The downward spiral of the previously affluent middle-class

The May issue of The Atlantic features author and journalist Neal Gabler who laments the fact that he’s basically broke – unable to get his hands on a spare $400: “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.” Subsequent Atlantic articles point to Gabler’s “financial challenges” as indicative of a strange malady that apparently affects the formerly affluent “middle” class – an inability to confront the truth that they’ve lived way beyond their means.  Atlantic editors even try to drum up some sympathy for Gabler: “Much of what Gabler experienced was worsened by the psychic turbulence of downward mobility.” Well cry me a fucking river.

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New York tenement, 1908

Gabler’s idea of what constitutes “middle-class” is substantially different than mine. He was able to purchase a co-op in Brooklyn and a house in The Hamptons – not exactly cheap real estate. While enjoying advances on his five books, income from television and writing work, and the proceeds from the sale of his biography of Walter Winchell – which allowed him to put a down payment on his Hampton digs – Gabler lost track of his income. Gabler discovers he can’t get his hands on $400 and this quandary provokes a treatise of epic proportions. Gabler wakes up to the stark reality that many Americans have known for a long time – the fact that it’s very, very difficult to make enough money to survive. And though he faults no one but himself for his predicament, the dulcet tones of entitlement ring through Gabler’s confession of “financial impotence”.

In another article, Atlantic editors attempt to position Gabler as the poster child for a wider economic malaise: “Underneath the figures about debt-mired, financially-distressed households is also a sense of shame and betrayal…” Indeed, many millions of Americans are financially distressed but few have had the opportunities and privilege that Neal Gabler has enjoyed – and lost. He claims he could barely afford his Brooklyn co-op and his East Hampton home. After this admission it’s difficult not to sneer when Gabler admits that he overextended himself. “We’ve no retirement savings, because we emptied a small 401(k) to pay for our daughter’s wedding”. Alas, Gable is blinded by his expectations. He expected he would be able to afford an exorbitant wedding for his daughter. She was entitled to it and he believed that this entitlement should come with no financial burden. He expected he would continue earning a substantial upper class salary because that’s what he had become accustomed to and nowhere along the way did anyone tell him otherwise. Unlimited expectation is a symptom of privilege. It breeds an insularity made possible by the complacency that wealth bestows. “I know what it is like to be down to my last $5—literally—while I wait for a paycheck to arrive…” Gabler mourns his new fate as if it is an affront to his expectations.

What Gabler has been able to achieve, and subsequently lose, is unimaginable for most Americans. He points to the myth of the American Dream as the origins of his demise: “Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all.” What Gabler fails to negotiate is that our concept of “working hard to get it all” is substantially different for each socio-economic class. Gabler ignores the fact that he’s had the good fortune to be born into a family with the requisite resources and connections necessary for his “success” to flourish. Having the financial stability of a family who are able to lend a hand, or tide one over for months on end if a job search hits a wall, or tap into their own retirement savings to fund grandchild’s costly college education – as was the case with Gabler’s parents – is a fantasy scenario for millions of Americans.

A homeless man hauls his possessions in a shopping cart in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco

A homeless man hauls his possessions in a shopping cart in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, California August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES)

There exists a great economic divide in America and it works to maintain a highly stratified society. Erin Currier, Project Manager, of a 2015 Pew Research report on Economic Mobility states, “Fifty years after the start of the “War on Poverty”, more than 40 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain there.” These are sober statistics but nothing new to those who attempt to navigate that bottom rung. What is startling, for  people like Gabler, is the fact that the rungs are collapsing. He opines, “What I hadn’t known, couldn’t have conceived, was that so many other Americans wouldn’t have the money available to them, either.” Gabler blames his ignorance on the fact that economists have been clueless about how wealth inequality actually affects people. Alas, their startling revelation is the fact that, “people aren’t making ends meet … and if there was a shock, they wouldn’t have the money to pay, that’s definitely a new area of research.”

“New area of research?” The idea of not having enough money to pay for emergency situations or exigent needs, like food, is hardly new and should come as no shock to economists. Gabler, and David Johnson, the University of Michigan economist who made the startling discovery, might take a moment to look over a recent report by Feeding America. In it, they cite that “66% of households say they’ve had to choose between paying for food and paying for medical care — 31% say they have to make that choice each and every month.” In New York City alone, enrollment in SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – has increased more than 62 percent since the 2008 recession. There appears to be ample evidence to suggest that many Americans do not have enough money to survive. The plight of those who barely make ends meet is everywhere, it’s just that Gabler only became aware of the hardship when it existed for him.

I will never have the assets Gabler has lost. It’s not because I haven’t worked hard, or saved money, or tried to curry favor with those who might grant me entry to areas where hard work is recognized, but because I was I was born to a poor, single mother, herself born to a poor mother who was born in poverty. Poverty, like wealth, runs in families. The consequence of my birth extends – like rapacious tentacles – to touch every aspect of my life. It impacts everything I do and the way I perceive the world and those in it. My mother struggled financially as a single parent until she died of cancer at the age of 49 when I was sixteen. She had no money or assets and I was alone after her death. I got an apartment, and went to work as a waitress and at various other temp jobs. I finally completed my graduate degree in my 40s and I’ve resigned myself to the fact I’ll never have enough money to retire. Neither will millions of Americans.

To climb out of the economic class you were born into is like trying to rent a room in a Trump hotel with food stamps. It probably won’t pan out. The tenet of “Work hard and you’ll be successful” reverberates through Gabler’s pathos and has been drilled into our heads – a mantra for a Capitalist Republic. Anyone can attain the “dream” as long as certain contingencies are in place – not the least of which is access to sufficient funds for survival. Gabler is stunned at the predicament that he finds himself in and yet a cursory read of other Atlantic articles reveals that millions of Americans are stuck in more dire economic circumstances than he. The difference is they don’t have the opportunity to write about it or more specifically, no one cares to publish it.

America has always enjoyed very effective clandestine caste system that keeps the wealthy in positions of power with ample access to connections and resources. That same type of closed caste system operates in literary fiction and to a large degree, journalism – places Gabler has so expertly navigated. Are we to be surprised by Gabler’s admission of “financial impotence”? Are we to read his carefully prepared lament and mourn the demise of the formerly upwardly mobile wealthy middle-class who promised us a little “trickle down” action? Most of us will read Gabler’s tale and sigh. We could see it coming – those of us who have been navigating economic chaos for decades. The only people who are surprised are those who have just begun their descent. For most of us, it’s business as usual.

— D. Johnstone

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