Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
But the more I thought about his essay, the more I realized I’m doing just fine: I live in a Tudor-style house in a tree-lined, inner-ring suburb, and I’ve built up significant equity in it. My son goes to a great school—two of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners are alums. I have a house cleaner. I go out to spendy restaurants about twice a week. And I always have $400 on hand in case of an emergency.
And yet my 2015 taxes reveal that my income was $43,000. How is this possible? Because here in the Rust Belt, we writers—and the middle class—have low overhead.
I live in Shaker Heights, Ohio, about two miles from the Cleveland city limits. I chose this city purposively: It has an excellent and diverse public school system. The taxes can be high, but the housing prices are not. I bought my four-bedroom house for $175,000. Because of the low interest rates of the past decade, I converted to a 15-year mortgage at 2.1 percent interest, and have built up about $70,000 in equity. Although housing values are still not increasing—my house is worth about what I paid for it 10 years ago—that equity will, once my son goes to college, allow me to move and reduce my living expenses even further. I’ve done all this while being a single mother with joint custody (and receiving no child or spousal support) for 14 years.
True, some things have simply worked out in my favor. My son will go to college in 2017, but because his father has the benefit of tuition remission where he works, I will only have to pay for half of room and board. This makes me very lucky and unusual (as does the fact that I could make a down payment on my house) but it also has undergirded many of my financial and personal decisions—namely, after the Affordable Care Act was finally passed, to quit my half-time job in academia and launch a publishing business as well as write.
And there have been crunch times: Twice I took early withdrawals from my retirement account to tide me over as I started my business. Sometimes my credit card balance gets too high. But, all in all, I am doing fine, and the indulgence of hiring a house cleaner seems to pay itself off in spades, because I now never lie around hating myself because I am too lazy to clean the bathroom.
I realize that my “solution” to dealing with this middle-class American problem may not be one many readers of Gabler’s essay would find the least bit appealing; I imagine that many would rather be in debt than live in Northeast Ohio. And I know that there are countless people who don’t have the luxury of moving, who are stuck where they are for financial or professional reasons.
I have also had to work through some more personal reservations about my way of life. My technically downward mobility over the years—my parents are in whatever class lies between upper-middle and the one percent—causes me some shame. I will never be able to move to New York to some impressive-sounding job in publishing or editing, because it would be unaffordable—and thus I will never be able to re-join the cool kids.
But I have made peace with cutting these items my to-do list, because I value and enjoy my low-overhead lifestyle. Many of my friends and colleagues live in East Coast cities and make twice or, with spouses included, quadruple what I do, but they, like Gabler, worry much more about utility bills than I do.
But here’s the rub: I am able to afford this faux middle-class life on $40,000 a year because I live around poverty. The median income in the city of Cleveland is $26,179; the median income in Shaker Heights, where I live, is $75,177. Nearly a quarter of Clevelanders live below the poverty line, and only about 15 percent have a B.A. And yet, true to form, there are a few small areas within the city limits that I can no longer afford to live, as developers have rushed in to build overpriced housing for a tiny segment of educated professionals.
And the “haves” here struggle, too, even on 40K: A few of my professional friends who also went through divorces in the early 2000s have not really made it, although, like Gabler, they are fronting. One friend lives with her children, rent-free, in a condo that the realtor hasn’t been able to sell—she will have to move immediately if a buyer comes forward. Another single parent has converted to a car-free, bike-and-Uber existence, which he proclaims as a sustainable choice, but which I know, from quiet confessions, is a financial one.
Sometimes I get angry about how little I make. I work all the time. My ex-husband got the same title I did in 1997—assistant professor at Oberlin College—but, because I chose a half-time version of that job, stupidly putting myself on the mommy track, he started making more than twice what I do, and still does. But then I think: What do I need that more money for? I get to live the life of a self-employed writer and business owner. I am my own boss. Once my son goes to college, I plan to finally apply to those writing residencies and fellowships I drool over, and travel for months every year. If I move to a smaller house or to a cheaper neighborhood, I could continue to make $40,000 year and be even richer. But even better: My low-overhead business—something I would never have imagined daring to take on were it not for all the fundamentals I already outlined—is thriving. I expect my income to rise accordingly.
So it turns out you can get richer simply by moving to where people are poorer. That is horrifying. And some might find it insensitive to praise the virtues of living a middle-class life in a region beset by deindustrialization and poverty, where the low cost of living is enabled, in part, by the difficulty so many have in scratching out a living.
But part of the crunch Gabler describes might have to do with an unwillingness to opt out of living in such a rich city. Low overhead is something all manner of middle-class people—including writers, whose arrival could enable them to document parts of America less visible from New York—might find to be a huge relief.