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The quiet desperation of the middle class

Tuesday, Apr 26, 2016 - Posted by Rich Miller

* This Neal Gabler piece in the Atlantic entitled “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” made me physically ill. Gabler documented how the middle class has little to no financial cushion and the resulting shame it causes

Since 2013, the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.

I know what it is like to have to juggle creditors to make it through a week. I know what it is like to have to swallow my pride and constantly dun people to pay me so that I can pay others. I know what it is like to have liens slapped on me and to have my bank account levied by creditors. I know what it is like to be down to my last $5—literally—while I wait for a paycheck to arrive, and I know what it is like to subsist for days on a diet of eggs. I know what it is like to dread going to the mailbox, because there will always be new bills to pay but seldom a check with which to pay them. I know what it is like to have to tell my daughter that I didn’t know if I would be able to pay for her wedding; it all depended on whether something good happened. And I know what it is like to have to borrow money from my adult daughters because my wife and I ran out of heating oil.

You wouldn’t know any of that to look at me. I like to think I appear reasonably prosperous. Nor would you know it to look at my résumé. I have had a passably good career as a writer—five books, hundreds of articles published, a number of awards and fellowships, and a small (very small) but respectable reputation. You wouldn’t even know it to look at my tax return. I am nowhere near rich, but I have typically made a solid middle- or even, at times, upper-middle-class income, which is about all a writer can expect, even a writer who also teaches and lectures and writes television scripts, as I do. And you certainly wouldn’t know it to talk to me, because the last thing I would ever do—until now—is admit to financial insecurity or, as I think of it, “financial impotence,” because it has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not least of which is the desperate need to mask it and pretend everything is going swimmingly. In truth, it may be more embarrassing than sexual impotence. “You are more likely to hear from your buddy that he is on Viagra than that he has credit-card problems,” says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist who teaches at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and ministers to individuals with financial issues. “Much more likely.” America is a country, as Donald Trump has reminded us, of winners and losers, alphas and weaklings. To struggle financially is a source of shame, a daily humiliation—even a form of social suicide. Silence is the only protection.

* While it’s not an exact or even particularly close match, I’ve been in much the same financial and mental place many times in my life (perhaps more recently than you might think). My friends and family have been there and many are there right now. Many of us know what it’s like to be afraid to go to the mailbox. Heck, I still have a phobia about it to this day and I do pretty well right now. I absolutely hate going to the mailbox, even when I know checks are sitting there.

Anyway, sorry for the whiny TMI. I could, of course, easily afford a $400 emergency. I’m not at all the issue here, but Gabler’s piece truly had a profound impact on me and I wanted to share it with you. So, go read the whole thing.

* Related…

* Americans weigh in on financial shame

* Being an adjunct college professor can be awful


  1. - titan - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:06 am:

    If someone has had a relatively consistent (and uninterrupted) middle to upper middle class income for an extended period of time, shouldn’t he or she have a reasonable cushion of savings? Way back in the day, the advice was to highly prioritize building up a “rainy day” or emergency fund equal to 6 months salary. It takes a fair amount of discipline to live below your means long enough to do that, but it seems to me that it would still be prudent (maybe even more important than it was several decades ago).

  2. - Formerly Known as Frenchie M - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:08 am:

    I suspect 30,000+ AFSCME members feel the same way.

  3. - Dome Gnome - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:09 am:

    While the shame might be in secret, voting patterns reflect the outward expression of this shame. This explains why we’re, in essence, running a four-party national primary.

  4. - Sir Reel - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:09 am:

    This is likely contributing to the voter anger we’re seeing. Unfortunately, none of the candidates’ solutions will do much. Lots of promises but no solutions.

  5. - Ghost - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:10 am:

    whats unfortunate is there is more money in the us economy today the. in the 1950s. the problem is wealth is accumulating at the top and being pulled from the middle. this is why the Govenors plan to kill unions and cut wages for middle class workers is part of the problem. a man with 9 houses who hired a 30k a month consiltant wants to cut wages of the kiddle class and reduce the min wage for trades workers.

    we can keep taking miney from the middle and pushing it to the ultra wealthy, the exonomy will collapse. look at minesota. higher wages and taxes are making a boon. when workers have money they spend it and the exonomy does well. Rauner wont even buy a new car, so when the wealthy get miney the park it and the economy stagnates.

  6. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:11 am:

    Higher taxes when a budget is reached, are going to cause the cash strapped middle class to think twice about staying in the welfare state of Illinois!

  7. - LizPhairTax - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:14 am:


    Lots of factors but don’t forget that most people start below 0 thanks to student loans. No whining but it is a factor. A lot of rainy day funds go to servicers every month and even at low subsidized interest rates and tax advantages they still bleed you monthly.

  8. - Honeybear - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:15 am:

    This one made me cry. I couldn’t even really read it. This one is close. And I’m not even in that 47%. We could handle the 400$ but it doesn’t mean we aren’t real close. I’ve had a cracked windshield for over a year. The family computer in the kitchen no longer gets Chrome updates because it’s too old.

    Okay, okay, right there. I can’t take a 100 percent increase in my health insurance premiums as proposed by Rauners Last,Best,and Final contract offer. If he imposes that on us, then I’m in the 47%. I am crying because I am a great parent, I have a great marriage, I’ve done great things with my life, I’ve gotten a really great education, and yet every day I DO CARRY THIS FINANCIAL SHAME.

    NOW DO PEOPLE GET IT? This is what Rauner is doing to good people in our state who serve our state. THIS! READ THE ARTICLE!

  9. - Coach - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:16 am:

    Amen well said!

  10. - Louis G. Atsaves - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:16 am:

    I’m an Atlantic subscriber and finished this article last night. Most of my middle class clientele in Workers’ Comp now struggle like the lower middle class or working class clientele I represent.

    In spite of that, the article still blew me away. It reaffirmed many of my perceptions of what is really going on out there.

  11. - Thoughts Matter - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:17 am:

    This person probably pays entire cost of health insurance. He probably lives in the Northeast since he mentions heating oil, which can be very costly. Housing is probably not cheap either. His income may be irregular since he’s not getting paid the same time every month. Property taxes and health care might be double or triple what they used to be, look at the retirees that can’t afford to live in their paid off homes.

  12. - siriusly - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:18 am:

    Titan - the answer is yes families “should” have that cushion but the really strange trend that is described in this study is that wealthier / middle class families are spending a much higher proportion of their incomes than ever before - and saving next to nothing.

    It’s not that the middle class doesn’t have good incomes, but their rates of debt and spending are so much higher than ever before. People are not saving a dime.

  13. - Homer J. Quinn - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:18 am:

    anonymous, we only want higher taxes on bruce and his friends.

  14. - Cassandra - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:22 am:

    In the freelance or gig economy, increasing numbers of workers work for themselves and their income, while sufficient, may be erratic. I have observed relatives working in this way, and it takes a lot of discipline to set up for yourself what Human Resources does for employees of companies and government offices-deductions for state and federal taxes, retirement benefits, health insurance and so on. It’s all on you, and the temptation is to put it off. One of my relatives did, and it took a nasty bite from IRS and a direct intervention (from me, to organize his finances) to get it all resolved.

  15. - Rich Miller - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:23 am:

    ===shouldn’t he or she have a reasonable cushion of savings?===

    Spoken like a true state employee with a pension. Get out of your own head every now and then.

  16. - Sick & Tired - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:24 am:

    I can easily weather an emergency thanks to some serious financial discipline and sound advice I’ve come across throughout the years, however because I grew up poor, experienced the effects of The Great Recession and have over $55k in federal student loan debt, I’ll likely never feel financially secure for the long term considering I can’t afford a retirement savings. It makes no sense to invest or start a Roth IRA for as long as I have debt since I’ll likely be losing money in the long run if I don’t pay down the high-interest debt first. My retirement plan? Don’t live in poverty and hope I die before then.


  17. - wordslinger - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:25 am:

    Until about the mid-1970s, income tracked with increases in productivity.

    Since then, productivity has continued to climb the ladder but all benefits have accrued to capital, not labor.

    Some of you younger folks might not know it, but in your daily job it’s likely that you are performing many functions that used to be shared among three of four other people. The PC and communications revolutions have sent productivity off the charts in many formerly labor-intensive industries.

    Unless there’s a Luddite uprising, that certainly is going to continue. The trick is what to do about it, to keep people working at a living wage with the opportunity for social mobility in something other than shuffling papers in finance.

    There’s a lot of literature out there on the subject, but this is a good start and tracks the divergence between income and productivity.

  18. - Name Withheld - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:27 am:

    Financial moderation is not something that you see talked about - and it’s not something encouraged in this age of consumption. Many of the industries we rely upon - like the technology sector and online stores like Amazon - are predicated upon the need for people to spend money regularly.

    I think this in part is why you’ve seen a rise of some financial professionals like Dave Ramsay - those who say you should live without any credit cards and pay cash (or cash-equivalent with a debit (not credit) card).

    That said - the expense of higher education is why you see so many people with student loans, and why, commensurately, those people can’t start saving until later in life. Community college is way cheaper, but doesn’t carry the prestige of a full university.

    I’m not justifying things by a long shot, but there is a mindset of consumption that makes financial moderation or conservatism a different thing to implement.

  19. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:27 am:

    I know lots of people in that exact situation.

    Ironically, one of them has been recovering since taking a state job but that is now threatened by the lack of the AFSCME contract.

    My son & family live it every day. If it wasn’t for the Mrs & I, they wouldn’t have a roof over their heads. If it wasn’t for food stamps they would be hungry all the time. If it wasn’t for Medicaid, they would have no health care. And my son was happy last night that he might end up with 70 hours over this 2 week period from his “full time” job.

    Because of the above, I’m carrying 2 mortgages on 2 houses instead of being out of debt with just one house. And there are places I could cut spending if I needed too; a lot of people don’t have that luxury. Like Rich, I’m doing OK but it’s a balancing act right now.

    So yes, I understand EXACTLY where the author is coming from. Been there, done that, and the t-shirt is a rag these days.

  20. - illinois manufacturer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:27 am:

    What is this middle class you speak of? The Fed went looking?Are they beginning to doubt their strategy of bailing out bankster and propping up stock markets? The elites are stunned people hate their stupid trade deals and vote for Trump or Sanders.

  21. - Former Hoosier - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:28 am:

    Titan, My family and I live a very comfortable life, but that is not the case for everyone in my community. At Christmas we sponsor local families who are unable to provide necessities for their children. Recently I asked the social worker at our township (yes, there are some communities who rely on and value township services!) how best I could help. She described how difficult it is for mom’s to use the food pantry and not be able to give their children anything “extra”…like a box of cereal (think Coo Coo Puffs).

    Who are these families who don’t “have a reasonable cushion of savings?” They have dads who lost their jobs and can’t find another, they are single moms making minimum wage or working multiple jobs. I bet if you look around your own community, you would be surprised how many families like this you would find.

  22. - Gruntled University Employee - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:32 am:

    I’ve been a millionaire and I’ve been millions in debt, I clawed my way out of that hole back to even and got out of the game. I had a very successful, albeit short, career working for someone else until an injury destroyed that, back to broke again. I had to reinvent myself once again and I’m doing well now. My story is less about how good I am and more about how lucky I’ve been. Lucky that I “knew” people when I needed it most. Lucky that I had a trade that rewarded hard work. And lucky that when I needed an opportunity the most, it always happened by. That’s why I will never understand the “I got mine because I’m STRONG and you have nothing because you’re WEAK” mentality. I’m no stronger than most of my friends and family who aren’t as well off, just luckier.

  23. - illinifan - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:34 am:

    The challenge for many people is also being at the financial edge of an economic group when there is a large range of income for that group. When I use the CNN calculators for the area where I live a middle class income is considered from $50000 to $150000 a year. When tax policies are established you may be lumped in this broad income range, but a policy may do more harm to a $50,000 a year person than the high end of the range person. It is not always more debt that hurts people. I look at people in poverty. They have to live in areas where rents are lower so they pay more money for groceries as they have fewer options. They can’t afford lower interest rates due to bad credit ratings, or they pay to get checks cashed since they are too poor to afford a checking account. A middle class family has to take on more debt to help pay for a child’s education as they are not “poor” enough to qualify for needs based loans. They may have to pay higher shares of medical costs. If I have middle income with a $6000 deductible, it is harder for me to pay this if I earn $60,000 a year than if I earn $160,000 a year.

  24. - @MisterJayEm - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:34 am:

    If someone has had a relatively consistent (and uninterrupted) middle to upper middle class income for an extended period of time, shouldn’t he or she have a reasonable cushion of savings? Way back in the day, the advice was to highly prioritize building up a “rainy day” or emergency fund equal to 6 months salary. It takes a fair amount of discipline to live below your means long enough to do that, but it seems to me that it would still be prudent (maybe even more important than it was several decades ago).

    Great advice.

    But now that you’ve saved $200, you learn that your sister needs to get her car fixed or she’ll lose her job. Bye-bye savings!

    Or you learn that your mom was laid-off and needs rent money or she’s out on the street. Bye-bye savings!

    Or that your niece’s purse was stolen along with her phone and IDs. Bye-bye savings!

    Or… well, maybe you get the idea.

    The unrecognized truth is that many of the people who would need to borrow $400 when they’re in trouble, are the same people lending the $400 when their heads are above water. Or even when they’re just not as far below water as a family member or neighbor.

    It’s hard for even the most disciplined folks to build a nest egg when their friends and family — 47% of Americans — regularly face ruin.

    – MrJM

  25. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:36 am:

    == I bet if you look around your own community, you would be surprised how many families like this you would find. ==

    Not surprised because they aren’t hard to find; I’d bet at least a third of our church members fall into the 47%. A few are known and the church, collectively. manages to help them a bit. What’s really amazing is how generous the struggling middle class can be to those even less fortunate.

  26. - IllinoisBoi - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:37 am:

    Yea, but what about really important stuff, like transgendered people’s bathroom choices?

  27. - West Sider - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:38 am:

    Thanks, Rich. Like you, I am on the upswing, but I wasn’t that long ago. May I add that that kind of insecurity is transformational. Many of us remember parents or grandparents who never got over the Depression and were as a result hoarders or miserly.
    But I find that in my own case, that I tend to buy things I probably don’t need, because they’re “such a bargain”.
    If you look at our national politics, I think economic stress has made most Americans crazy.

  28. - Commander Norton - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:39 am:

    Well, I’m a state employee who is currently slated to receive a pension when I retire (yes, I’m phrasing that one carefully), and I know the feeling. I know the shame. It’s not just about “financial discipline” and saving. Student loans are a factor for many young people, even those who are able to get good jobs right out of the gate. The ACA has helped a lot, but health insurance premiums and other health care expenses are still shockingly high - especially if you or a family member go through a medical emergency or have a chronic health condition. If you have kids, there are simply more things you’re expected to pay for now - and I’m not talking about things your kid wants in order to keep up with the “cool kids”; I’m talking about what’s now considered the bare minimum so you’re not neglecting them (e.g., a cell phone so they can give you a call when they need picked up, camps so they’re not left home alone in the summer or after school… often there’s more pressure from other adults concerned that your kids are unsafe than from your kids’ own peers). Now that smaller families are more common, if you have a larger family, the costs are that much higher. If you’ve been through a life crisis such as a divorce, the death of a spouse or perhaps the extended illness of a parent who didn’t have much in the way of savings, that’s another factor. I do think it would help to ditch the stigma around financial struggle and actually talk about this stuff.

  29. - Name Withheld - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:40 am:

    ===Yea, but what about really important stuff, like transgendered people’s bathroom choices?===

    Problems are problems, regardless of whether its financial or identity. Discussing one doesn’t mean the other isn’t significant.

  30. - Cassandra - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:43 am:

    And what will be the effects of robots and AI, among other changes advancing on us as we speak. Will these changes result in the disappearance of work for millions. And not just manufacturing work either. Not to get all doomsday, but will a robot take your job? Maybe. It’s not that crazy.

  31. - illinois manufacturer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:43 am:

    The BUT had a front page story on how the I bet rich have created their own world and economy …neo feudalism perhaps.

  32. - illinois manufacturer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:44 am:

    But no spell check New York Times. Sorry about that

  33. - Honeybear - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:46 am:

    Siriusly, I can’t speak for others but it is not the case in my family. My spouse has every penny accounted for on 11 years of Quicken. We are on an austerity budget that would please Angela Merkel! No everything costs so so much more. Planned obsolescence forces the repurchase of goods that once you could repair. Raising kids in this era is insanely expensive. Mortgages, insurance, transportation, costs, fees, you name it. No the world has changed entirely in one generation. I am GenX by the way. So no, I know that if my family is struggling with all our advantages, education, privilege, and even discipline, then others are really suffering.

  34. - Crispy - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:47 am:

    Titan: Another thing that kills that nest egg is medical debt. Just one hospitalization can wipe it out–even if you’re fortunate enough to have good insurance and “only” have to pay 20 percent after the deductible.

  35. - Precinct Captain - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:47 am:

    How many $400 dollar emergencies has our governor caused with his reckless disregard for the social services infrastructure in this state?

  36. - Terry Salad - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:48 am:

    I do OK, but I have several family members who are one emergency expense away from total disaster. It is not that they made poor choices. They live modestly. They worked for years in good jobs, but they still got laid off. They are 50 years old and nobody is hiring people that age. Now all financial cushion is gone and they cannot pay to get retrained for jobs that may or may not be down the line. The stress is enormous and the shame is undeserved but nonetheless there. This is why people are angry.

  37. - Name Withheld - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:50 am:

    Cassandra - that’s a very reasonable concern. Look at the number of restaurants that have deployed tablet kiosks at tables for people to order food, pay their bill, and engage other services. If those were to become mandatory, you would only need a server to bring your food. Automate that process with a Roomba-like device that knows your table location and can bring your food, and you really only need cooks.

  38. - Lucky Pierre - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:51 am:

    Biggest reason for the rise of Trump and Sanders is the economic uncertainty the vast majority of America has had over the past decade. Economic growth has been weak but better than the rest of the world. Without true reform I fear this will get way worse when the baby boomers retire. Almost all of these people referenced are in even worse shape for retirement.

  39. - Federalist - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:52 am:

    Automation and technology advances have really changed the work landscape requiring fewer people to do more complex tasks whether it is in the office or on the concrete floor.

    We are no longer the only one left standing after
    WWII with an infrastructure and industrial capacity.

    For many jobs the unions are pretty much gone and much of this, not all, relates to my second comment above. The elimination of those unions jobs has really driven wages down, down.

    American companies increasing export jobs overseas or to Mexico.

    Meanwhile, the amount of even legal immigration in the last 50 years has brought huge numbers of disproportionately poor people to this country. A ‘good’ study supply of cheap workers for all kinds of lower skilled jobs whether it be gardeners, meat packer workers, WalMart employers, factories- well the list is almost endless.

    It does not get better down the road because all of the above factors are still in place and even seem to be escalating.

  40. - Anon - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:53 am:

    While there is definitely a need for jobs and employment opportunities for people who have all but given up looking, a lot of the people like the one he describes in this article live right next door and you have no idea.

    Why? Because our culture encourages debt. ALL. THE. TIME. Try to watch a half-hour tv show without seeing a credit card commercial. Check out college campuses where vultures sucker financially immature/inexperienced students into the debt spiral before they even have a real job.

    But much of it is based on some form of trying to “keep up with the Joneses” while most don’t realize the Joneses are mortgaged up to their eyeballs and are living way above their means.

    It takes real discipline to not succumb to the constant pressure to buy things “you deserve”. The marketing of debt is downright disgusting, but it works. Sure there are constantly challenges with family or friends or others who need help or a health scare or the water heater goes out or there’s a hole in the roof. But we could be a lot better prepared if we didn’t spend on things we want but don’t truly need - cable tv, lunches out, a new or newer car with a payment for six years, the newest iPhone or iPad with a monthly contract… you could go on forever.

    While there are surely those that will take all they can from you, it’s our responsibility to plan our financial future and do everything possible to stick to the plan no matter how crazy it might seem to the friend who wants to get drinks after work or the couple that wants to have dinner at the nice, new restaurant that we can’t really afford right now. More often than not, our financial messes our no one’s fault but our own.

  41. - Honeybear - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:54 am:

    RNUG I have to believe that your karma is awesome. Thank you for supporting the next generation financially. Seriously bless you. You made a choice. We were never supported by our parents during our crisis. We were actually shamed and felt unwelcomed at family events. So I want to say thank you for your children.

  42. - Downstate - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:55 am:

    Great item, Rich.
    A large, local non-profit gave a very small bonus to their employees as a “thank you” for their hard work. They had employees that were weeping with gratitude, because the bonus allowed them to purchase a front door for their house. (They’d been using a piece of plywood.)

  43. - Bogey Golfer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:55 am:

    A couple of observations:
    1. After Siskel and Ebert left for commercial TV, the Author and Michael Medved were the co-hosts of Sneak Previews on PBS.
    2. While many of us get paid regularly and have our taxes, insurance and pension contributions automatically deducted, the author gets paid sporatically and his SOLELY responsible for all his finances. A friend of mine is in the insurance business and gets paid twice a year. You can tell when it is month 5 and he is between checks.

  44. - Fusion - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:56 am:

    Our society churns out bright, wonderful young people drowning in enormous college debt with extreme efficiency. This casts a huge pall over the beginning of their careers. As they get older, and maybe even feel a tiny bit of job security, maybe they want to get married, have kids and buy a house. This results in more debt plus more debt plus more debt.

    It’s crazy, but our society - for millions and millions of Americans - has been running like this for so long, we don’t have a clue how to get off the hamster wheel.

    Now, if Sanders wins the presidency and gets a Wall Street Tax imposed, then free college - and the resulting freedom from college debt - could become a reality, and help young people get off to a good, debt-free start to their careers. Of course, they’ll still need mortgages if they settle down and buy a home. But it’s much better to just pay a mortgage rather than a mortgage plus student loans.

    And before everyone screams “free college is impossible!” at the top of their lungs, it’s a reality in some other countries. If other countries can do it, so can we. And yes, I realize all of this may be highly offensive to all of the Social Darwinism aficionados out there.

    While I’m fully aware that we live in one of the greatest countries in the history of the world, it’s time to stop pretending that our system is always so superior to the rest of the planet all of the time. Maybe we could learn a lesson from others. And “learning from others” isn’t weakness and it isn’t being a traitor. Learning from others is something that rational adults do when they want to make improvements.

    And some improvements need to be made.

  45. - Streator Curmudgeon - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:58 am:

    Like most big problems, this one is complicated.

    Saving money is painful. I know. You have to deny yourself many things other people are enjoying, like new cars, a beautiful home, stylish clothes, exotic vacations. You feel that your sacrifice is forcing you to miss out on life, which in a sense it is.

    The middle class can no longer make money with investments. Since the crash of 2008, the stock market and mutual funds have been flat. CD interest rates are insulting; they haven’t been this low in decades. We don’t have the option of offshore tax shelters, as the rich do.

    The rich are getting richer at the Middle Class’ expense. While Caterpillar is laying off hourly employees, its CEO recently got a 4.5% raise, to over $17 million a year. The statistics are true. The 1% are doing great.

    Health insurance premiums are eating us alive. Say what you will about socialized medicine, it’s not driving many people into bankruptcy.

    Washington doesn’t care. Our tone-deaf House and Senate members are doing very well. PACs and corporate donors are paying them to maintain the status quo. After they leave office, they get jobs as highly-paid lobbyists, sit on boards, and get very comfortable pensions. They can’t relate.

    Because money is power in the U.S., don’t look for this situation to change.

  46. - Federalist - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:00 am:

    I have long observed the plight of the adjunct Professor. With very few exceptions they are the academic equivalent of human cannon fodder on the battle field. I have been around academia a long time and it has always been this way. Same goes for part timers at Jr. Colleges.

    The only reason to be one is in the slim hope that you might eventually get a permanent position and that rarely happens.

    And they are unlikely to get a full time equivalency at the Adjunct status so they can make ends meet. Universities want more ‘flexibility’, do not want give recognition as to the reality that these could be full time jobs and now with ObamaCare certainly find it lest costly to hire them part time and not have to pay into that system.

    Not going to get better and with the way universities are going these days it may well get worse.

  47. - illinois manufacturer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:01 am:

    Couple of books Kurt Vonnegut Player Piano. Robert Gordon of Northwestern Rise and Fall of American Growth

  48. - Jack Stephens - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:01 am:

    Great piece, I read it.

    I’d like to add I believe the irrational emphasis on increasing shareholder value, vs the satisfaction of the end customer is becoming the downfall of our economic system. If you dont believe me, look at the recent news about the Chicago Tribune.

    You treat your customer right, your value goes up.

    I hope we return someday to enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

  49. - Anonymouth - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:01 am:

    Things cost more. People spend more. With the advancement of technology, there are plenty of new things to buy. At the end of the day, however, there is one big factor that I have to believe plays more significant of a role in the financial shame of Americans than any other - the demise of the pension as the primary retirement vehicle for middle class America.

    My grandparents both got pensions from their employers for blue collar work. They even saved a little bit of money in case there was an emergency. At the end of the day thought, they could always rely on that pension. 401(k) plans have been an abject failure for the middle class. The great recession wiped out years of retirement savings. People are angry at State/County/Municipal employees because these employees get pensions and they have to pay taxes that help fund them. This anger is misguided. People shouldn’t be questioning why other people receive pensions. They should be questioning why their employer doesn’t provide one.

  50. - Slippin' Jimmy - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:03 am:

    Peggy Noonan had a recent column that closely relates to this Atlantic piece, I think. Lots of anger in many places.

  51. - StateWorker - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:04 am:

    I am a state worker with a pension but I don’t have a ‘comfortable cushion’ and I know exactly how the author of this piece, and Honeybear, feel. It is a struggle all the time, and there seems to be no end in sight. I have a small, very, savings account, but I also have a mortgage and personal debt. I have never had the luxury of not living paycheck to paycheck. This article really puts life in perspective for many, many of us…it’s why we freak out every time anyone mentions raising our insurance rates…we live this life and unless you do you can’t possibly understand the constant sense of fear that you are one step away from financial disaster.

  52. - titan - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:09 am:

    To all - I was not criticizing people who’ve hit a bad patch in life. I’ve had my own (where my cushion got more than wiped out, and I had to rely on family to get me through). I’ve helped other family through their rough spots.

    That is precisely why it is prudent to build up some financial cushion - to help weather the inevitable rough patches (your own, and those of the people close to you).

  53. - lake county democrat - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:10 am:

    Technical disruption is real. The negative effect of porous borders on working class wages is real. That’s why we’re in such a historically long economic recovery and yet wages have stayed flat.

    I think Universal Basic Income is the wave of the future - guarantee everyone a basic standard of living and then some of these issues become less pressing (and UBI is more efficient than targetted welfare and middle class assistance programs). But the moment isn’t here yet.

  54. - Tequila Mockingbird - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:11 am:

    I can relate to that. While I don’t feel shame, I am a self employed small business owner in a dying small town (pop12k). I had a cushion until I got hit with a devastating health problem at age 52 misdiagnosed and mistreated to the loss of over $20k out of pocket. I pay for my own health insurance with a high deductible premium which costs more per month than my mortgage on a nice house that is worth less every day in the current local market. Feels more like victim than shame.

  55. - A guy - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:16 am:

    Absolutely relate-able. Especially in the last few years. I get ribbed for the chat about walking precincts, but if you do, you’ve encountered a lot of this. I scanned the comments, so forgive me if I’m repeating, but a big factor here is also Senior care for parents and grandparents who are living a lot longer than they once did.

    They used to fear not being healthy. Today, they’re wracked with more guilt over being healthy and running out of money. Thus, some reliance on their children. This often occurs before those middle-aged parent/children are finished paying for their own children’s education, weddings, etc. It’s a vicious catch.

  56. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:17 am:

    I had a sizeable student loan debt at the time (admittedly less than typically incurred now). I have mostly had a steady moderate income. I have saved more than a respectable amount as I am nearing retirement. What I don’t have is a history of consumption like most of the people I see around me. I don’t live in a large, luxurious home. I don’t eat out most meals. I lived for many years without a car and still use public transit while I hold on to an old car. I don’t own a fancy tv with a whopping monthly entertainment bill. I shop the sales rack for clothes … I feel sorry for those who have been set back by job loss or medical bills but otherwise it really is unreasonable expectations of consumption which is the underlying problem.

  57. - Trolling Troll - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:17 am:

    Caterpillar CEO lays off 10,000 workers last year and gets a 17.5 million dollar paycheck.

    State workers want fair health care costs and are vilified.

    Nice world we are leaving for our kids.

  58. - Zonker - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:20 am:

    Fusion, there are plenty of college options that result in very little debt. There are Junior colleges covering just about every part of Illinois that only cost a few thousand dollars per year, and you can work to make a big dent in that cost. After two years, there ARE low cost colleges to get degrees with which you can make a decent living in STEM and business curricula. I now a substantial numbers of truly great professionals that graduated from Chicago Circle, for example. The problem is that too many students make poor choices in education without regard to the financial side. EG, degrees in psychology, humanities, and sociology rarely pay off unless you’ve got some clout and get on the civil service route. If you get a degree in Art History from Northwestern with $200,000 in debt and can’t find a job that’ll even pay the interest, well, let’s just say your high priced education failed you where common sense would have succeeded..

  59. - illinois manufacturer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:23 am:

    Wait isn’t Tequila one of Those small business who will suffer under Lou Lang tax plan ….on never mind. Tequila just make sure you dump your Chamber membership. I did.

  60. - cdog - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:25 am:

    The economy in which we live is not kind to those who lack number skills, navigation skills, self-control, and luck. I see this first hand, daily. As American capital moves even farther towards automation, etc., and away from human capital, it may get worse. (Had to look up Luddite) Don’t use self-check outs! Use humans!

    My family is blessed in that we are very “gamey,” love numbers, see savings as “FU” money allowing for massive pivots in life, and have very compassionate souls.

    We have had periods of struggle but it all works out; we are happy to be on the right side of the grass, we attempt to be joyful in our suffering (Paul).

    Maybe most importantly, we are most happy with cheap things like birds, flowers, cats, dogs, spinach smoothies, walking, a sunset, a view, etc.– Reasonable pleasures of the five senses (think Ecclesiastes).

    My heart aches for those that struggle and just don’t have the skills to navigate this 21st century situation. In my day job, I provide a net for some of the most challenged, of course always using teaching moments to greatest effect.

    My summer reading is going to be Capital in the 21st Century, Pikety. The middle class IS in big trouble not only from within, but from the outside too.

    I am going on way too long here, but I appreciate the opportunity to say these things.

  61. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:25 am:

    The reason Trump and Sanders are doing so well is because of this middle class angst. Some, hopefully more in the future, have realized that there is a safety net for those in poverty. The wealthy pay less than they could in taxes and don’t have to worry. So the middle class is the cash cow for the programs of the poor and the tax subsidies of the rich. I am angered that with every election there is talk of “middle class tax relief” as if that would or even could ever happen! Where would the money come from if middle class workers got tax relief? The poor? Certainly not the rich! I hope more people will understand that poor need programs to help. Rich need tax subsidies. Middle class needs jobs so they can pay taxes to support and hold up both ends.

  62. - Shemp - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:29 am:

    “We’ve been so busy keepin’ up with the Jones
    Four car garage and we’re still building on”

    What used to be luxuries we now see as necessities.

    I catch myself being guilty of this all too often to my own detriment. Nobody to blame but me if it comes back to bite.

  63. - Stuff Happens - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:30 am:

    I keep telling my wife that once the medical reimbursements come back from insurance it’ll be OK.

    Unfortunately, we’re paying credit card interest rates to carry it until the state reimburses us, so the longer that takes the more it’ll cost.

  64. - Dread Pirate Roberts - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:42 am:

    You can’t get blood from a turnip. You can’t save money, if you don’t have any extra money to save. My paychecks are often gone seconds after they are deposited cash them - entire last check of the month goes to rent. First check of the month goes to bills - including a $360 student loan bill. I have an advanced degree and the second I stepped out of college, I was strapped with thousands of college debt. This is the story of my generation and to be told, “you should save money”, is so frustrating. If only it were that simple.

  65. - Lucky Pierre - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:43 am:

    Streator since 2008 the Dow is not flat. Plenty of middle class people’s savings have recovered. Unfortunately many have not been able to save because of flat wages, decline in many home prices and higher expenses for just about everything

    The Dow now 17,991 up from a low in February of 2009 of 7,062.

    What I can’t figure out is why the pension funds have not recovered more.

  66. - Levi MetroEast - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:44 am:

    Besides contemplating the meaning of the universe and the mortality of everyone I love, my debt and lack of savings cause me more sleepless nights and sick stomachs than anything. I’m 35, I’ve been out of law school 10 years next month, and yet my husband and I have a quarter of a million dollars in student debt–law at Indiana for me and urban planning at UIC for him. There’s no house, there’s one car, there are no other assets to speak of. Every month, $1191.46 comes right off the top of our take-home pay. Every month. And it will increase this fall when the Department of Education refigures what our payments should be. Student debt isn’t just a whiny 20-something problem. When my parents were my age back in 1985, they had two college degrees, a four-acre farm and three-bedroom house they owned outright, two cars, two kids, and no debt. That life seems so far out of reach for us that I don’t even allow myself to think about it.

    The poor and infirm need our help, and it is part of my faith and my politics to see that they’re taken care of. But the middle-class and healthy need help, too, because most of us are just one cancer diagnosis, one car wreck, one new baby on the way, one layoff away from financial ruin.

  67. - Dread Pirate Roberts - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:47 am:

    Levi MetroEast -
    I’m in the exact same boat. I’m 36. I went back to law school in 2008, right before the market crashed, and graduated in 2011.

  68. - illinois manufacturer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:47 am:

    Actually the rich are paing the most taxes and they are great at legal and other tax shows how far down the middle class has gone. The NBER did a study on partnership and scorp returns. It seems most of the cash is coming from mysterious financial entities with the money going to the very rich at low tax rates. I suspect we would see some of that if we had the complete tax returns of a well known Illinois pol

  69. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:49 am:

    - Anonymouth @ 11:01 am:

    Very well stated.

  70. - Anon - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:50 am:

    Aside from personal responsibility for everything from our spending habits to our education choices, I wonder when our half-century (or older) overall education mindset will be tossed on its head? We still educate students from high school on up in the basically the same structure we did in the 1950s even though we live in a vastly different domestic and global economy. Students are told get on a specific road to college in order to get high-priced degrees in whatever they’re interested in so they can make more - even though there may be absolutely NO demand for professionals of any kind (much less highly educated ones) in that interest that doesn’t even qualify as a “field.” We have been reading student debt horror stories for at least a decade or two now.

    Longing for the good ol’ days of career factory manufacturing jobs or pensions from a completely different economy does us no good solving today’s problems. It’s like doing medical research on dinosaurs. Adapt or die. I think we all can see which track we’re on as a society…

  71. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:52 am:

    Levi MetroEast–

    And it is also a fact that college tuition and expenses have exploded since the time your parents (and me) went to college. When I think of the cost of my tuition at U of I in the 70’s—-my part time job in the summer could’ve covered a lot of that expense. Now? Who in their right mind would imagine that an 18 year old could earn 20K in some part time or summer job? The middle class dream of provinding your children the same education you had is what is keeping many from having any savings for themselves. Couple that with helping out your declining parents and many if not most are really stretched. But these are the people that our governor thinks are paid way too much.

  72. - Levi MetroEast - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:53 am:

    Dread Pirate Roberts
    I feel you. Hang in there. I’ll tell you “It Gets Better,” because that’s what I have to keep believing myself.

    You’re definitely on the right track. If I’m ever fortunate enough to have kids, I will tell them absolutely to follow a European model and take a gap year. Travel the world cheaply, decide who you are and what you like, meet lots of different types of people, and gather experiences that will make you more marketable and more aware of the world’s realities. Then go to college if you like, armed with that knowledge and experience. But not before.

  73. - illinois manufacturer - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:54 am:

    Central state teamsters are about to lose half their pensions. Congress have the ok Sanders voted no.Pension funds have done well thanks to the Fed but it’s hard to catch up when the state skipped its payment. Unlike the teamsters the contract is with he state not the funds.

  74. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:55 am:

    == What I can’t figure out is why the pension funds have not recovered more. ==

    Because there was a missing bunch of capitol to the tune of about $11B today so that portion couldn’t recover … it was never there in the first place.

  75. - Nixon_Head - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:58 am:

    I think this problem is very real, but it’s only half of the problem. Living in California, the land where practically everything is bought on credit, you get an obvious glimpse of the other half of the problem. Wages are stagnant, but a lot of American’s haven’t adjusted their lifestyle in proportion to wage decreases/stagnation. Example: Auto dealers out here are more interested in financing BMW’s, Acura’s, etc. with 8-year loans than a Honda Civic with the what-used-to-be-standard 5-year loan. Problem 1: Net-worth is stagnant. Problem 2: Credit is easy to get, which adds to problem 1.

  76. - Belle - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:03 pm:

    I know way too many people who are struggling, too many people on consulting assignments instead of having full time employment, etc. I’m close to retirement age so most of my friends are also in that age group but I live in a young and trendy area so I interact with a large spectrum of people.

    There has been a tremendous amount of manipulation by the wealthy to kill the so-called Golden Goose or Middle Class.Some people wanted it all and they are getting most of it.

    The past 14 years or so have been rough for many of many of us. Mr Belle and I do okay but we watch what we spend compared to the 80 and 90’s when we spent far more than today—it’s not just our age. Retailers would be far better off if we felt confident in the economy.

    Congrats to the 1% and 5% or whatever is the cut-off point when you don’t feel nervous about spending. I can understand voters who feel that Trump or Bernie is going to save them but I doubt that they are the answer.

    Like one of the previous commenters, I’m glad I didn’t have kids since I would feel like a jerk leaving this mess to them. I feel like the US is on a down-ward tend financially and cannot see that changing soon. It doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power, there is an attitude of the wealthy always win.

  77. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:03 pm:

    == Central state teamsters are about to lose half their pensions. ==

    My dad’s (construction trades) union pension was enough to keep paying his union dues to keep getting his pension. Luckily, he also had Social Security, but not a lot because he had to retire / disability about age 60.

    Mom was on the original state pension system and worked until she maxed it out at 44 years and 9 months because she had to. Her pension was all that kept them in their home.

  78. - crazybleedingheart - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:06 pm:

    == Since then, productivity has continued to climb the ladder but all benefits have accrued to capital, not labor.

    Some of you younger folks might not know it, but in your daily job it’s likely that you are performing many functions that used to be shared among three of four other people. The PC and communications revolutions have sent productivity off the charts in many formerly labor-intensive industries. ==


    The robots could have brought us 30-hour workweeks, a vibrant safety net, WPA-style infrastructure projects to keep people productively engaged, and enough personal time to come up with better ideas, be better people, be more civic-minded.

    Instead, regular people string together multiple crummy jobs and fake it out of desperation. Sit out of the workforce. Pacify their exhaustion and isolation with mindless consumption.

    Meanwhile, the winners are in the Panama Papers and/or the governor’s office and/or in the counting-house counting out their money.

  79. - jeffinginchicago - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:07 pm:

    So if I cant afford the $400 emergency how am I going to afford Rahm’s property tax hike and the income tax hike needed to balance the state budget? The answer should be obvious to everyone. 50+ family income down 30% since 2008.

  80. - lake county democrat - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:10 pm:

    Following up on Crazybleedingheart:

    The Atlantic also ran an article about robots and jobs (cover story IIRC) a few years ago that started with a remarkable fact. Up until about a decade ago, the % of GDP going to labor wages had been so stable that some economists thought it was a constant, like a law of economics. Then it started dropping. (The article attributes this to advances in technology).

  81. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:19 pm:


    Pretty much why that millionaire tax passed so overwhelmingly last election. You can’t get blood out of the turnip but the golden fountain won’t give up a drop. Since the wealthy control what happens, even if an election tells them what the people want, you’re not gonna get any relief from those who are able to pay more without even noticing some is missing. Because they need more.

  82. - Nony - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:28 pm:

    I make very little. I have relatives that make much more than me but also live paycheck to paycheck, but that because they spend wildly beyond their means. So id need to see this writer’s expenses before I start to feel sorry for him.

  83. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:33 pm:

    There are people who do spend foolishly, but for the most part, unless you want to forgo a new pair of shoes for 15 years, most people, especially those raising children who need things as they grow, have noticed sharp increases in the cost of living. Admittedly, if you never leave the house and grow your own veggies, raise your own chickens, you can live relatively cheaply. So, enough with the judgment of spending habits. That middle class folks are struggling is not a new revelation.

  84. - Jimmy H - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:36 pm:

    - Anonymouth - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:01 am:
    “People shouldn’t be questioning why other people receive pensions. They should be questioning why their employer doesn’t provide one.“


    The very rich like Rauner are very adept at “divide and conquer” villainization.

  85. - Honeybear - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:37 pm:

    LeviMetroeast- so right there with you.

  86. - Levi MetroEast - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:41 pm:

    What’s your situation?

  87. - Keyser Soze - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 12:54 pm:

    This topic has sure struck a chord. I have worked in the private sector for several decades and I cannot recall a period of such economic malaise. Most workers have gone for years with little or no financial advancement. Economists report that the Great Recession has ended. Really?

  88. - Can't Sleep At Night - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 1:04 pm:

    So, long-timer union state worker here, and the entire family has been living in fear since Rauner’s rise to power. I could retire now, I guess, but we’re only treading water on the full-time salary I bring in, and we’ve got extended family to feed and try to help through school. Our savings accounts are small; you can’t get a useful interest rate on savings any more, and unlike the state, I spend some of the income on infrastructure improvements to maintain the usability and re-sale value of my home. Nothing is gold-plated, but the roof doesn’t leak. The car is old, but it runs. We don’t miss a meal, but we don’t see beef on the table too often. We don’t take vacations. The kids all work one or two part-time jobs to contribute to the home and [ay for school. That said, we’re living check to check and only about one, maybe two missed checks away from financial disaster. Rauner has counted on the fear this creates to try and break the union, to make members despair and outright quit. And I hate him for what he’s putting us through. “A “cooling off” period, indeed: one where I burn thru every cent I own and spiral into bankruptcy, probably lose my home, so he can win an ideological point.

    Frankly, I don’t know what’s a smarter strategy for me now: go ahead and retire early, and take a known smaller monthly check as a retiree, hoping none of my benefits will get reduced… and it’s not going to be enough to make all the bills, but it’s not a zero amount - or keep working but then have to manage thru an indeterminate lock-out, strike, or something in-between, with no steady cash flow at all, zero. I can stand that for maybe three weeks. Maybe.

    You can see why me and thousands of others in similar circumstances have zero love or respect for Rauner; a guy of means, who wants to do to state worker families what he’s been doing to charity contractors across the state. He’s not just mean: he’s decidedly evil.

  89. - Silent Majority - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 1:07 pm:

    strangely enough way too many people know the feeling of wondering if the paycheck will post before the rent, food or power check clears…For those of us just getting by as the Bertha Better than You(s) complain about the poor service they got here or the rude counter person there, remember Tomorrow is just around the corner and someone told me it does get better…….

  90. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 1:23 pm:

    - Can’t Sleep At Night - @ 1:04 pm:

    Remember, if you do decide to retire, you most likely will be in a lower tax bracket because of the lower income. In my case, that made a 10% or so difference.

  91. - Formerly Known As... - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 1:24 pm:

    ===Economists report that the Great Recession has ended. Really?===

    It does not feel that way, does it?

    Some of the earlier comments give hope this may all still end well.

  92. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 1:49 pm:


    Skipping the details, the wife and I always figured we would need to help out. At this point, we joke that they better hope I live to get the mortgages paid off. I also tell them we’re spending all their inheritance now.

    Seriously, they are slowly managing to shoulder more and more as they do get small raises. And even have a bit of luxury in the form of high speed internet although you pretty much need that with kids in school. But if they weren’t eligible for Medicaid, his entire month’s paycheck would go to pay for health insurance through his employer.

  93. - G'Kar - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:00 pm:

    I can identify with Dawn in the article about being an adjunct faculty member. For several years I was teaching at three community colleges in Downstate Illinois. Not only was I teaching on the main campus, but I also agreed to teach classes at high schools and in prisons. One memorable semester I had a 190 mile round trip three days a week to teach four classes. Fortunately, my perseverance paid off and I hold a full time position now.

  94. - Anon - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:21 pm:

    My family could afford a $400 emergency, but we have a great deal of debt, including almost six figures in student loans. How do you build a stable life under that kind of financial stress?

    What’s most frustrating is the policies that would help the middle class-such as paid family leave, lowering student loan interest rates-are politically very popular. But still, no action from Congress.

  95. - Not It - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:33 pm:

    Imagine if you’re like me and a member of the long term unemployed (15 months now). $400 is a month’s income almost.

  96. - Nick Danger - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:38 pm:

    Been said already but to reiterate… the end of pensions in pvt sector (too costly for the shareholders?) and the move to 401k even with some employer match is a lousy substitute. How many businesses that replaced defined benefits with defined contributions made equivalent matching payments, much less gave pay increases so workers could actually save enough in a 401k?

  97. - ArchPundit - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:45 pm:

    The shame is tough. We’ve had a couple issues as a family. My wife had a health issue and wasn’t working. We had a budget that worked well with her working. Even with smart budget cutting, surprises were tough. Then I was laid off.

    Admittedly, my lay-off was as good as they come. I got a first rate job search coach and had some severance. That was tough and while the financial pressure was hard, the shame was the hardest. I hadn’t not been working/in school–mostly both since I was 12 and got my paper route. I often have had more than one job when I was younger and I did everything I was supposed to.

    That said, with some small help from family, the hardest job I ever had was looking for a job. I like it and it allowed me to move to an area I like more. We are still dealing with bills and I dread seeing the notices. I’m working throuh them now and that’s helping, but the shame was the most stressful.

  98. - SAP - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:50 pm:

    Spraying to all fields here. Regarding automation, how would you like to be a taxi driver or trucker and open up the paper to read about the advent of self-driving vehicles? The SAP family had a couple medical issues pop up last year, thank God everyone is doing well, and it put a serious hit on the bank account. And we have pretty good insurance. I can easily see how a relatively minor medical issue can wipe out many people. Student debt is a ticking time bomb. I had some years ago, but a lot of kids getting out of school this century have debt I cannot imagine. They have to be walking a pretty shaky tightrope.

  99. - RNUG - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:58 pm:

    == How many businesses that replaced defined benefits with defined contributions made equivalent matching payments, much less gave pay increases so workers could actually save enough in a 401k? ==

    Not a lot but some businesses do contribute something.

    Because I drummed it into his head since he started working about age 16, and even showed him by helping him make Roth IRA contributions while he was working and in school, my son does save something into his work’s 401K with partial match. It’s very little,but it is something … and it is percentage based, so when he does get a raise, it automatically increases. He doesn’t have an emergency fund (except mom and dad) but he does have a bit saved towards retirement so maybe he won’t starve in old age.

  100. - Honeybear - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 2:59 pm:

    Levi-MetroEast- well I had a long response but the lights flickered because of the storm and it’s gone. Long story short. Both of us are highly educated but with low student lone debt luckily. Spouse works and stays in Springfield during week working for the state an 1 1/2 away. I do casework for DHS in East St. Louis, IL. We almost went under and lost everything because the spouse who is the breadwinner went for 4 years unemployed after taking time off for a 2 year MBA and 5 years (ABD) PhD work. I was a Navy chaplain, hospital chaplain then did 5 years in hospice chaplaincy, all pretty low paying. Thus when we both got state jobs we finally starting climbing out of the financial hole. Rauner threatens all of that. It’s difficult raising 14 and 15yo girls mostly by myself. It’s tough spending 71% of the year apart from my spouse. We were climbing out but we’ll start sinking again with large insurance premiums.

  101. - Rich Miller - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:09 pm:

    Good comments today, folks. Thanks.

  102. - They're There Their - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:26 pm:

    I didn’t see my earlier post. Was it censored, or did I not click “say it?”

  103. - Honeybear - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:30 pm:

    the hardest job I ever had was looking for a job.

    Right there. The hardest job I have had and still is managing the spouses Complex PTSD from 4 years of looking for work having gone to one of the best B-schools in the world and with 5 years PhD work. The spouses shame was immense. I sometimes believe that God gave me first rate pastoral/chaplaincy skills just so that I could help get my spouse through that time. Even now there will be triggers and all the classic signs of PTSD present, intrusive thoughts, hair-trigger emotional response, heightened startle response, and depression. Indeed my coming to this very blog was to gain intelligence and insight to help my spouse. As time went I realized that this was an important place for me to “be”.

    Jobs are so so precious now. The horror is that Rauner is causing the layoff of a vast percentage of our private social service jobs. Thousands at this point. Thousands all thrown into turmoil.

    I really hope that the Boomers especially realize that their GenX and millennial adult children face an incredible uphill climb. I hope they follow RNUG’s example and lend a non-judgmental hand. Mine didn’t and berated me for “not doing it the way we did it”. The world is very very different and we need help.

  104. - Small Town Girl - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:30 pm:

    Student loan debt is not just an issue for the young. It is a big issue for people my age who wanted to give their children the chance they didn’t have. A chance that comes in at about 7 percent interest and most likely will not be paid off - ever.

  105. - Captain Illini - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:31 pm:

    I too lived the article. When I graduated U of I I literally had 10 cents to my name…had just enough to pay the first installment on my Senior year spring semester, and that was it. They wouldn’t send me my diploma until the bill was paid…in August following graduation. When I was first married, she inherited my college debt, as well as a few “maxed out” credit cards, because the job I had at the time paid $100 less per month than my combined bills…a rat hole doesn’t describe what I was falling into. It took us about 12 years to “fix” our credit and crawl back to solvency and now many years later, we’ve been able to put away the emergency cash and do what we can to live somewhat comfortably…but always wary that you don’t plan for accidents or calamities. Last week my gas service had a leak - Nicor shut it off - plumber came to temporarily fix - Nicor is going to put in a new service, but want’s their $1,100.00 up front before they show up…there goes a weekend vacation, the house comes first.

    Hopefully for many, this article will bring out the best angels in friends, neighbors, people to reach out an help. It doesn’t take much…sometimes it’s just an invitation to join your family for a burger, or maybe it’s cash for a tank of gas, for others listening and understanding is all that’s needed. We do, and I hope you all will too.

  106. - Nickname - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:37 pm:

    Dread Pirate Roberts, you nailed it on the head. You can’t save money if there isn’t enough coming in. I’m a college graduate working on my Masters and I’m employed by a community college. Every cent coming in is spent. I have one child in college and one in high school.
    Growing up, I was upper middle-class and before my divorce, I was middle-class. Now I barely scrape by. In fact, I had a nightmare last night that my child’s car broke down and needed a $500 repair. Something needs to change.

  107. - blue dog dem - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:38 pm:

    This particular topic is soooo true. But yet guys like Cullerton and MJM aren’t doing things to help the working poor and middle class. I expect Rauner to screw the little guy, but geez, Dems are supposed to have these folks backs. Mileage taxes? $101/yr stickers? Raise the gas tax? Dump pension responsibilities on local taxing districts? Toll roads? The list goes on and on. All things the little guy/gal has to absorb. Maybe the progressive tax thing will gain some traction, probably not, but property taxes, sales taxes, user fees, service taxes have as much to do with the 47% having a rough go of it as anything.

  108. - Anon - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:40 pm:

    Gabler is a member of the gig economy, the Uber economy, the Internet-facilitated freelance economy, the “sharing” — or “share the scraps” — economy.
    Workers get paid by the job with no guaranteed wage. Often their work profits major corporations. They get no benefits, at all, and pay their own Social Security taxes. And often they go weeks between gigs. Gabler is more successful than most in this arena.

    You can debate whether Gabler’s primary issue is income or spending, but many (or most) gig workers find that supporting themselves is as much as — or more than — they can handle. Supporting a family is another matter entirely.

    Many in the Establishment appear to have little awareness that this economy exists and is growing. Trump and Sanders supporters seem more tuned into it.

  109. - Ducky LaMoore - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 3:50 pm:

    I love when I see an article that I feel is very compelling… and then it ends up here. Thanks Rich! I even got my dad to read it (he never reads anything I tell him too…). Most people either have lived this or are living it. I am fortunate enough to no longer be living it. I have kind of turned into a mini Mr Money Mustache. And the only advice I can give people is to cut expenses and save money. Go out to eat less, cut the cord, have an automatic deposit from your bank account into a retirement account. Save that money and pay off the debt. The power of compounding interest can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

  110. - Homer J. Quinn - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 4:10 pm:

    Honeybear: I was raised by a boomer parent and was also berated for not succeeding. i find the internet meme “Old Economy Steven” very relatable.

    Anon: the end point of the gig economy is an expectation that workers provide their work for free. in creative fields the usual line is “hey i like your work; can i use it? i can’t pay you but it’ll be GREAT EXPOSURE!”

  111. - Payback - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 4:12 pm:

    Very ironic that the Federal Reserve would study the effects of it’s own policy of destruction through inflation of the money supply.

    Look in the front section of the huge paper Chicago white pages phone book for the Federal Reserve bank. You will not find it listed under “F”, but you will find City of Chicago, Cook County and U.S. government listings.

    Look in the Chicago yellow pages under “B” for banks and you will find the listing for the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago on LaSalle street. The Federal Reserve is a private, for-profit company that charges the American people interest on their own money.

    “If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered.”

  112. - Levi MetroEast - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 4:20 pm:

    Re: Payback

    I have to assume that you are either Ron or Rand, finally awakened from winter’s hibernation.

  113. - Concerned - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 4:24 pm:

    Payback, inflation has been negligible for many years, so the Fed is not to blame here. Indeed, some rip-roaring inflation might help the debtor class by allowing them to repay fixed dollar denominated debt with inflated dollars in the future.

  114. - Levi MetroEast - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 4:28 pm:

    Re: Concerned, yes. And to earn interest on savings and shorter-term instruments.

  115. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 5:28 pm:

    Twisted advice some might give to the stories above would be to get a second job—-which is laughable because no one should have to work 65 hours or more a week just to make ends meet. The something that is very wrong with the way the middle class is able to function is the rage behind our leading presidential candidates. I hope that there can be some help to the backbone of our society, the middle class workers and if not—-continued and renewed awareness and pressure on our lawmakers to make it right for those who help everyone.

  116. - Way Way Down Here - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 5:47 pm:

    My wife and I are doing OK (thanks to her watching the finances over 35 years). We are lucky. Our children (and spouses) have all been fortunate to have jobs and can support themselves. We are lucky. What disturbs me so much about the weak/strong discussion is the lack of empathy and understanding toward our fellow citizens. I recently had a talk with a friend about the AFCA and how I thought it was doing a great deal to help the un and under insured. Her response, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have health insurance.” Well, of course you don’t, I thought, you need to get out of the bubble and talk to people. Sometimes I despair about attitudes. But my wife and I are lucky and I’m thankful for that.

  117. - 37B - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 5:47 pm:

    Having gotten to the end of Neal’s article I felt really bad for him; Staring at 65 with no retirement savings after, for the most part doing the “right” thing. He bought real estate, put money in retirement accounts and provided (with help from his parents)for his children’s debt-free education. Then I read this take on his situation by Helaine Olen (In Slate):

    Gabler’s essay is the latest example of the long-standing genre that I like to call all the sad, broke, literary men. It almost always presents a personal anecdote as an emblem of broader woes, holding up the author as a symbol of our seemingly forever-contracting middle-income economy. But all too often, it is simply a disguised narrative of privilege.

    Wow. I can’t believe I missed that first time through.

    Now I know where to store my beer to keep it cold.

  118. - Louis Howe - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 6:24 pm:

    It’s really not that hard to add up. When median household income grows at 0.5*X and expenses grow at 2*X, will result in a never ending reduction in lifestyle, until a major expense puts you out. 663,00 filed bankruptcy last year because of medical expenses.

  119. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 6:46 pm:

    The lack of empathy toward our fellow citizens comes from struggling within your own situation. Having to get ACA insurance, my premiums are 4 times what I paid when employed and the coverage is radically less. I worry about health issues I have that could deteriorate and by the time I paid all expenses needed for myself, I would be sadly in need of help from someone, somewhere! But the income I have doesn’t qualify me for help, only qualifies me to help others. Maybe that’s where that comes from.

  120. - illini - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 7:20 pm:

    Great comments by many on this site. I feel inadequate to comment on my personal situation but I am in that very precarious situation myself.

    Over 40 years of ups and downs in the business world, some bad investments and not being able to adequately prepare for my retirement does indeed have me concerned. Unfortunately, even by living a frugal but comfortable life and with doing without the “big boys toys” and many of the ostentatious trappings of many of my contemporaries I have to admit that my situation is far from what I expected at this time in my life.

    The article and these comments do give me some solace knowing that I am not alone in my anxiety about by future. But I am a survivor and I expect to prevail in spite of my current status.

  121. - PeoriaMac - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 8:43 pm:

    A great article in the Atlantic. For those who haven’t read it, the author admits that to a degree, he put himself and his family in his current situation with his choice of profession (writer) location (New York State)and decision to have two children…but his primary mistake, he says, was a total lack of knowledge of finance, and a dependence on credit cards to get by. It is a situation as common as it is regrettable. Education about finance should be compulsory in High School, let alone college…especially considering the cost of education has created a generation of debtors.

  122. - Mama - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:15 pm:

    Rich, thanks for providing this form for people to vent & find out they are not alone..

  123. - Oswego Willy - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 10:23 pm:

    While not participating, but reading every word and reconciling what I am reading, I want to thank all who did participate in such an honest way, and to Rich Miller, our host, to allow such an open post to allow, at least me, to learn and grow and feel a strong sense of… camaraderie, for a lack of a better term.

    This post will be long remembered, sure because of the article, but far more importantly that Rich shared the article and the great commenters that come here shared their own hearts and souls.


    Thanks, Rich. Thanks all.

  124. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 11:22 pm:

    I read this Atlantic article this afternoon, just before my daughter’s doctor appointment where I had to update her insurance to “Medicaid” after being laid off. I bit my lip so hard it bled because I’d rather hurt than cry (or be seen crying). Our family lost the health lottery and we took improbable hits before ACA that emptied our savings followed by a national financial meltdown that tanked our retirement and job prospects. And as if all of our wounds are begging for salt, an absurd Bill Gates quote is touring FB and Twitter today, “If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it’s your mistake.” Yeah, right.

  125. - Stumpy's bunker - Wednesday, Apr 27, 16 @ 2:14 am:

    Rich, thank you for introducing this topic; the torrent of heartfelt experiences provided by the commenters indicates these are issues on many, many peoples’ minds.

    The financial stripping of the American public comes in many forms.

    When I was a kid, I would accompany my dad to the hardware store so he could get a special tool for a job. Once, he picked one out and brought it to the counter. The old hardware man inquired as to the nature of the task dad was trying to do. Once informed, the old hardware man picked out a less-expensive, more appropriate tool for him to buy.

    These days, many business interests will go to great lengths to extract as much money as possible from you. Case in point: the big-box car dealers, whose methodical, exasperating game-playing seems designed to pick you clean.

    Our governor’s ideology, if put into practice, seems certain to fuel & accelerate the financial stripping of vulnerable Illinoisans with whom he cannot relate.

  126. - Anonymous - Wednesday, Apr 27, 16 @ 2:48 pm:

    “…and to Rich Miller, our host, to allow such an open post to allow, at least me,”

    Yes, thank you for allowing this mildly controlled free speech, and thank you to Willy for allowing us to vent as Rich Miller’s watchdog and under his authority, amen.

  127. - Huge Very Cat - Wednesday, Apr 27, 16 @ 11:21 pm:

    The Atlantic article hit me like a lightning bolt. I had a sense that more middle class people were struggling than would admit it. But now, Neal Gabler has come out and said it.

    For years the economic recovery has been theoretical only - fewer people are unemployed but the jobs they are working pay less now or hardly at all. Each of us individually thought it was our own fault: if only we had done this or that. And there has been discussion here about whether individuals have responsibility or not, but the ongoing economic situation is a shadow over all of it which can’t be ignored. Some of these circumstances were unforeseen. Maybe my house has water damage (I don’t actually have a house, just a metaphor) but it has also been raining for 10 years.

    Anyway I am so glad to see others saying that, yes, they fear going to the mailbox. They fear opening their mail. I do too. A college degree, great credentials, I’m told I’m smart and talented… and I just called my parents to ask for money. I’m 40 years old. It is awful.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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