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Fragile Middle Class: There’s No Need to Be Ashamed

When nearly half of us have shaky finances, the nation has a problem

I held my breath reading Neal Gabler’s viral Atlantic story, The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans, which Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg later wrote about. Was it reckless or brave, I wondered, to admit to the world that you could not put your hands on $400 to pay for an emergency?

Never mind that nearly half the country is in the same boat — 47 percent of us to be exact, according to the Federal Reserve Board study that Gabler cites in his article.

I looked at Gabler the way little Mikey’s brothers looked at him in that iconic 1970s Life cereal commercial. Was Gabler going to like the bowl of scrutiny, ridicule, blaming and shaming that was sure to come his way? And just as I expected, America’s smugtocracy was waiting for Gabler (whom I met in April at the Atlantic’s Summit on the Economy) with pitchforks in hand.

Meanness, Judgment and Scorn

Not all the comments about his essay were harsh, of course; many readers acknowledged Gabler’s courage for “coming out.” But from what I read, there was enough meanness, judgment and scorn to send all but the bravest of us back into hiding…including me.

Does it really matter if you can put your hands on $400 for an emergency but would fall off the cliff if you needed $1,500 or $2,000? Are you that much better off?

Recently, I turned down an invitation by a well-known online publication to share my own story of “economic impotence.” (I offered a glimpse into my experience and others’ in my Next Avenue article, Unemployed, 55 and Faking Normal. ) I would not be allowed, according to the editor, to gloss over the details with carefully crafted anecdotes that spared gory specifics. I was going to have to kiss and tell.

I passed.

Upon reflection, as someone 60+ and not a celebrity, I just could not see how talking about my financial woes would possibly benefit me. Gabler, I figured, might get a book deal out of coming clean. My luck would be never to work again.

But this got me thinking about why we’re so judgmental when nearly half of us are facing the same cash crunch as Gabler. I wondered, too, whether some of those who have been lobbing bricks live in glass houses.

After all, the 47 percent who’d have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency means nearly every other one of us: the guy next door, your best friend, your sister.

What We Can’t Afford

It means that tens of millions of us are not shopping beyond basic necessities. We’re keeping that eight-year-old Chevy, taking coffee to work in a Thermos and not buying new clothes, eating out or going on vacation.

Not that belt tightening is necessarily bad. But in our consumer-driven economy, it can’t be a good thing if nearly half of population is pumping the brakes on its spending.

And so what if we’re not talking about you…specifically. Does it really matter if you can put your hands on $400 for an emergency but would fall off the cliff if you needed $1,500 or $2,000? Are you that much better off?

When the average middle-class family in this country has about three weeks of financial reserves, maybe it’s time we stopped blaming and shaming the middle class and looked at the systemic factors that contributed to this crisis. Things like 30+ years of flat or falling wages, disappearing pensions and steeply rising costs in housing, health care and education.

And if that pummeling wasn’t bad enough, in 2008 we were hit by the largest economic downturn in decades.

What’s Up With All the Shaming?

So if tens of millions of us are all in this together, what’s up with the shame and silence? What’s it really getting us?

Our silence means that safety net programs that could help the most vulnerable among us are being shredded across the country because we’re not there to demand that policymakers and institutions prioritize what matters to us.

And whatever you may think of Gabler’s personal financial choices and circumstances, the bottom line is this: Millions who never thought it possible face the risk — and increasingly the reality — of being old and poor in America.

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