No article about Americans’ precarious personal finances was as viral this year as “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” Writing for The Atlantic, movie critic and author Neal Gabler admitted that he was among the 47 percent of Americans who’d have serious trouble paying for a $400 emergency (the stat came from a Federal Reserve Board survey) and that he knew what it was like to be down to his last $5. Gabler, the former host of PBS Sneak Previews, said he didn’t ask for, or expect, any sympathy.
The story generated thousands of comments — some, pretty nasty — and nearly a quarter million social media shares. The middle-class shame was no longer a secret.
So I was glad to recently interview Gabler — a visiting professor in the MFA Creative Writing and Literature Program at the State University of New York, Stony Brook — about the piece.
Who’s to Blame for the Middle Class Shame
Gabler, who’s working on a biography of Ted Kennedy, was just as provocative during the interview as in his original piece. He assigned some blame for Americans’ financial misfortune to credit card companies, vanishing unions and colleges charging steep tuition. He also channeled Bernie Sanders by calling for more equitable wealth distribution.
One theme in so many stories I heard was how they were hit very hard by the cost of their children’s college education. That can empty you out.
— Neil Gabler
“I think the article struck such a nerve because of the term I coined in the piece: ‘financial impotence,’” Gabler told me. “It’s not something people want to talk about, even to their close friends and members of their family.”
It struck a nerve with Umpqua Bank, too. That’s a community bank based in Portland, Ore., which recently had Gabler on its Open Account podcast (over 300,000 downloads to date, just sayin’) talking about the “secret shame.”
Ending the Taboo About Money
Umpqua launched the podcast “to start to take down the taboo of talking about money,” said Eve Callahan, the bank’s executive vice president for corporate communication. “We wanted to say: ‘It’s OK. We all struggle with it. When we read Neal’s article, we were floored and inspired to see how willing he was to be open about this personally.” (You can listen to the podcast at the end of this article.)
A Conversation With Neal Gabler
And with that, here’s an abridged version of my conversation with the very frank Neal Gabler:
Next Avenue: How did The Atlantic story come about?
Neal Gabler: I wasn’t thinking about writing it; I was living it. When I read that survey from the Federal Reserve saying that 47 percent of Americans wouldn’t have $400, it really struck me because I was one of the 47 percent. I had no idea of the extent this was happening to other people in the middle class and upper middle class. So as it began to percolate in my head, I thought perhaps I could be of some service.
I almost never write about myself. I write biographies and essays, but generally not personal essays. I approached [Atlantic editor] Scott Stossel and he said ‘I think it would have tremendous resonance.’ So that’s how it happened.
Were you surprised the story struck such a nerve?
I was a little surprised by that, I have to say… So many people have been experiencing so many of the same things I experienced. And because it’s something people don’t express, I gave them license to do so.
I was ready to share my own story — even to the point of humiliation — and that allowed them to open up. They thought: ‘If this guy who has had a reasonably good career is undergoing this, maybe I can talk about my circumstances, too.’
Why do you think so many Americans are having such a hard time economically and managing their finances?
This is above my pay grade. I’m a cultural historian. But wages have stagnated for a very long time. And the death of unions contributed to it. We’ve also moved to a service economy, where wages are likely to be lower.
And life is more expensive! Particularly for health care and education. One theme in so many stories I heard from people who wrote to me after the article was how they were hit very hard by the cost of their children’s college education. That can empty you out.
People shared stories about how they lost jobs in the recession — successful executives, teachers, nurses — and they were never able to recover. I got a lot of that.
Another factor is not so much dollars and cents as psychological. I know I suffered from it, so I can speak to it directly. We live in a ‘success or failure’ society and that’s more true than it’s ever been. Today, we really feel if we haven’t been successful financially, we’ve somehow failed. And that it’s on us. We bear the full responsibility. That’s a change, I think.
How much blame do you put on yourself and how much do you think that others having trouble managing their money should put on themselves?
Absolutely, I do place blame on myself. I manage money terribly and I think a lot of Americans do. Very few people manage money well.
There are many forces that try to convince us to manage money terribly, including the credit industry… They benefit from us being financially irresponsible because they do well when we’re not paying our credit card balances in full. They sometimes charge an egregiously high interest rate of 20 percent and make a fortune off of you.
Also, the financial illiteracy rate in the United States is extremely high.
There’s an awful lot of responsibility to go around.
My wife and I started putting money into a 401(k), even though we were living paycheck to paycheck. Financial advisers say you should save at least 10 percent of your income. As if!
Sometimes, the only thing you can do is rob from your 401(k). I had to do that. There was a brief period where we made very little and then our younger daughter got married. It wasn’t an extravagant wedding by any stretch. It was very frugal and I had to clear out what little money we had just so I could pay for a portion of it.
You took some heat from some people who read the article.
Some people took out after my daughter in the comments section. But she was very responsible. This is a troll culture; they feel a license to be mean to people.
Some people were extremely angry at me after reading the article. They said; ‘Why didn’t you put money aside and manage it better?’
How?!! We live as frugal as can live. We don’t go out to movies, we haven’t been on vacation in at least 10 years. What little money there is goes to pay for emergencies.
Life is really expensive and wages don’t keep pace. That’s the bottom line.
What could be done to change things?
All sorts of things. A reinvigoration of unions, which could lead to higher wages. We have companies making tremendous profits and not sharing with their employees.
And we have to redistribute income in the country, when the vast majority of the gains go to the top 1 percent. You cannot function as a country this way.
Do you plan to write a follow-up article?
No, I don’t plan to. But I am looking for a place for a companion piece about how we’re treated as workers these days. There’s no respect in America today for ordinary employees.
Companies take the greatest pride in how they fire employees and how quickly they do it. If you want to raise the stock price of a company, the first thing you do is lay off 20,000 workers. Wall Street loves to see the pain of ordinary people. We’ve got to stop that.
What advice would you offer people who are scared they couldn’t handle a financial emergency or who feel they are drowning financially?
I’d be the last person to ask for advice. I work all the time and lately, things have been good for me. My fear is I’ll be back in a fallow period again. But you can’t get any more frugal than I am.
My only advice: Keep thinking where you can squeeze the next penny, not by tightening your belt, but by attracting money.
And never stop working. That’s the advice I follow seven days a week. I work all the time.
There was a famous movie scene [in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang] where Paul Muni is asked, ‘How do you live?’ And he says: “I steal.” So how do I live? I work!