Mary in Pennsylvania has a new and crucial perspective to share:
This is in response to the recent reader note “Taking on Student Loan Debt Is a CHOICE.” Guess what? Like Kirsten, I’m tired of hearing about school loan debt, too. But I’m also in the middle of the experience.
Although taking on debt from student loans was a choice, my other options were not realistically viable. See, I was raised in poverty, and I was still in poverty when I started at a community college as a twenty-something adult working in a dead-end job and raising my three kids as a divorced mom. There was no drunken partying until the wee hours of the morning, or blowing off classes that Mommy and Daddy paid for. Try juggling three kids, one of whom was in diapers and child care, a job and a full schedule of college classes, complete with homework and labs. Without those loans that I “chose” to take out, I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.
There was no lavish lifestyle during college as a result of my school loans; those loans paid for tuition and books, and also allowed us to barely survive while I was in school and working. To give a good idea of what our life was like WITH school loans and me working, we still qualified for subsidized housing, food stamps, and child care, and medical assistance, as well as free lunches at school for the two older kids. Poverty. We’re talking poverty here.
Although I graduated 16 years ago, I am still paying on my school loans (via the Income Based Repayment Plan). Today, I have a middle-class job (which would not have been possible without my degree), but I will be paying off school loans until I die, as I am almost 50 years old and haven’t even paid off half of the balance.
Incidentally, as a former teen mom who dropped out of high school and later got my GED so I could go to college, it’s likely my kids would have followed in my less-than-stellar footsteps back then. Because of my struggles with going to college while raising my kids, they learned through some of my examples. Education became VERY important in our household. We all studied, we all went to class, and took classes seriously. Education was our way out of the life we had back then.
As a result, all three of my children graduated from high school, none were teen parents or involved in the judicial system, two are college degreed, and one is serving in the Air Force. Would that have happened without me going to college? Maybe, but statistically unlikely.
So school loans weren’t just a choice, they were a necessity—not only for me, but for my three children as well. Without it, we would not have survived.
A refreshing reader dissent from Kirsten Campbell:
I know this is an Unpopular Opinion, but I’m tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt. I keep seeing articles about it cropping up on The Atlantic and it has become increasingly irritating.
I’m Canadian, and I went to university in the same city I grew up in so I would avoid student loan debt. My parents didn’t pay a dime towards my degree or the degrees of my two siblings. We always knew they weren’t contributing; it wasn’t a secret that they weren’t paying for our schooling. As such, in grade 10, I started tutoring ESL and later worked retail to save money for school.
While in school I typically tutored 4-10 p.m. every weeknight, then on weekends I worked retail. In the summer, I usually ended up working more retail because my tutoring kids were away or wanted a break. When I got home from tutoring at 10 p.m. each night, I made myself dinner and then started my own homework and assignments. (Yes, after helping other people with theirs, I wasn’t terribly motivated when it came to my own work.)
I worked like a dog. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but university was expensive, I had to buy a used car to get myself there and pay for insurance, gas, food, clothing etc (except rent) all by myself.
Of course I desperately wanted the “university life” that I saw on TV: brick buildings, living on campus, and fun parties every weekend. But I couldn’t participate because I was living at home and rushing from my last class (4-5 courses a semester) to get to my tutoring on time. I sacrificed and gave up every fun or interesting part of university life in order to ensure that I graduated with no debt.
Many nights while doing my own homework at 2 a.m., I wondered if I could do it all. Then I remembered I had no choice. Dropping out wasn’t an option.
So I buckled down and pushed through five years of university to get a double major without owning anyone a penny. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m sure glad I did it.
As such, I’m tired to hearing about everyone’s student loan debt. Taking on student loans is a CHOICE. I chose to sacrifice to make my future better. Those who took on loans in order to have fun in university are buried by debt and I’m tired of hearing from them. No one forced them to take on loans. No one forced them to move away from home and live on campus. They made their choice so now they must live with it.
I’m 12 years out of undergrad and still paying off thousands in student loans, and that’s with two parents and a step-parent paying most of my tuition. But Kirsten’s right; that was totally my choice, and personally I can’t complain. If you think she’s off base, however, drop us a note and I’ll add. Update from a reader living in New York, Peter Zdanowicz:
I also went to university in Canada. You cannot compare paying for a college education in the U.S. to funding one in Canada. Right now undergrad tuition to one of the best schools in Canada (university of Toronto) is $6,040 CDN, or about $5,000 USD. And there is no in-state / out-of-state qualification; that price is what all Canadians would pay.
A Canadian can certainly pay for most, if not all, of his or her tuition with after-school work and summer jobs. I too worked in restaurants and painted houses to pay for school. I had enough left over to pay rent and even buy some furniture.
Tuition in Canada is heavily subsidized by the government, which makes is relatively affordable. In Canada the calculus of paying for higher education is much more about choice. You can go to almost any university in Canada and pay $5,000 to $7,000 in tuition. Cost is usually not a barrier to higher education. I got to choose the school that best suited to my needs. That’s a real choice.
Another reader, Doug, is on the same page as Peter:
Kirsten is wrong. I too am Canadian, and I put myself through university with a minimum of debt. It is much, much, cheaper to go to a good university (in my case Simon Fraser University) than it is in the U.S. You simply can not compare the two. I don’t know when she went to university or which one. I graduated in 1976 with $5K in loans—about $21K in today’s dollars, a roughly four-fold increase, and today the cost has gone up by about four times as well.
The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s—and the world’s—premier universities. You can see its pricing here and you’ll notice that except for a few specialty programs, most undergraduate disciplines are in the $6K/year for a full course load. What are the costs in the U.S. for an undergraduate arts/science degree at a world class university for a U.S. citizen? A quick search showed me it was at likely to be at least $20K/year and three to four times that for one of the Ivies. You aren’t going to save that kind of money by tutoring and working a (likely minimum wage) part-time job or two while taking a full course load, even if you have the luxury of living at home with your parents for free.
My degree was the most expensive of all programs offered at my university, which I should have mentioned. All in all I paid about $60k for tuition. That’s a lot no matter where you’re from, especially when you’re living in the most expensive city in Canada. Now add in a car, gas, insurance, parking, random university fees that always crop up, car repairs, food etc etc and it doesn’t look so cheap.
In Canada, scholarships are a lot harder to come by than a lot of other countries (at least I didn’t qualify!). Americans complain about the high cost of their post secondary, but we are forgetting to mention how cheap the cost of living is in most U.S. cities (I’m not counting places like the Bay Area). Had I chosen to live on campus and get a meal plan, my university education would easily have topped $100k.
My point is that people have choices—choices NOT to sign up for thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loans because they don’t want to commute to a local university instead. Yes, that would mean giving up the “university dream” and working while attending school.
While I was at university, a classmate of mine didn’t work a single day she attended school. Instead she got loan after loan after loan. Before I lost track of her in third year she was $50k in debt with no clue how to pay it back. I still wonder about her and how she sleeps at night with that albatross around her neck. We graduated in 2008, which was the Great Recession and no one was getting jobs after grad. That’s another story though.
My parents raised us with the philosophy of “If you can’t afford it, you don’t get it,” and it’s a great motto to live by. If I couldn’t afford university, then I wasn’t going. If you can’t afford to attend an out-of-state school, then you’re not going. It’s really that simple.
That’s also why I started saving money for school while I was in grade 10. It’s not a surprise that school crops up at the end of grade 12, so why are so many students shocked when it does?
My brother completed his PhD at our local university when he should have been at an Ivy League school. He didn’t go because he couldn’t afford it and he didn’t want to be saddled with six-figure debt. He has built an amazing career so far which proves he didn’t suffer by staying in province and not living the “university dream.” He graduated with no debt.
The pressure to live the dream is what pushes a lot of students into signing up for debt they don’t even understand. I read a lot of “I had no idea what I was doing” or “I had no clue how long it would take to pay back” from students with loans—which again points to choice. They chose to be ostriches and bury their heads in the sand instead of educating themselves on what their signature on that paper means. They chose not to start early and work in high school or delay school by a year to save up more money. For the vast majority of people, no one put a gun to their head to sign up for loans; it was their choice. The frat party ends eventually and you’re stuck footing the bill one way or another. Just because your choice to sign up for loans has now come back to haunt you, that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to hear about it anymore.
A doctor of disadvantaged patients details her long and arduous path to financial security:
I grew up in a lower-middle class setting: My father was an engineer, my mother a teacher’s aide, then a teacher. I never had to worry about food on the table, much less a roof over my head, but there was no room for extras. By the time I was in high school, we were settled very comfortably in middle class.
Then the recession of the early 2000s hit, the company my father worked for closed down, and I graduated high school and started college, with my parents living on a single income and my elementary school-aged brother still at home.
By nature (and perhaps a little by nurture as well), I was always a frugal person, but knowledge that my parents were borrowing almost $40,000 a year to pay my college tuition kept me on the very straight and narrow. I only ate the two meals a day that were included in my room and board. I walked everywhere. The rare trips into the city were done via public transportation.
After I graduated from college, I attended medical school, and this time, the student loans were in my name.
I lived with a roommate in a 750 sq ft convertible apartment to cut down on costs. My living costs at that time were kept to an absolute minimum despite living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, but I still got a little sick every time I signed the paperwork to borrow yet another year’s worth of tuition. By the time I graduated, I had paid over $180,000 in tuition at a handsome 6.8% interest rate. My parents had graciously covered my living costs. My friends who were not as fortunate owed nearly $250,000.
In the United States, you are not allowed to practice medicine until you have completed a training period called residency. Residency can vary between 3 to 7 years depending on your career decisions. It is essentially a period of indentured servitude, during which you work 80 hours a week for 49 weeks a year, and receive a federally set stipend in exchange.
The year I started residency, my salary was approximately $45,000 per year—an hourly wage of just over $11. Despite this, I was able to save 30% of my take-home pay. The positive effect of working 80 hours a week is it leaves very little time to waste money.
I started on income-based repayment of my student loans as soon as my grace period ended, but the monthly payments weren’t even covering one-third of the accruing interest. Following residency, some people choose to pursue further training during a period call fellowship. Fellowships vary from 1 to 4 years, during which you work almost as much as in residency and receive a slightly higher stipend. I continued to save as much as possible, and my husband and I were able to pay for our small wedding in cash. I continued income-based repayment, but the student loan principal kept growing, with interest capitalizing year on year.
Finally, after 6 years of post-graduate training, I took my first job at a university hospital almost a year ago. Physicians who practice medicine in an academic setting generally make substantially less than their private practice counterparts. While I make a very handsome salary, it is still only two-thirds of the salaries of my friends in private practice.
My husband, who has a doctorate, is still looking for employment, 9 months after our relocation. [See here for a reader discussion centered on the question, “Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore?]
We continue to rent, but we’re hoping to buy a house in the next several years; we have saved enough for a full 20% down payment. We are both in our 30s, and have deferred having children due to school and training, are anxious that attempting to have children will incur yet another cost in the form of high-risk pregnancy or IVF.
This year, I will max out my 403(b) and Roth IRA. The principal on my student loans have capitalized year upon year, and now are almost $200,000, despite being on income-based repayment for 6 years.
I logically understand that my financial future is secure. We are still on track to be financially independent by the age of 50, even if we do have children. The years of setting a budget and saving like a fiend during residency (and during graduate school for my husband) has left us in an enviable position. Because I work in an underserved area, the balance of my student loans will be forgiven after 120 payments, approximately 4 more years. I have no undergraduate student loan debt. My husband, mercifully, does not have any student loans, nor any other debt.
But despite making a salary that puts me comfortably in the 1% of earners in the state, I remain anxious about money. My husband is unemployed. My student loans exceed the size of the mortgage that my parents borrowed for their house.
Although my parents and my husband’s parents are financially secure, I know how quickly one hospitalization can completely destroy financial stability. My brother is finishing college, and I intend to pay for his graduate school costs so that my parents won’t enter their retirement years with that burden.
My in-laws are still paying off the student loans that they incurred for my husband and his siblings. Retirement plans were not available to us during residency and fellowship and I certainly wasn’t contributing during medical school, so I have 10 fewer years of retirement savings than my college classmates who did not pursue my path.
I am certainly grateful for the opportunities afforded to me by my parents, and I am extremely fortunate to be able to work every day in a position I love, impacting people in a very important and direct way. I wouldn’t say I made any huge financial missteps in my life, although I do wish I had started investing sooner and more aggressively. If retirement plans had been available to me, I certainly would have started saving specifically for retirement sooner.
The biggest financial lesson I have learned, though, is that lifestyle inflation is dangerous. I am still able to aggressively save because I never felt the need to upgrade just because I could. Because of that fundamental belief, I will always be able to work at a job I love, even if it is not as lucrative.
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:
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.
This podcast [SPENT] will address the age-old question: Why are we so f*****d up about money? Each episode will feature stories from people like you, people who have made money mistakes and lived to laugh about it. Well also have great advice from empathetic experts. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, we’ll get our financial lives together, one episode at a time.
Our reader highlights a few of the best episodes so far:
The latest one is with Dean Haspiel, a comic-book artist, Emmy winner (he did the art for and inspired the Zach Galafianakis character in Bored To Death), Marvel and DC veteran … a genuine success in his field, and yet he only recently got out of debt and got health insurance, at nearly age 50. His latest endeavor is a free webcomic about an alternative Brooklyn where art is a currency of exchange. As he says wryly, “This is a romantic fantasy.”
The Tiana Miller episode is another standout. Broke and badly ill with multiple sclerosis, Tiana still musters the spirit and energy to perform standup comedy all around NYC. She talks about learning to navigate the health care system alone, having to rely on friends to take care of her, and how illness helped turn her into a professional funny person. (“I was like, why would I get hired at a chandelier store? One of my main symptoms is intense tremors!”) It’s a really emotional episode.
The movie clip was flagged by another John, from the inbox, telling his story of “rags to riches, living the American dream”:
I have been broke and don’t ever plan on going back there again. I grew up “middle class” because my father was a carpenter and made good money and spent it on “toys”—motorcycles, boats, cars, etc. I had four brothers. I worked for my dad carrying shingles but couldn’t swing a hammer. I got a job at a steakhouse washing dishes and that sucked. I worked in a grocery store bagging food and eventually night-stocking shelves.
My high school had a training program with a community college a few miles away and I certified in welding. After graduating high school I worked welding for a year with great pay. My only experience with a union is that after being hired I was “bullied” into joining the union; the union steward told me to be prepared to strike. Not encouraging for just starting. The strike never came but the business shut down.
I got married, had a kid, started going back to the original community college, got divorced, went to the local state college, got an Electrical Engineering degree, moved out of state, worked three years then got laid off, moved back home, got a job with an electric utility, bought a house, got a live-in girlfriend who loved to gamble and gamble and gamble—but she left with her debt, thank God.
I was deep in credit card debt and had a house payment and a rental house a state away. I took a deep look and decided that debt was the anchor holding me back.
I worked a side wiring job for extra income. I started living within my income instead of overspending for once in my life. I fixed up the rental house and sold it. Paid off the truck loan. Attacked the credit cards and paid them off smallest to largest using the snowball effect. I added 50% to my remaining mortgage for a while then doubled the payment until I had enough in savings to pay it off in full.
I have been maxing out my 401(k) and Roth and saving cash ever since. My work has a pension plan that has been building for the past 25 years. I have sat down and added up all my assets (no debts at all so nothing to delete — woo wooooo!) and they are approaching $1 million at 57 years of age.
What was the one event that made me change my ways? Becoming single the 2nd time and realizing that I was responsible for my own retirement and happiness. I’m not here to “make” anyone else happy as I’ve strived to before in life.
What financial event moved me out of paycheck-to-paycheck living? The realization that things happen and when you need savings to fall back on. The furnace goes out? Buy a new one. The vehicle breaks down? Tell the mechanic to “fix it.” The market tanks? Who cares, buy more dollar cost averaging. Want to go on a trip? Just buy a ticket or hop in the car and go. Want to eat out? Don't look at the prices, eat what you want and leave a big tip without fanfare. Attached is a link to John Goodman explaining why you should have a pile of money.
I’m debt free. I’ve been broke and I’ve been rich. Rich is better.
Reader Dave teaches at a community college, and he crafted a recent class around our current cover story:
I was engrossed by Neal Gabler’s article and admire his candor. It resonated with me particularly because I have been a freelance graphic artist for over 30 years and I understand exactly the feast or famine nature that such a freelance creative career provides, including the fact that art fees have stagnated (even contracted) over the last 20 years, as publishing budgets have done the same.
My wife has also been a long-time freelancer but our financial situation is much more positive at this point than the Mr. Gabler’s, despite what seems like similar costs (mortgage, college, etc.) and income in a high-tax Northeast state. I credit that to the luck of good health, but mostly to learning the basics of personal finance early on and so avoiding some bad decisions and making a few good ones early on. (Those skills were perfectly described in your recent reader entry “When Self-Denial Gives You Freedom.”)
In addition to my freelance work, I have taught as an adjunct in the art department a local community college for many years. Mr. Gabler’s story was so compelling I decided to devote an entire class, entirely off the course topic, to a discussion of the article and a presentation of the basics of personal finance.
I had no idea if the students (generally 18-25 in age) would be interested at all, so I gave them the option to either work on their projects or skip the class. No one did. In fact, in all the years I’ve taught, it was the first time there was applause at the end of a class. Not for my presentation skills, but for having offered information most had never heard and that they recognized could have an immediate positive impact on their lives and for decades into the future.
Here’s an outline of my class presentation, which contains links to articles, tools (Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook) and calculators (debt repayment, compound interest, inflation, undergraduate loan). This kind of information should be mandatory in every high school curriculum.
I thank Mr. Gabler for the article. There are ripple effects that will be felt for quite awhile, as I intend to offer this information in each of my future classes, until there is a required personal finance class, or as long as someone stays to listen.
Here’s some more specific advice from another reader:
I’m writing to offer a suggestion to Linda Lee, [the struggling former newspaper editor] whose story was outlined here. I tutored on anything writing-related for extra income after college. It was one of the few ways I could command a decent hourly wage for the skills I had as a writer.
Tutoring was very flexible. I was able to do it on my own time even if it was only for a free hour here and there during the week. Sessions can be held in any location (libraries, coffee shops, client homes, remotely, etc.) Getting started is simple, and cash payments at the end of a session are a way to get some extra funds very quickly. Craigslist and Wyzant.com were good ways to find clients. As a veteran (and published?) journalist and editor, I’m sure Ms. Lee’s skills would be in demand.
I passed along that advice to Linda and she replied:
I did NOT get that Civil Service job, and the people in Paris have still not wired me the $2,000, so I’m up for any advice. I had thought of freelance writing, but never thought of tutoring. It’s a great idea. (Better than going to a temp agency.) I really like the idea of someone handing me cash at the end of a tutoring session. Instant commodification.
Another reader, Amanda, previously offered advice to Ben—the unemployed dad without a college degree—in an update to “The Demoralizing Process That Job Searches Have Become.” (If you have any tips on how to make it less demoralizing, please email us.) Here’s how Ben replied to the update, which plugged a scholarship program from the mikeroweWORKS Foundation: “Well, now I know what I’m doing with my Saturday.” We’ll keep you posted on that and other reader developments.
The overwhelming majority of the reader response to Gabler’s story has been positive and supportive. But to balance things out a bit, here’s a strong reader dissent from Adam (a pseudonym), who benefitted a great deal from community college:
Hello! I wanted to comment on the discussion around money and Neal Gabler’s essay. This is a little bit of my own story and mostly a comment on his piece. Apologies if this is off-topic; I had a strong response to the cover story.
Gabler’s essay is out of touch and frankly obnoxious. By his own admission, his financial quandaries are entirely his own fault. He had privilege and opportunity, and made a series of choices that put him in desperate straits. He picked a risky career path in which money comes inconsistently; he then refused to live within his means, squandering his money on status symbols like living in the most expensive areas of the country, private school tuition for his children’s entire educations, and expensive weddings. I have no sympathy for him; he is paying the price of his own snobbery and unwillingness to make pragmatic choices.
In my observation, this is radically different from the predicament of most struggling American families. Many people have never had access to even a fraction of the opportunity Gabler describes, and have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into climbing up from poverty into the lower middle class, only to get knocked back into poverty because the car broke down, the rent was raised, someone got cancer, etc. Gabler pleads masculine pride in telling his wife not to return to work; many families never had the option of a full-time caretaker even when their children were newborns, let alone a spouse staying out of the workforce when the children have gone to college.
This is somewhat of a pet issue for me because, like Gabler, I am from a relatively privileged background—just privileged enough to be exposed to the idea that I should conduct myself like a wealthy person and refuse to consider money in my decision-making. Many of my relatives sank their whole fortunes into sending children to expensive private colleges they couldn’t afford. Why? I have never understood this.
I knew damn well at 17 that my family didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to send me to school, so I went to community college and then a state university and graduated with no debt. That’s a testament to my incredible good fortune; my parents were able to pay tuition at a state school (it was about $7k/year). I don’t think I would deserve any sympathy if I’d refused that opportunity to send us all into debt just so I could go to my “dream school.” Many of my cousins and former classmates have done this, and I think it’s a preposterous waste.
Maybe it’s the fact that people studied at these “dream school” enclaves that partly explains why they are so out of touch and unwilling to live within their means. At the state university, I went to school with young people who grew up in deep poverty, who were the first in their family to go to college, etc. This taught me a lot of gratitude about my own middle-class background and fundamentally altered my reference point for the class system. I no longer think of rich people as normal and see myself as inadequate; I instead realize that working-class people are much more typical and I feel fortunate. My sympathy lies with the families that are making tough choices about housing and healthcare, not with the families who are making “tough” choices about fancy wedding locations.
Thanks for curating wonderful discussions and keeping comments anonymous!
Our latest reader story of fiscal conservatism in the face of uncertainty comes from an African American woman in Birmingham, Alabama:
I was born in January of 1973 out of wedlock to a single mother who already had two older kids. My mother and father were surprisingly cordial to each other all my life until they passed in 2008. Neither had a high school diploma, but my father was a very smart man. My father took financial responsibility for me but not my two half sibling, so basically my mother struggled all her days to make ends meet.
I lived with my mother in public housing (ghetto) in the state of Alabama. She was a CNA [certified nursing assistant] and we lived paycheck to paycheck. If she was able to save any money, an emergency would come along to gobble it up.
One of the emergencies that has stuck in my head for 30 years and set me on my current path was a flat tire.
Yes, a flat tire. I’ll never forget I was about 13 and my mother's old Ford Pinto (green) got a flat tire. The puncture was on the side of the tire and it couldn’t be patched, so it needed to be replaced, but she didn’t have enough money to buy a new one. She had to call around to family members to borrow the money for the tire. She made promises to pay back the cash on payday.
I made a promise to myself never to be in the situation of having to beg or borrow money. In my mother’s household there was always an emergency. I learned there will always be an emergency when you don’t make enough money for day-to-day living. Those early life lessons have made me into a penny pincher. I started working at age 15 and have never stopped.
I got accepted into every university I applied to. I stretched myself thin working while in college to cover basic needs that my family couldn’t help me with, like food. I got scholarships and financial aid to cover most of the costs of a college education, but because of financial illiteracy (and family illiteracy), I got into student loan debt and credit card debt.
My father and I sat down on his front porch after I got my first job out of college and he told me how to budget. (I was too embarrassed to tell him I was already in debt when I graduated.) This is advice from a man that never went to high school but also never went homeless or hungry:
1. Use one week of your salary to pay a car note and insurance.
2. Use two weeks of your salary to pay rent or house note.
3. Use one week of salary to pay your monthly bills.
4. Twice a year you’re going to get an extra two week’s pay—save it for a rainy day.
My response was, “OK daddy, but how can I save a dollar when all I got is a dollar?” His response was, “Spend 80 cents and save and tithe the other 20 cents.” If you can’t pay for it out of what you have, don’t get it.
And he meant every word he said. There weren’t any rich family members or grandparents available to bail me out of financial trouble. And neither he nor my mother had access to lines of credit, such as home equity loans. But my mother sometimes used payday loans to stretch her money to support her household. Payday loans would put an enormous strain on her that translated into stress for her kids. Watching my mother struggle was hard for me. I grew up with a since of lack, uncertainty, and a feeling of insecurity. We had love and respect but no money.
How am I doing now at age 43? I am divorced. I have one child (11) and a niece (14) I support. I’ve been in the workforce for 18 years in a stable career. I made about $69,200.00 last year.
$12,586.26 (18.2%) of my salary went to taxes (fed, AL state, Birmingham city, SS, and Medicare)
$11,313.79 (16.3%) of my salary went to pretax deductions (retirement, medical, dental)
$45,299.95 (65.5%) Went to me!
I have a modest house payment of $1,000.00 / month. I pay extra each month to pay it off faster.
I send my kids to public school ($1,000.00 yearly in fees and lunches)
I have a 2015 Camry that I owe about $12,800.00 on. I could have saved more money last year but I wanted a new Camry with a sunroof. My used Prius’ lithium ion battery died four months after the warranty was up and six months after I spent $900.00 in repairs. It was time for an upgrade.
I don’t have credit card debt (thanks to Dave Ramsey [the financial author]). I have $70,000.00 in my state pension and $60,000.00 in my IRA. My daughter has a 529 college plan worth about $4,000.00. I have about $30,000.00 cash in the bank.
Since I don’t have a financial safety net, I need a hefty savings account to make me feel secure. I would like to save more and spend less, but the costs of life keep creeping up. The monthly rates for water, gas, and electricity have increased this year, so that I am paying about $30.00 more per month than this time in 2014. That is $360.00 per year.
I shop at thrift stores for clothing except for underwear and shoes, and those costs have steadily increased every year. I shop at ALDI instead of Walmart but still spend close to $500.00 on groceries. I even take my lunch to work most days.
I learned some hard lessons about the lack of money early in life and during my struggle through college that have stirred me toward financial literacy, security, and peace. I also know that life isn’t predictable and bad things happen to good people, so it is best to be prepared for the worst.
Payday lending works like this: In exchange for a small loan—the average amount borrowed is about $350—a customer agrees to pay a single flat fee, typically in the vicinity of $15 per $100 borrowed. For a two-week loan, that can equate to an annualized rate of almost 400 percent. The entire amount—the fee plus the sum that was borrowed—is generally due all at once, at the end of the term. (Borrowers give the lender access to their bank account when they take out the loan.) But because many borrowers can’t pay it all back at once, they roll the loan into a new one, and end up in what the industry’s many critics call a debt trap, with gargantuan fees piling up.
As Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s law school, puts it in her new book, How the Other Half Banks, “One of the great ironies in modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.”
Well, I had a plan, I had a history of and was going through a severe downward spiral of depression brought on by a lifetime of abuse, chemical and hormone imbalances, Februaries, and a devastating final blow to my family’s financial survival. At this point, I had been bouncing around on meds with my PCP [personal care provider] but really needed a psychiatrist, a specialist, but I couldn’t get an appointment for three months with the only psychiatrist I called that was taking new patients. And the rest of THAT story makes for another story about our healthcare system, but for now: finances.
I’ve never been good with money. I liked to have experiences, not things. I literally haven’t owned an entertainment unit in ten years. I can’t stomach spending the money on it. Concerts, trips, kids activities, preschool tuition—that was important to me.
Before marriage and kids, I went to the notorious Art Institute (my second try at college—depression got the best of me my 1st time and I dropped out three years in). I got a fun, creative, and inspiring $70K education that has yet to bring me that salary in one year. After college, I worked for about a year-and-a-half before I was laid off five months pregnant due to the financial crisis in ‘07/’08.
My husband’s career, meanwhile, was steadily elevating. No college. Zip. But he took care of us enough to have another baby 2-1/2 years later and buy a house with a mortgage that was just $50 more than the apartment we were renting (which was a shit-hole). Things were looking UP for us, but I think the real downfall started then.
With no savings of any kind (we scraped pennies together for the 3% FHA down payment), we slowly dug our graves. We maxed out our credit cards on new floors and defaulted. We took credit at furniture stores and defaulted. Soon, my loans went into default (they wanted over $600 a month even considering our income).
Now we had kids, but we weren’t dead! We have lots of friends, lots of fun stuff to do, and now our kids had social lives, too. Soon, I NEEDED to go back to work for my sense of self-worth and for all the things we wanted to do. I refused to place my kids in one of those daycares that hires 19 year olds for $9/hr (you know, the ones you hear about on the news for forgetting a kid on the bus after a field trip or locking kids in closets). Also, interestingly enough, I’m a terrible classist it seems. If my kids were being minded by someone, the least they could do is enrich their young impressionable minds. My kids would be baby Einsteins!
Private preschool tuition for two, new/used mini-van with the buttons and computer panel, dinners and drinks and concerts and blowing off steam with friends, and finally, last year, our $5,000 medical deductible finally became too much to do. I was working but still making the base $36K/year that I made before I even went back to college in 2003. Let that sink in. I worked as an assistant, with no skills or experience and made the same amount after I went to college, had my own business, built up a portfolio, business contacts and reputation. I obviously failed that test.
Now, March 2016, I was just let go from my job (financial instability of the small businesses for which I continue to work), filed our taxes and was expecting a big return—one that was desperately needed. We were two months behind on every single bill payment, including the mortgage and car. We seemed to owe everyone and their mother $200, like we manufactured Benjamins in our garage. I wasn’t earning my sweet $2200 a month anymore, so we planned on this refund taking us through the next two months, giving me a cushion to find another job.
Well, to my surprise, the government had other plans. Uncle Sam came to collect on the federally backed Sallie Mae loans I’d be unable to keep up with. They took the entire refund before it ever hit our account.
My heart sank. I saw us losing our house, our car, my daughter, with 2-1/2 months left of Pre-K, would have to be pulled from school. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to die. I put the final nail in our coffins. We had nothing. We HAVE nothing. We couldn’t get an apartment for what we pay for our spacious home if we lost it.
My plan? My plan was to drive into oncoming traffic or just slam into the freeway median or drive off a bridge. I have life insurance through my husband’s work, after all. It had to be an accident so that my kids would never suspect my intentions.
Shame. I was so disgusted with myself I couldn’t think of anything except “disgusting piece of shit,” which is actually what I wrote over and over in my journal before and during the first part of my holiday in the cuckoos nest.
So, it’s been a month. With a lot of help from my personal financial advisor (my mom—yes, an almost 40-year-old woman needs her mommy to figure our her finances … shame), we have put together our total debt and planned our escape from this uncharted level of hell.
Trying to get well emotionally while also demolishing the house of lies of our financial situation is very hard and it’s tempting to let the depression wash over me so I don’t have to feel. But, I can never go back there again. Our children are still young and they don’t have to ever remember this time, right? Except for when we tell them about the time we used credit like it was a God-given right as an American, and it destroyed our lives, marriage, and almost destroyed our mommy.
Not all of the reader entries for our “true money stories” are ones of financial woe; fiscal conservative Lori Miller offered various tips with the kicker “with enough money saved, you can tell them all to piss off”; another reader described how her sex work was both lucrative and empowering; and a “Financial Independence Obsessive” detailed her track record at length. The opening anecdote from this next reader, Chris, is a great illustration of how his parents instilled fiscal responsibility at a young age—and, as you’ll see, he carried those values into adulthood:
I’ll never forget my first lesson in personal finance. When I was 12 years old, I wanted to go to the movies with my friends. They were all going unchaperoned, and I couldn’t stand the thought of saying no because an adult had to be there. I asked my parents, and they said, simply, “If you don’t need an adult to go with you, you don’t need an adult to pay for you.”
It was simple; it was easy for me to understand; it stuck with me ever since. If I wanted freedom—true freedom—then I needed to be able to pay for it.
When I was 14, I got my first job, as a camp counselor. I got to keep half of my earnings, but my parents took the other half to put toward my education. They sacrificed to put me through private school, but I needed to have some skin in the game as well, even though $400 doesn’t really go so far.
When I turned 16, I wanted to drive. My grandmother sold me her car for a dollar, so that was squared away, but I lived in a city with astronomical car insurance rates. If I wanted my license, I had to pay my fair share, so I spent my summer job money coming up with $1,200 for insurance. When I was 16.5, I got into an accident and had my first lesson in unexpected expenses: $500 for the deductible and a premium that rose to $2,600 a year.
I went to a top tier university—one of the ones that has conspicuous wealth, and one of the ones where, when I said I couldn’t afford to get the newest, most advanced gadget, my classmates encouraged me simply to put it on my student account. How could I, though? My parents were already paying for my education; wouldn’t it be dishonest of me to charge something to a credit account for which my parents couldn’t even see the line items?
My friends often went on extravagant spring break trips, while I worked over my spring breaks. A student group I joined traveled every year, and we did get to go to far off lands, but I was only able to go because I saved all of the money I could scrape together to pay for it myself.
Many of those friends are wildly successful, mostly due to a combination of natural ability and drive as well as some good breaks, but many others are not so successful, even with that natural ability and drive.
When I got my first job, I was thrilled, but my pay was pretty average for my location. It’s been five years since starting that first job, and my coworkers and I have all done relatively well. As I got to know them more, most of whom were my age or a couple years older, I saw them spending lavishly; they got top tier apartments and nicer cars; they ate out five nights a week and bought their lunch every day; they went on at least one foreign vacation a year.
I found myself thinking, those coworkers must make a ton more than I do! But I learned a few things about them along the way. First, they all made roughly the same as I did, and their pay has tracked roughly with mine. However, half of them contributed nothing to their 401k; the other half contributed 5% or less. None of them established emergency funds; all of them financed their lifestyles on credit cards. Many of them want to make the next step in their lives—starting families—but are hamstrung without financial reserves in case of emergency. They will eventually get there, but later than they want.
All the while, I was saving 12% of my income for retirement, and though I couldn’t save much, I forced myself to put away at least $200 a month toward savings, increasing that number any time I got a raise or bonus. I didn’t go on vacations, and I cooked for myself most of the time (developing some pretty awesome cooking skills!). Every so often, I challenged myself to be more frugal without sacrificing my 20s, and it has paid off without question.
Today, I am married with no student loans of my own, and my wife and I are working on paying off hers. Together, we have multiple credit cards, but we use them strategically. We put all of our expenses on them and pay them in full at the end of the month, meaning that since we get a minimum of 2% cash back, we are always earning a 2% discount on our purchases.
We bought our first home last year, for less than half of what the bank approved us for. We have modest cars, which we financed only because the interest rates were lower than recent inflation rates, and we carpool to and from work most days. We have taken a few vacations, but only because we earmarked savings to do so. We save 16.5% of our take-home pay in Roth retirement accounts and dedicate 17.5% of our take-home pay toward building emergency reserves. Each time we have gotten a raise, we allow a little bit for ourselves and put the rest toward our savings.
By the time we hit 30 years old, we will have six-figure retirement reserves.
The part about surprise expenses is absolutely reality to us. Last month, my car was hit while I was at work and the person who hit me didn’t leave a note. The insurance deductible was $500, and due to a variety of reasons, we realized it was best to buy a new car. (The dealer gave us a reasonable trade value on it.) To keep payments reasonable, we tossed in an extra $2,500.
The next week, we took our dog to the vet for an ear infection, only to learn that she had cancer. The next week, she had surgery. In the past three weeks, the vet has cost upwards of $2,000.
And, almost on cue, we discovered that we had an infestation of yellow jackets, the lawn mower broke, and the dishwasher quit. After all was said and done, we wound up with $6,000 in unexpected expenses in just over one week.
Thankfully, we had been given sound advice and had planned for just this sort of series of events. We absorbed some of the cost into our monthly budget by sacrificing some of our typical expenses, and the rest came out of our emergency fund, which will take about four months to repay.
The point of all this is to send the message that it is possible to build a nest egg. It feels daunting when you are fresh out of college and with debt, but you start to see results after a while. The first milestone is a positive net worth. The next is knowing that your retirement is on track. The next is knowing that a job loss wouldn’t mean your ruin. And on and on until you realize that your hard work has given you what you always wanted: your freedom.
That’s what these two readers went through. The first:
Neal Gabler’s article needs to be shared and sent from one end of the country to the other. The worse thing that happened to me in recent years was outsourcing. My entire industry up and died over the course of one year; all the work went to Canada. I was decimated. I had no savings, my wife wasn’t making anything, and there were no jobs—none that I could find.
I went into a downward spiral of fear, panic, extreme sadness, and a feeling of absolute destitution. I couldn’t sleep much. I cried all the time, trying to hide it from my wife and daughter as much as I could. They still knew.
Though I hadn’t even been inside of a church in 30 years, I wound up going one day, sobbing to the reverend after service. I was lost, and I knew it.
Emotionally, spiritually—we define ourselves by our jobs, and now I had none. I pounded the pavement, making calls and calls. Eventually I got lucky and caught a break—a small firm that led to better work, and then better.
But the damage took years for me to overcome mentally. Four years later and I just got over the fear of looking at my bank account. And I still have no savings for my family. My wife makes better money now, but we’re not that young anymore. I live in constant worry for our future, knowing we aren’t prepared, and having to use most of the money we make now just to stay just a little ahead of the bills.
The other reader whose religious faith was deepened:
I have just gotten through your cover story and certainly agree that the middle class, poor, and some of the upper classes are in a financial mess. I watched as my income stagnated over the years. My own downfall came when I lost my job of over 26 years, obliterated my 401K, and bought a franchise business in 2006, which never made a dime (all my customers were losing their jobs and homes). I went bankrupt in 2009 and had a brain hemorrhage in 2012, which almost took my life, disabling me. I will always believe that this happened as a result of stress and worry over finances.
At that point, I had barely two extra dollars to rub together. I distinctly remember lying down on the floor in my bedroom and literally surrendering to God.
One of my blessings is not having had a credit card since 2008 … and no credit card bills. My hospital bills were forgiven. By God’s grace, I was able to keep and refinance my house and through social security and a small pension (remember those?). I am making it.
But I am careful with what I have. My faith has got me through this life and I refuse to worry, and I nip it in the bud if I start to slip. What did worry ever bring me that is good? I could come up with $400 in an emergency, or even a couple thousand through some hard saving. I am not always frugal; I can’t live that way. Still, what is a vacation?
Yet, I am grateful and hopeful and I will always need grace. Speaking of which, pray for me: my car is 16 years old ...
I principally want to say thanks for your reader stories on financial insecurity. It reminds me of just how plain lucky I am. It is too easy to feel holier-than-thou, but many decisions I’ve made were done with no more or less foresight than your contributors. Neal Gabler's article was excellent. I cringed at the cost of upholding some of his values, but was appreciative of his candor; and saddened (though not surprised) at the awful comments.
Several worrisome recurring themes are present in your readers’ stories. I just cannot believe that secondary educational costs and the consequent debt are sustainable. And somehow finding means to support independent journalism seems imperative to me. Lastly the whims, the slings and arrows, of corporate careers seem only to worsen, with more and more victims falling by the wayside.
These stories almost provide me an understanding of the success of Mr. Trump’s presidential run.
Our next reader, Ben, hasn’t completed college yet and is struggling to find a job. This line is pretty gut-punching: “I had hoped to find my way to something resembling a career before my kids were old enough to notice that their father was a failure, but it’s looking more and more like I won’t meet that deadline.” Ben’s full story:
I grew up working in a family business. When my dad retired, he split the business up among his kids. I was a little too young and a little too ignorant to keep it going for long, and after four or five years it fizzled out. After that I spent a couple years doing freelance writing/other stuff, but most of that work dried up eventually as well.
I settled into a stable but dead-end retail clerk job for three years, but I’m topped out at barely-surviving levels of income in my job and have started looking for other work. This is my first real job search, and I’ve discovered something terrible: I’m completely unemployable, at least at anything that pays enough that we could technically survive on it. I’ve sent out a little over 80 applications in the last month or so, and only managed to get around five interviews, none of which led anywhere.
As bad as the realization that I’m soon to be without work is, it’s not the worst part for me emotionally. Worse is the demoralizing process that job searches have become. Recruiters for large companies will call you in for “sure thing” interviews that turn out to be jobs you can’t get. I’ve learned that many of them need to meet a certain threshold on interviews to secure bonuses and will get you in by any means possible.
Interviewers ask questions that reward liars and punish the truthful, but it doesn’t matter; your answers aren’t important if the next guy has a degree. Ditto work experience.
The worst are online assessments, by far. I have dozens of hours clocked taking complex logic and multitasking tests. I’ve aced them left and right, but the purpose of them isn’t to make sure a person without a degree is smart; it’s to make sure the degree-holder that HR demanded isn’t stupid.
And these aren’t great jobs, either: $25-30k a year with no or shitty benefits, in a lot of cases. The bachelor’s degree they want isn’t related to the work; it’s just something they can expect to get so it’s something they ask for. It’s the new high school diploma.
I’m looking into completing my bachelor’s, but that’s terrifying in a different way: How do you afford college if the best job you can get is Lyft? If I sink myself into $40-60k worth of debt to get a $30k-a-year-job, will I ever be able to dig out?
Update from a reader, Amanda, who points to some potential help:
Ben’s story immediately made me think of Mike Rowe’s foundation, as he seems to be exactly the kind of person Rowe is trying to target with his foundation's “Profoundly Disconnected” campaign. They’re currently taking applications for a scholarship program for the purpose of, in Rowe’s words, getting people the training they need for jobs that actually exist. I myself went the college route, but I appreciate Rowe’s efforts because, as Ben’s story illustrates, going to college to get a job doesn’t always make sense.
All recipients of the scholarship money have to sign the “S.W.E.A.T. Pledge” (Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo). From the list of 12 points:
1. I believe that I have won the greatest lottery of all time. I am alive. I walk the Earth. I live in America. Above all things, I am grateful.
2. I believe that I am entitledto life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing more. I also understand that “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” are not the same thing.
3. I believe there is no such thing as a “bad job.” I believe that all jobs are opportunities, and it’s up to me to make the best of them.
4. I do not “follow my passion.” I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.
5. I deplore debt, and do all I can to avoid it. I would rather live in a tent and eat beans than borrow money to pay for a lifestyle I can’t afford.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whoever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
History suggests that Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to have a tough two years and a disaster in the midterms. Here’s their plan to avoid that.
Joe Biden’s team is planning a party. His inauguration on Wednesday, held under threat from the coronavirus and pro-Trump extremists, wasn’t much of a celebration. But the Biden administration hopes that January 20, 2022—a year from now—will mark what some aides are describing as a “renewing of the vows,” an anniversary that could be a genuinely happy moment.
By then, Biden hopes, he will have made Americans feel like they’ve put the horrors of 2020 behind them. More than anything, that depends on whether he can dig the country out from the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccine distribution and economic recovery will be key.
Basic competence of government could go a long way: Imagine the political boost Biden could earn when people start going to the movies again, or children start seeing their grandparents. Biden is already planning to push ahead on an additional $1,400 in relief checks (a disappointment to those who wanted another $2,000) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage—both part of a $2 trillion relief package. He’s also planning an infrastructure bill that would create new green jobs, and include other measures to help fight climate change.
Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.
President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.
In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?
She who dies with the most checked boxes wins, right? Wrong.
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Starting today, the column will be published weekly on Thursday mornings.
I am an inveterate scorekeeper. I can go back decades and find lists of goals I set for myself to gauge “success” by certain milestone birthdays. For example, in my 20s, I had a to-do list for the decade, the items on which more or less told the story of a penniless musician who had made some dubious choices. It included quitting smoking, going to the dentist, mastering my pentatonic scales, and finishing college. (I hit them all, although the last one mere days before my 30th birthday.)
There is nothing unusual about this tendency to keep score. Google “30 things to do before you turn 30” and you will get more than 15,000 results. Researchers writing in the journal Psychological Science a few years ago observed that people are naturally motivated toward performance goals related to round numbers, and birthdays in particular can often act as landmarks to motivate self-improvement. We naturally seek outside sources of quantitative evidence of our progress and effectiveness—and, thus, our happiness.
Millions of Americans sympathize with the Capitol insurrection. Everyone else must figure out how to live alongside them.
They could be real-estate agents or police officers, bakers or firefighters, veterans of American wars or CEOs of American companies. They might live in Boise or Dallas, College Park or College Station, Sacramento or Delray Beach. Some are wealthy. Some are not. Relatively few of them were at the United States Capitol on January 6, determined to stop Congress from certifying a legitimate election. Millions more cheered the rioters on—and still do.
As a group, it’s hard to know what to call them. They are too many to merit the term extremists. There are not enough of them to be secessionists. Some prominent historians and philosophers have been arguing for a revival of the word fascist; others think white supremacist is more appropriate, though there could also be a case for rebel. For want of a better term, I’m calling all of them seditionists—not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it: Congress, the media, Mike Pence, the election officials in all 50 states, and the judges in dozens of courts.
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
In 20 minutes, the president signaled how he will approach this job and this moment in history.
Political speeches follow a surprisingly simple set of rules—or at least the successful ones do. Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden observed them all in his inaugural address. Although his 20 minutes at the lectern are not likely to be parsed and studied for rhetorical flourishes, with this speech Biden accomplished something more important: He signaled how he will approach this job and this moment in history.
The first rule in political rhetoric is authenticity. Does the essence of the speech—its vocabulary, its rhythms, its cadences, its tendencies toward “plain” versus “fancy” tone—match the essence of the speaker? Does the rhetoric call attention to itself? Or does it mainly serve to transmit the mood, intention, and ideas the speaker hopes to convey?
A casualty of Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, Isabel haunted my childhood like a ghost. Then I started searching for her.
The report from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team included 20 photos of my half sister’s bones—nearly as many photos as I had ever seen of Isabel herself.
The ones of the bones punctured by bullets—her rib, her pelvis, her humerus—did not move me as much as those of her skull. It was so old-looking, like one of those prehistoric craniums of Homo sapiens, the nose bashed in, some of the teeth missing, that earthen coloring. The skull had lain in a common grave, untouched for more than 30 years, before being taken to a lab, where it remained officially unidentified for about another 10. The sight of it destroyed me. In all the photos I had seen, Isabel looked incredibly young, with a cherubic beauty—round cheeks, light hair, searching blue eyes. She had been murdered and disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina in January 1978, when she was just 22. Staring at those photos of her skeleton in March 2018, I was eight years older than she ever had been. Never before had I quite grasped how much time she hadn’t gotten to live, to age and grow old, until I saw her bones, and realized they had been aging without the rest of her.
A global pandemic doesn’t give us cause to treat the aged callously.
Crises can elicit compassion, but they can also evoke callousness. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve witnessed communities coming together (even as they have sometimes been physically forced apart), and we’ve seen individuals engaging in simple acts of kindness to remind the sick and quarantined that they are not forgotten. Yet from some quarters, we’ve also seen a degree of cruelty that is truly staggering.
Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook about an experience he’d just had on the Upper West Side of Manhattan: “I heard a guy who looked to be in his 20s say that it’s not a big deal cause the elderly are gonna die anyway. Then he and his friend laughed … Maybe I’m lucky that I had awesome grandparents and maybe this guy didn’t but what is wrong with people???” Some have tried to dress up their heartlessness as generational retribution. As someone tweeted at me earlier today, “To be perfectly honest, and this is awful, but to the young, watching as the elderly over and over and over choose their own interests ahead of Climate policy kind of feels like they’re wishing us to a death they won’t have to experience. It’s a sad bit of fair play.”
Children rarely get very ill from COVID-19. But there’s another reason to vaccinate them.
A few days after Christmas, Molly Hering, 14, and her brother, Sam, 12, got their first shots as part of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trials for kids. Their mom had heard about a clinical trial being conducted at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and Molly told me that she’d agreed to join because she wanted to contribute to the vaccine-development effort.
Molly and Sam’s dad was recently hospitalized with COVID-19. (He recovered.) Both kids have spent most of the past year dealing with Zoom school and its attendant technical glitches. Molly finally went back to in-person ninth grade this month, but masks and social distancing are required at school. Like everyone else, she’s looking forward to the end of the pandemic. “I’ll finally be able to go to school normally,” she said.