Response: The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans

The Atlantic, published a cover piece in May 2016 titled, The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans. The subject was the unstable financial position that many seemingly successful people are in.

The article was well written by an author who declares himself a part of the ashamed population he is writing about. As he ruminates on his situation, there was one thing I couldn’t help but notice – even after researching the topic and writing an article on it, he remains blind to the item he can most easily impact.

He writes, “The only thing one can do is work more hours to try to compensate. I long since made that adjustment. I work seven days a week, from morning to night. There is no other way.”

The above statement bothers me because it is a fallacy that is unfortunately shared by far too many people. The other option is, of course, that you can spend less money so that you do not need to work as much.

We can chose the level of luxury of our life. We can each explicitly and intentionally live a less expensive life. We can bike to work, we can not have a tv, we can live in a smaller house, we can have less stuff and take care of it so it lasts longer, we can upgrade our phones less frequently, we can cook more and eat out less and calculate the cost per calorie of various foods and optimize for meals that provide more nutrition-per-dollar, we can recalibrate our standard of living scale and properly recognize that luxuries are optional.

Poverty exists and is a complicated issue. Middle-class overspending is a very different issue. If you are not able to come up with $400 in the case of an emergency but have spent $50-100k in the past year, you have simply made poor decisions. Even a 1% adjustment would remedy your problem within a year. A 10% adjustment within a month.

The author does allude to understanding this at least in part. He states, “In my house, we have learned to live a no-frills existence. We halved our mortgage payments through a loan-modification program. We drive a 1997 Toyota Avalon with 160,000 miles that I got from my father when he died. We haven’t taken a vacation in 10 years.”

But even that semi-awareness is used, seemingly, as a tool to continue place the blame elsewhere. In fact, his no-frills life is very full of frills. That 1997 Avalon is a car, a luxury that requires monthly insurance, gas and maintenance costs. A luxury that is fine if he is able to afford it, but based on the facts we are presented with, it appears he can not. He has turned his dial too high and even the ‘no-frills existence’ he describes is in fact too luxurious for what he can actually afford.

After all of this I am left thinking of how the individual rolls up into society. One person is unable to fully take the blame for his past and continued living beyond his means. On a larger scale, 47% of people are in the same situation. The author attempts to relate this to stagnating wages and other macroeconomic issues. But perhaps we are placing too much blame on economics.

Perhaps the ‘shame’ the article describes is the equal and opposite reaction to the pride that leaves the author and other blind to their options and where to place the blame. If what we are talking about is poorly made individual decisions on a large scale, we might in fact be discussing a public health issue.

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