Neal Gabler authored an article for the May 2016 issue of The Atlantic with the cover title, "The Secret Shame of the Middle Class." In a piece that reads part confession, part expose, he describes the hidden plight of the so-called "middle class" in the United States. To wit: most folks trying to attain the U.S. Commerce Department's markers of "middle class"ness--"homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year" (p60)--also cannot afford an unexpected bill of $400-$2,000 without entering an enervating spiral of debt. In other words, most of America's "middle class" teeters on the edge of financial catastrophe.
Mr. Gabler describes his own flirtations with financial disaster, holding himself up as a representative case of this hidden "middle-class" problem. And the pairing of his personal experience with some unhappy statistics certainly suggests a cause of deep concern, perhaps especially during an election year when so many campaigns borrow on the political capital of the "middle class."
The mea culpas of Mr. Gabler invite a certain sympathy from the reader for their clear-eyed candor, even while they indict those peers who may be willfully engaging a similar neglect of financial wisdom. Such honesty is needed and welcome. The trend of honesty throughout the article did, however, make one omission stand out. That omission is set off starkly by a confession of commission:
"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 . . . . 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" (p62).
Feel the momentum of that last sentence: "victims," "irresistible," "since birth." Like an earthquake, lightning strike, or rare form of cancer, that "irresistible American promise" is a force of nature whose attraction relieves us of moral responsibility. Mr. Gabler omits the possibility that just as financial planning and wariness of credit ought to be part of our skill set, so desiring less ought to be part of our lifestyle. Poor financial stewardship does not comprise the full set of economic sin; the full set includes wanting to "have it all."
Mr. Gabler raises good questions about economics, financial practices, and the sustenance of "middle class" life. But especially if, as he hints, the current condition of the "middle class" is not just a "rough patch" but the new nature of our lives, we need to raise questions of the heart: how we define success, how we define needs and wants, how we define "enough." After all, no matter how much money I have, if my definition of "enough" is "a little bit more," I will always live in financial stress and court disaster.
The self-portrait painted in Mr. Gabler's article is agonizing. In its refusal of readers' sympathy it encourages the same, especially since so many seem likely to share its woes. And if the financial difficulties of the "middle class" are as widespread as this article suggests, all the more reason to discover not just an opiate but a cure. So what therapy can be administered for this epidemic ailment? That mysterious whirlwind called "the economy" is beyond my control; so I am left to effect only my own "eco-nomy"--the rule by which my household is run. And my household can be deliberately characterized by craving or by simplicity, by ambition or by gratitude. If, as Mr. Gabler put it, "my means keep dwindling," then I can scale back my life so that I am living within them. Easy? No. Heart-breaking? Perhaps. But if forced to make a choice (which force maybe the most offensive part to rugged self-made Americans), which is worse: Living with lower material expectations or living in the shadow of financial crisis?
If I want and need less, then it is easier to have enough. If I minimize the "all" that I want to have, then "having it all" becomes eminently possible.