Gwen Moritz

Middle Class, Cash Poor And Desperate

Gwen Moritz Editor's Note


Middle Class, Cash Poor And Desperate

An article coming out in the May issue of The Atlantic magazine was posted online last week, and it was like a car crash that I couldn’t look away from. An author and very minor TV personality named Neal Gabler — years ago he was a fill-in movie critic on Siskel & Ebert’s “Sneak Previews” on PBS — wrote a deeply personal article about being part of the cash-poor American middle class.

He knows what it’s like to be one of the 47 percent of Americans who wouldn’t be able to come up with $400 for an emergency “because I am in that 47 percent.” He knows what it’s like to have liens on his property and to subsist for days on a diet of whatever is in the refrigerator.

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“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,” he wrote.

It’s a darn good thing he also wrote, “I don’t ask for or expect any sympathy,” because I’m fresh out of sympathy for a guy who (according to his article):

  • Rented a house in the Hamptons before selling his co-op in New York;
  • Assured his wife that she no longer needed to work while keeping her in the dark about their true financial situation;
  • Told his two daughters that they had “earned the right to attend good universities, universities of their choice” — and paid for it by depleting his parents’ savings; and
  • “[E]mptied a small 401(k) to pay for our younger daughter’s wedding.”

That last one is the point in the article at which the gathering scream finally escaped from my throat. Neal Gabler is old enough for Medicare, yet he has no retirement savings and no inheritance because (in his words) “I wanted my children to keep up with the Joneses’ children.”

Buried deep in an overlong article that is half statistical and half confessional is what seems to be his greatest epiphany at this late date: “Four-hundred-dollar emergencies are not mere hypotheticals, nor are $2,000 emergencies, nor are … well, pick a number. The fact is that emergencies always arise; they are an intrinsic part of our existence.”

Didn’t Gabler ever watch Roseanne Roseannadanna? “It’s always something.”

One of his daughters is a Rhodes Scholar now enrolled at Harvard Medical School, so maybe she can help support the folks in their old age. (The other won’t be able to. She took the Emory undergraduate degree and University of Texas master’s degree that her grandparents paid for and became a licensed clinical social worker, which will not support the Hamptons lifestyle her parents pretended they could afford.)

In the meantime, Gabler has presumably been paid a few thousand to bare what he called his “financial impotence.” He reminds me — and not in a good way — of Edmund Andrews, who in 2009 wrote a book about how even he, then an economics reporter for The New York Times, got caught up in the housing bubble and subsequent meltdown. (Among other colossally stupid things, Andrews took on a mortgage payment of $2,500 a month knowing full well that his monthly take-home pay after child support and alimony was only $2,777. And he got a book advance to write about it.)

A couple of smart, talented, outwardly successful guys fell into the fatal trap of believing that they deserved a lifestyle they simply couldn’t afford. I wonder if they ever considered the very real — likely, even — possibility that friends and relatives also couldn’t afford their lifestyles, and that they were keeping up appearances for people who were also keeping up appearances.

In a response to Gabler’s article, published online by The Atlantic, a University of Chicago professor who has written a book on personal finance points out that people just don’t talk about money, and this very secretiveness compounds the problem.

“Had [Gabler] not tried to hide his desperation, he might have slowed his descent,” Harold A. Pollack wrote. “He might have discussed the challenge more frankly with his wife. He might have sought help, made a reasonable plan. Over time these became worse than they needed to be. When a person struggles through his financial turmoil alone, isolation begets despair, and mistakes too.”

While Pollack showed more pity for Gabler than I felt, he also pointed out that the lifestyle changes Gabler has adopted — rarely eating out, driving a 20-year-old car, not taking vacations — are far too little and far too late. “Addressing the big things requires genuine life changes, with their accompanying tradeoffs, admissions, and disappointments.”


Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.