Could You Come Up With $400 If Disaster Struck? Half Of Americans Couldn't Almost half of Americans say they couldn't — including people in the middle class. Writer Neal Gabler says it's time to stop saying that anyone can be rich with just hard work.
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Could You Come Up With $400 If Disaster Struck?

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Could You Come Up With $400 If Disaster Struck?

Could You Come Up With $400 If Disaster Struck?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we're continuing with our series about American middle class this week. It's called Hanging On. And our next guest knows exactly how that feels. His name is Neal Gabler, and he's written a piece in The Atlantic magazine called "The Secret Shame Of Middle-Class Americans." And the subtitle reveals a lot. Here it is - "Nearly Half Of Americans Would Have Trouble Finding $400 To Pay For An Emergency. I'm One Of Them."

NEAL GABLER: I think by many measures in society, I'm a success, I like to think. And if you were to look at me, you certainly wouldn't think that I would have trouble scrounging up $400. Or if you were to look at my resume, you wouldn't think that. I've written five books. If you looked at my 1040, you probably wouldn't think that. But that is really the whole point. Despite all of those things, I still have a difficult time making ends meet, as many, many, many Americans do.

MARTIN: I mean, these details that you lay out in the piece - you know, it says I know what it's like to have to borrow money from my adult daughters because my wife and I ran out of heating oil. How did this happen?

GABLER: Well, simple answer is - and I think this is true for many people - too little income in a society where wages have been stagnant for almost 40 years and too many expenses. I am in a situation that tens of millions of Americans share, and we're not talking about poor people. I'm not poor. We're talking about middle-class Americans, even upper-middle-class Americans, who live paycheck-to-paycheck.

MARTIN: How does that jibe with the metrics that have been telling us for a while that we're out of the Great Recession and that our economy is on the upswing?

GABLER: Well, there's a gigantic gulf between macroeconomics and microeconomics. The macroeconomic figures do not reveal what's going on in the microeconomic world. People are having a difficult time living. There is always a car that needs repair, a pet - my dog who's limping, a faucet that leaks. There is always an emergency, and we live within that.

MARTIN: But hasn't that always been thus? Like, what has changed about the way we live now? Is it just as simple as we expect more - we're living beyond our means?

GABLER: Oh, I think that's part of it. I think we've been taught to expect more. We have been taught that a middle-class existence is, you know, a house. By some metrics they say, you know, maybe a $250,000 house and a vacation every year and a car for each adult and educated for the children. And indeed, those are the very metrics that the Commerce Department has used in defining what a middle-class life is.

But as I point out in the article, if you put a price tag on that middle-class life, as USA Today did several years ago, the price tag for that middle-class life is A$130,000. Only 1 in 8 Americans makes $130,000, so the middle-class life that we've all been taught is ours if only we work for it is out of the reach of all but a very small number of us.

MARTIN: In the piece, you call this financial impotence, in large part because it gets at this private shame associated with being on the economic brink. What has that looked like in your own life? I mean, now you have come public. But how did that shame weigh on you?

GABLER: That shame weighed on me - and I am not overstating the case - on not only a daily basis, but an hourly basis. It keeps you up at night. It is ruinous for relationships. The shame is so great - the ongoing sense of shame that in a country where we are told anyone can be successful and where, as Donald Trump has told us endlessly, you know, if you don't make it, you're a loser. So yes, did I feel like a loser? You bet I did. But what can you do with that, that sense of shame? You can't share it with anybody because to expose it is, like sexual impotence, something you just don't want to talk about.

MARTIN: What does this mean for how we think about success in this country? I mean, do we need to redefine, as a culture, what it means to be part of the American middle class?

GABLER: We do need to redefine that. But that's a very, very tall order. But the beginning is to have Americans who are suffering from financial impotence, which is nearly half of America if you believe this data - it's them coming out and saying - you want to know something? I'm tired of feeling like a failure because I'm told that everybody in America ought to be rich if only they work hard.

And by the way, Rachel, I'll tell you something. You know, surveys show - and I don't cite this in article - that Americans are the only people who believe that in the industrialized world. If you look at the English or the French or the Germans, they don't believe that they're totally responsible for not having achieved financial success. Americans do. And we've got to stop people telling us that it's all in our hands as to whether we're going to be successful because frankly, it is not.

MARTIN: Neal Gabler - his piece on financial impotence appears in this month's edition of The Atlantic. Neal, thanks so much for talking with us.

GABLER: Thank you so much for asking.

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