One nation under worry

As study after study shows, the rich are doing better than the rest of us. But surprisingly, they don’t always presume that their wealth will protect them or guarantee their children’s futures. In talking with families across the class spectrum about how they coping in an uncertain age for my new book, “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times,” I learned that even the affluent families don’t think they have enough and strive to attain more.1 In contrast, the working- and middle-class families I spoke with realize they can’t do much to improve their situations so they lower their expectations and try to get by on less.

This is the new face of economic inequality in the United States today. Most every-one is dealing with economic insecurity, yet the ways in which families on different rungs of the income ladder are doing so may be fueling greater economic inequality.

Take Paul Mah, a technology executive with assets of more than $1 million. “We are probably in the top 1 percent of all American households,” says Mah, “so I can’t complain, but I still don’t feel rich.” Only accumulating millions more, he says, would enable him to stop feeling anxious about his financial future and the prospects of his children.

In contrast, Laura Delgado, a struggling single mother of three who works as a cashier, has zero savings, but in many ways is less concerned. “Having nothing isn’t always a bad thing,” she says, noting that things could always be worse. To cope with her financial trouble, Delgado scales back her definition of security to just the basics (food, shelter, clothing) and filters out bad news by always trying to look on the bright side of things. Her approach enables her to control the anxiety she feels about her difficult economic situation.

These are just two of the emotional stories behind the statistics documenting that we live in precarious times. As Americans scramble to hold on to jobs, deal with pay cuts, afford rising college tuition, fund retirements, manage debt, weather the costs of medical emergencies, and give their children an edge in an increasingly competitive world, there are deep psychological reverberations—for us all.

Of course these reverberations look and feel differently for different groups of Americans. As economic insecurity grows—a reflection of the many changes and challenges in our economy today—so too has the divide in our country between the haves and the have-nots. This means families face different obstacles and can overcome them, or not, depending on the resources at their disposal.

Like Laura Delgado, many middle- and working-class families I talked with are so beaten down that they are letting go of their dreams for a better life. Instead, they try to make the insecurity they face more tolerable. When Laura must choose whether to pay the power bill or put food on the table for example, she makes light of the lack of heat in her home by telling her kids it’s just “camping.”

Affluent families respond differently. Rather than trying to adjust to greater inse-curity, they seek to protect their families by continuing to climb the wealth-and-income ladder. Security for some of the wealthiest families I talked with meant accumulating a net worth of more than $10 million. Such eye-popping definitions of security leave many affluent families more worried at times than their less fortunate compatriots further down the ladder.

In our go-it-alone age, we all adopt ways of coping—ways of thinking and feel-ing—that help us navigate through choppy and dangerous waters. These different approaches to managing insecurity reveal that in hard times the divisions among us are not just economic, they are also emotional.

Emotional disparities like these have real consequences. As the rich push for more and everyone else tries to accommodate to less, we actually make inequality worse. Because we treat economic insecurity as a personal problem rather than a social problem that we can solve collectively, we are unable to muster the will to stop it.

September 1, 2014


Economic Wellbeing

End Notes

1. Marianne Cooper, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times (University of California Press, 2014).

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