More to come: The experience of everyday wealth differences

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A guest contributor to The Guardian‘s “What I’m really thinking” column — apparently a female student — writes about the awkwardness of making social plans with friends who have a lot more money than she does:

“I’ll meet you there,” I say. “I’ve got something to do first.” That’s a lie. I just don’t want to take an hour-long taxi with you; the fare for that is outrageous. No, better to take public transport and spend an extra hour and half to save the money.

. . . Make no mistake, I am by no means poor, but by your standards I might as well be. When we go out for dinner, I scream inside at the cost. Often I don’t eat, saying I’ve had something already or I’m not hungry. Some people ask if I’m anorexic, because they never see me eat a proper meal outside school.

Iceberg ahead…and we’re steaming into it, full throttle

Of course, the socially awkward dilemmas confronting a younger person with less disposable cash than her friends are one thing, while deep inequalities in income and wealth are quite another. At least here in the U.S., I believe those inequalities have been, and continue to be, intentionally baked into our economic and political infrastructure. And they are becoming evident across the generations.

For example, here’s a piece of writer Sarah Kendzior’s insightful take on the “post-employment economy” that confronts many recent graduates:

A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.

What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.

On the other end of the generational spectrum, you have late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a cohort that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

My prediction? Without significant changes, we are going to see more and more instances of everyday inequality staring us straight in the face. For some, this will mean quietly bowing out of pricier social activities due to a money crunch. For others, it will mean trying to maintain appearances of “middle class” status while opting for a dinner of macaroni & cheese from a box. And these will be among the folks who actually have “choices.”

I haven’t yet said a word here about climate change.

Saving ourselves from a dystopian future

Yes, I know I’m sounding overwrought. But too many indicators are suggesting that (1) we have yet to pay the full price for our inequalities and excesses, especially during the past thirty-five or so years; and (2) we have not come to a reckoning about the mess we’ve made.

For those who can afford it, there are things that can be done on an individual level: Be generous. Give to good charities. Pick up the check. Leave a nice tip. To help someone dear who is in a financial bind, give, don’t loan, and do it without fanfare. Instead, be grateful that you can afford it. (I try to hold myself to these standards, while confessing that I sometimes fall short.)

More broadly, all of us, regardless of financial status, must grasp how our economic, political, and social systems have stoked massive inequality, nationally and globally, and then help to do something about it. 

I’m not sure of all the answers, but I believe they will be a combination of changing how we live, building a more robust yet inclusive economy, and repairing our social safety net. We will have to be smarter and kinder in creating a society that places greater value on human dignity and the common good.

10 responses

  1. I went to my first food pantry. I, the person who would volunteer to help the needy, now on the other side. I began to calculate how the state and city where I live has to pay for the actions of being bullied out of work by my poorly skilled, unethical boss. I did not dress up or down. I went as is. I stood out. I still look middle class. I am a caucasian American. I said I did not need all the food they had set out- 3 identical piles for the 3 clients who came into the dispensary at a time. The other 2 looked at me strangely and asked if they could take, what I did not want. Sure. I was given some literature on the way out. When I arrived home, I read that I could only go to that pantry two times a month. Oh maybe I should have taken the English muffins and put them in the freezer. I know that Cambridge has 13 food pantries, Worcester has 29 , most cities have 1 or 2, and some have none. The ones run by Jewish agencies seem to have the healthiest food and the most other support services. How did a person who invested in a professional career, paid off Salley Mae within a few years after obtaining my graduate degree, only had one credit card, never had debt, shocked a former boyfriend by having a 9 credit rating, took several vacations a year, studied abroad, purchased my cosmetics at Neimans end up learning about section 8 vouchers. It is like a dream.

    • Your remarks really touched me and brought tears to my eyes because I am experiencing nearly identical circumstances. I, too, am a professional with an advanced degree, worked hard to pay off my student loans, etc. At age 53, I was mobbed out of my 27+ year career government position through no fault of mine. The saving grace for me is I had just paid my mortgage off. Fast forward 3 years, I have spent well over 6 figures in attorney fees in employment litigation as I am able to fit into a few “protected statuses” to alleged discrimination, etc. Disability/health issues and others. I have not even been before a Judge yet. There are many criminal and misconduct issues among those who forced me out of my job. I have gone through all my savings, large credit line I had built, and 401K withdrawals. I have applied for disability retirement and worker’s compensation. Worker’s compensation has issued several denial decisions, which are unsupported. I now find myself needing to apply for food stamps, etc. I will be 56 years of age in a month. Because of health issues, I am not in a position to pick up and move or seek different employment. I was very good at the job I performed for 27+ years, and I performed it well despite health issues. I still cannot wrap my arms around this nightmare or make any sense out of it. No one has been held accountable for criminal and misconduct involved in my case, and the Agency where I was employed is engaged in a massive cover up, and continues to retaliate and try to derail my cases at an unprecedented rate. There are also trying to prevent my benefits claims. Please know you are not alone, my friend.

    • Thanks for your stories. Can relate, though not quite there yet. Went into full-time consulting work and am hustling, but on purpose. “Working poor is the new middle class,” you might say.

    • Tori, I understand.

      I was professionally employed, upper middle class. Like you, I did all the right things. I paid my bills, did all the right things. At age 30, I was declared totally disabled because I had damaged all the nerves in both arms and now had severe, poorly controlled chronic pain. I had to move to a large and very expensive metropolitan area, because I couldn’t get appropriate health care in Upstate NY. I could no longer regularly drive a car. I needed public transportation. New York State has the most corrupt Workers’ Compensation system in the United States. That’s NOT my opinion; that’s from the NYTimes. I had consulted the world’s finest hand surgeon; my pain management doctor only treated extremely difficult patients; was world renowned for his skill as a neuropharmacologist. The other side sent me to a quack who never ever treated someone like me in his entire career (admitted in court) and a corrupt medical school professor at a renowned hospital. My administrative law judge was known to be pro-business, was so angry at what the other side was doing that he bent over backwards writing reserve decisions that were favorable to me. After 12 years of fighting, I was so worn out that I had to settle the case. My settlement was for pennies on the dollar to what my destroyed career was worth.

      I live in public housing. I wish I could take a Section 8 voucher, but I can’t. My well-off, very elderly mother refuses to have an estate plan professionally drawn and that severely limits where I can live. (I grew up in a highly dysfunctional home. My severely personality disordered brother was the Golden Child and I was the scapegoat. It’s a NoLo share and share alike will.) The only thing I have in common with my neighbors is that I don’t have money. My neighbors are white trash. (I’m friendly with the immigrants and the people of color. They hate the white trashy behavior as much as I do.) My landlord only enforces HUD and DHCD rules–and some of those rules are NOT in the lease, but on the HUD web site. Tenants are scared, because there are ‘super secret’ rules the tenants don’t know about and you can get into some serious trouble for violating them. The landlord arbitrarily changes the rules without following the procedures as stated in the operations manual. Certain habitual rules breakers seem to be above the law–and that includes the bully gang–and don’t face any sort of meaningful discipline for openly violating the rules (and town ordinances).

      Those who know me well keep telling me that I’m making the best of an horrendous situation.

      • Hello Anonymous. Your situation sounds terrible. If your family is not helping and your landlord is scary, can you leave?

  2. David,
    Insightful post. Our “entitlement” attitudes have created an incredible monster with climate change, where accountability is lost to profit and poor stewardship to the only planet we have.

  3. I think that it’s sad in our society when we can’t just admit that our finances don’t permit whatever activity is being planned and suggest a more economical one. The reason that people engage in such activities is to enjoy the company of these particular people. Somehow that’s forgotten in some desire to spend money for social events. I remember in college because we had little to no spare money doing things that had no cost for entertainment. We spent time listening to music in the library, walking around the Seattle Center and its’ singing fountain, browsing the public market just for the visual treats and enjoying one another’s company. In addition to those without funds, some may have decided to pay off loans, or credit cards or just save for retirement. I think that spending carefully should not be a social taboo. Any one of us could be those who posted earlier with nothing and dependent on public resources to survive. It takes tremendous strength to figure out how to survive in such situations. I wonder how many who spend large amounts without thinking about it would have that strength?

  4. Thank you, everyone, for sharing your experiences and feedback, here, on Facebook, and via personal messages. I have been struck by how deeply this general topic resonates with people, and I hope that these exchanges will contribute to social change, if even in a small way.

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