The dirty little secret of people who are broke: They’re broke

When the Federal Reserve issued a report a month or so ago that nearly half of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 if they had to, we count ourselves among the people who questioned how that could be? We’re talking middle class Americans who should be able to put aside $10 a week for a year.

Neal Gabler, a pretty successful writer, admitted as much in an April article in The Atlantic when he copped to being broke most of the time. Why? Because he’s financially illiterate, he said.

He appeared on PBS NewsHour last evening. It’s his fault, he acknowledges. But maybe things could be better, he said, if we — especially men — were willing to talk about their financial struggles.

Brian the butcher is my friend. He’s a wonderful, easy guy to talk to.

And gradually, over time, we would start getting our financial situation, very, very rare, particularly among men. And I remember one day especially, this was one of those periods where I didn’t have the $400 — and, unfortunately, they come all too frequently.

And he said, I’m going to tell you something. He said, I am in the same situation. I have got this expense and that expense. If anybody tells you that they’re sailing through, they’re lying.

A lot of people aren’t going to feel sorry for Gabler, or a lot of people like him.

But here’s the thing: Gabler acknowledges that one reason for his predicament is that he “followed his bliss.” He became a writer.

It’s a question that grads and their parents face every year around this time. Should we try to make a living at what we love? Or should we just concentrate on making a living?

A musician on the PBS story on Gabler offers a common perspective.

I’ve struggled a LOT with this article since I first read it. As a musician, I have lived his life. But I always -knew- I was likely going to suffer in retirement for indulging my ‘bliss’. I took care of my kids, paid my taxes. Only -I- will ‘suffer’ for my career choice. I could argue that society ‘should’ value the arts more, but it doesn’t. Fine..

I don’t blame Mr. Gabler. I think he is simply laying out his situation. I don’t think he’s whining or asking for sympathy. I think he was surprised that so many people are in his state and he’s bringing it out in the open so we can discuss it.

It’s like Global Warming or immigration. People may not believe in it. Or think it’s somehow ‘wrong’, but it is what it is. And we -will- have to deal with it. There will be too many boomers in dire straits to just say, ‘screw em all for being irresponsible.’

I will say this…

My generation was taught… and taught our kids the whole Joseph Campbell deal: “Follow your bliss.” Well, Joe… wherever you are… YOU WERE WRONG. It doesn’t work. It only worked for your generation in that one brief post WWII golden age when society had the dough to indulge that, My dad (who always thought it was irresponsible) was correct. It’s irresponsible. Dad? I was wrong. 😀

Was he?

Another commenter suggests a societal culprit.

Unmentioned was the fact that our society is rigged against anyone who wants to pursue a career that results in periodic unemployment; unlike most European countries, we have virtually no safety net. Medical care is mostly still tied to a job instead of guaranteed as a minimum level of support for everyone. Instead of criticizing Mr. Gabler for his choice to become an author we ought to be examining the fact that we live in a society where any one of us could be unemployed tomorrow and facing difficult choices. Thinking that rugged individualism can result in security is an illusion. And health care in America is a disgrace: people with health insurance go bankrupt with embarrassing frequency. The whole point in buying health insurance is to put in a small amount of money into a pool so that you will have money to pay for your own care when you get sick. The biggest pool is everyone, so why don’t we get smart and either get universal health care or else regulate insurers so they don’t get hugely rich by collecting premiums and then refusing to pay for necessary care?

Mr. Gabler correctly points out that our society can’t decide whether it wants to be a society or not, and that the destruction of the middle class has left many among us with marginal means. Our unwillingness to address these problems will create many more and cause tremendous harm to our society. In my own lifetime we have gone from having families with one person in the workforce to both parents having to work and even then barely getting by. CEO’s in one year make enough money for several lifetimes while their employees barely get by. Unions have been destroyed along with the manufacturing sector, so it’s no longer possible for someone with a high school education to have a good job. On top of that, many people are contract employees, with no real tie to their employer, no benefits, no health insurance, and many of those are living just like Mr. Gabler. We need to pull together for the good of us all.

“Following passion comes at a price,” another commenter said.

The discussion reminds me of one I had in Ely several years ago when I was doing the NewsCut on campus series. At Vermilion Community College I met people who wanted to be outdoorspeople, bison farmers, ecologists, and wastewater treatment plant operators. That was their passion.

After my interviews, I met with the English Composition class. There, Carlie stood up and said she wanted to be an artist, but her family had convinced her there’s no money in it. So she had switched to the wilderness program at Vermilion. I have no idea if there’s good money in the wilderness nor whether Carlie has ever reconciled the two. In fact, I don’t know whatever happened to most of the people I met, so I choose to think that when their working days are over, they won’t regret the choice they made on how to spend the only life they’re going to have.

Related: The Middle Class Is Doing Okay: No Need for Gloom and Doom (National Review)