'Everybody's Strugglin', and It's Tough'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That quote comes from Brian Brunjes, the local butcher and friend of Neal Gabler, who wrote our May cover story, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” Brian started to struggle after his son was diagnosed with autism, causing his wife to quit her job to care for him and thus leaving the Brunjes family with one income. Here’s Brian alongside Neal in a segment for Wednesday’s NewsHour discussing financial impotence:

From the segment’s transcript, here’s a money quote from Edward Wolff, a professor of economics:

Today, the average family has enough financial reserves to keep going for about three weeks. That’s it. And that’s middle-income.

Here’s another startling statistic from economist Annamaria Lusardi:

[H]ow confident are you that you could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month? And what we found is 40 percent of families could not come up with $2,000 in 30 days. So it’s important to recognize that, that the financial fragility is just so widespread.

Meanwhile, from our hello@ inbox, here’s the story of a young woman who works in online media and is about the same age as Neal Gabler’s daughters:

Supposedly I did everything right. I worked hard to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. I did so with only $3,000 in student loans. I took several internships and kept a part-time job all while going to school full time. I got a job at a hip company right out of college. Everything went right.

Except the pay isn’t great, because, hey, I don’t have any experience. So I answered an ad on Craigslist for a roommate to save money. By the end, there had been people on my couch running from the cops, multiple cockroaches on my pillow, and my “landlord” saying it wasn’t her problem that I didn’t like bugs. So I moved out. Except the rent and utilities to go to this job cost me half my income.

I end up just making ends meet. And it’s like, why did I work so hard then? Wasn’t college and working hard supposed to get me somewhere? I’m just as broke now as my family was when I was a kid.

Gabler explains in very dry, empirical terms how wages have stayed the same while the price of everything you need has gone up. What he doesn’t explain is the real psychological toll that has on the generation his daughters are in. We haven’t messed up and cashed out 401(k)s or reduced down to one income—yet we’re still screwed. We were screwed the moment we entered into this system.

And that fact is so soul crushing it’s a wonder I get out of bed every day. Because a good day is having enough to eat, a bad day is getting a ticket for a burnt-out headlight and needing to take a payday loan just to keep my ability to get to my job—one that barely pays me enough to eat.

This is why extreme candidates like Sanders and Trump are winning. This is why everyone is on Prozac, booze, or worse. We know we’re drowning. People are desperate. This is why people read click-bait articles instead of hard news. No one wants to think too hard about how shitty the world we live in now.

Update from a reader, Katharine, with some advice that our young reader and Linda Lee, whose story is here, might find useful:

I would strongly advise Linda and other out-of-work newspaper editors to retrain as medical editors and writers through the American Medical Writers Association. There is a growing demand for this sort of work, particularly from Chinese researchers who want to see their papers published in English-language medical journals (and the work can be done at home). Here’s an article about this growing field.

Linda responds: “Thanks, I’d already explored taking courses in medical bill coding (extremely boring recall, worse than organic chemistry) and this sounds much more attractive. I appreciate you keeping me up to date.” If you have any advice for Linda or any of our readers struggling with the job market, please let us know.