. And I will do this with the currency that I do have – the best work that I can do.