Wednesday, April 20, 2016

the secret shame of middle-class americans...,


theatlantic |  In my house, we have learned to live a no-frills existence. We halved our mortgage payments through a loan-modification program. We drive a 1997 Toyota Avalon with 160,000 miles that I got from my father when he died. We haven’t taken a vacation in 10 years. We have no credit cards, only a debit card. We have no retirement savings, because we emptied a small 401(k) to pay for our younger daughter’s wedding. We eat out maybe once every two or three months. Though I was a film critic for many years, I seldom go to the movies now. We shop sales. We forgo house and car repairs until they are absolutely necessary. We count pennies.

I don’t ask for or expect any sympathy. I am responsible for my quagmire—no one else. I didn’t get gulled into overextending myself by unscrupulous credit merchants. Basically, I screwed up, royally. I lived beyond my means, primarily because my means kept dwindling. I didn’t take the actions I should have taken, like selling my house and downsizing, though selling might not have covered what I owed on my mortgage. And let me be clear that I am not crying over my plight. I have it a lot better than many, probably most, Americans—which is my point. Maybe we all screwed up. Maybe the 47 percent of American adults who would have trouble with a $400 emergency should have done things differently and more rationally. Maybe we all lived more grandly than we should have. But I doubt that brushstroke should be applied so broadly. Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all.

If there is any good news, it is that even as wages have stagnated, a lot of things, especially durable goods like TVs and computers, have been getting steadily cheaper. So, by and large, has clothing (though prices have risen modestly in recent years). Housing costs, as measured by the price per square foot of a median-priced and median-sized home, have been stable, even accounting for huge variations from one real-estate market to another. But some things, like health care and higher education, cost more—a lot more. And, of course, these are hardly trivial items. Life happens, and it happens to cost a lot—sometimes more than we can pay.

Yet even that is not the whole story. Life happens, yes, but shit happens, too—those unexpected expenses that are an unavoidable feature of life. Four-hundred-dollar emergencies are not mere hypotheticals, nor are $2,000 emergencies, nor are … well, pick a number. The fact is that emergencies always arise; they are an intrinsic part of our existence. Financial advisers suggest that we save at least 10 to 15 percent of our income for retirement and against such eventualities. But the primary reason many of us can’t save for a rainy day is that we live in an ongoing storm. Every day, it seems, there is some new, unanticipated expense—a stove that won’t light, a car that won’t start, a dog that limps, a faucet that leaks. And those are only the small things. In a survey of American finances published last year by Pew, 60 percent of respondents said they had suffered some sort of “economic shock” in the past 12 months—a drop in income, a hospital visit, the loss of a spouse, a major repair. More than half struggled to make ends meet after their most expensive economic emergency. Even 34 percent of the respondents who made more than $100,000 a year said they felt strain as a result of an economic shock. Again, I know. After the job loss, the co‑op board’s rejections, the tax penalties, there was one more wallop: A publisher with whom I had signed a book contract, and from whom I had received an advance, sued me to have the advance returned after I missed a deadline. (Book deadlines are commonly missed and routinely extended.)

In effect, economics comes down to a great Bruce Eric Kaplan New Yorker cartoon that was captioned: “We thought it was a rough patch, but it turned out to be our life.”