The Subjective $400 Crisis 

The Federal Reserve’s Report on Economic Well-Being on US Households in 2014 reported that 47% of Americans do not have $400 in liquid funds to meet an immediate emergency. The 47% of Americans are not just the working poor and the unemployed, it also includes members of the middle-class and upper middle-class by income bracket. Following this report, the writer Neal Gabler ‘outed’ himself as part of this 47% for the headline article for the May issue of The Atlantic ‘The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans’. Neal Gabler, at least on the outside, embodies the life of an upper-middle class American family. He lives in the Hamptons with his wife, they used to have a co-op apartment in Brooklyn but sold it, his two daughters went to private school, after that they attended Stanford University and University of Texas, became a Rhodes Scholar, then onto Harvard Medical school, paid for by his parents (which means his inheritance was spent too), and recently, this past winter, he had to borrow money from his daughters to fill up the tank for his winter fuel. He couldn’t cover that expense otherwise. He was deeply ashamed and embarrassed about it (he shouldn’t be, isn’t this what the private school and elite university education was for?). Gabler goes into forensic detail about what he’d had done wrong financially and it was brave to reveal in black and white your economic missteps over the years. In short, he lived beyond his means but not in a grandiose fashion, he was under the false belief that his means would keep increasing to commensurate with the rising cost of living. Even as a writer, his wages have fallen flat too. His compensation for his articles barely budged for the last 20 years. He’s published 5 books and has another in the works, wrote hundreds of articles, has a teaching job, and by all quantifications, he’s done well for himself, especially in such a financially precarious profession. When reading between the lines, besides his own admission, one can see that this man of letters has zero business sense. He also admitted that his male pride kept him from revealing to his wife just how stretched their budget was and it was that same male pride that induced him to cash out his meager retirement account to pay for his daughter’s wedding. He didn’t want the in-laws to know just in what dire straits they were in.

In contrast, Sandra Bland’s bail amount for her last arrest where she died in police custody was $515, not too much over the $400 emergency threshold, but an astronomical amount for the supposed ‘crime’ she committed. Bland’s family and friends tried to raise this amount for her and they couldn’t. Sandra had 4 sisters, her mother owns a real estate company and was recently married, and she had a myriad of friends and relatives, but they couldn’t put together $515 to save Bland’s life. Of course they had no way of knowing that Bland was to die in police custody or what kind of treatment she would receive while in custody, but the fact remains – Bland’s extensive family and friends couldn’t put $515 together within 24 hours or less. This cost her her life.

Kalief Browder committed suicide after he was released from prison without trial. He spent three years behind bars without trial because his mother initially couldn’t raise the $3000 bail and by the time she did, due to some technicality, he was denied eligibility for bail. Roughly two of the three years he spent in Rikers Island awaiting trial was spent in solitary confinement. When he was in the ‘box’, he was starved, abused emotionally and psychologically. When he was with the general population, he was beaten, brutalized and raped by other inmates and prison guards. When he was released due to insufficient evidence to go to trial, he suffered from psychological trauma, PTSD and depression. He hung himself in his mother’s house on June 6, 2015. Both of these victims were black, indigent and definitely had no emergency fund for when they get pulled over and arrested by the racist and brutal police force – which by all measurements is the biggest emergency of their lives.

When Neal Gabler wrote the headline article for The Atlantic about his financial incompetence which lead to where he’s at today, he knew he would be criticized, mocked and ridiculed and he deserves to be. Most liberal publications such as Slate and Huffington Post think it’s a complete joke that Gabler would even put himself in the same category as someone who is financially distressed – especially as he admits, most of it was his own fault. He is terrible with money and finances, he made terrible decisions without realizing they had bad financial repercussions. He spent money where he shouldn’t have. In circumstances where he should have driven a harder bargain he didn’t. Gabler stated in his  article that he wanted “no sympathy”, and that his financial incompetence is just “a fact”, he’s not making excuses for his family fortunes (or misfortunes) but that he wanted to share how he got to where he is now and there are millions of outwardly successful professionals like him, who suffer in silence because of shame and embarrassment. In fact, Gabler asserts that he’d much rather admit to “sexual impotence” than “financial impotence”- at least the former is a medical condition which is out of his control.

This same $400 mean very different things between a white upper-middle class “successful” published writer and a poor black family desperate to bail their loved ones out of jail before they get mistreated for too long. For Neal Gabler, the $400 is a minor inconvenience, so his winter heating oil doesn’t get refilled on time, they’ll just wear more layers of clothes until his next paycheck comes in, or if he were really desperate and he couldn’t ask his daughters for help, I am sure he can find something of value he owns and sell it. For Bland and Browder’s families, that $400 cost them the lives of their loved ones. The definition of “dire” are on completely different levels. Gabler sees himself as financially vulnerable because in his mind, with his years of experience as a writer and body of work behind him along with a “very small” reputation in the world of publishing and journalism, he should not be coming up $400 short when he needs it. He should be covered and have much more in his liquid reserves – even in light of the litany of his bad financial decisions – because, he deserves it and it’s how it should be, wages should rise over time not decrease.

Black families who lost what little they had in the Great Recession do not have have the means to save $400 on their best month. Barring some gross negligent behavior on Gabler’s part, as an upper middle-class white man, will never get pulled over for no reason and be wrongfully arrested and be forced to spend nights in jail until his wife can raise the bail (the fact that they own a house would preclude him from ever not meeting bail). This is not his reality so he doesn’t have to worry about it. For black people and other minorities, being pulled over for no reason and get arrested on trumped up charges is a daily concern. The second they get in their car to go anywhere, the likelihood of this happening is very real.

Sandra Bland, also a college graduate, who attended college on a scholarship, graduated in 2010 where job prospects were terrible for college graduates especially a black college graduate with an arrest record. She bounced around from one low wage job to another, which caused her great distress and depression. She was a grown woman with a college degree but was constantly broke and couldn’t find gainful employment which utilized her skills and education. Prior to her last arrest she had other arrests for things such as driving without insurance, broken tail light, marijuana possession and DUI. Most of the drug charges didn’t stick and the one that did it was reduced to just a mere infraction where a fine and few days jail took care of it. Speaking of fines, Sandra lived in Texas for most of her adult life:

Texas has no income tax, and the state, its counties, and its municipalities have to get the money from somewhere. One way is through traffic tickets, using a system similar to the one the Justice Department has criticized in Ferguson, Missouri. In Texas, extra charges are attached to the tickets, and they are staggering. There’s a $25 “records management” fee, a $15 “judicial fund” fee, and $15 added to each bail-bond payment. The tickets themselves also include add-ons to fund a statewide program providing services for people with brain and spinal-cord injuries. Even Prairie View A&M’s [Bland’s alma mater] juvenile-justice school was funded with money from traffic tickets.

Sandra Bland had, in the past, resorted to “sitting out” her traffic tickets and that means she’d go to jail to clear her tickets at the rate of $100 per day – which is in its way a debtor’s prison sanctioned by the government. So in effect, Texas makes the poor and downtrodden pay for their state’s expenditures and not the rich and well off.

Many would argue that Bland’s predicament is a result of her own choices. Perhaps, but what’s happened to her is the systematic abuse of the system against vulnerable black people like her. She was chronically depressed, even with her stellar academic record, she couldn’t find a job in her field of choice that paid her enough. She had no access to mental health services despite Obamacare, she still couldn’t afford insurance and most mental health practitioners do not accept state Medicaid insurance. She turned to her church, but the best advice they had was to ‘pray’. She had a rocky relationship with her mother and at the time of her death, they were working on mending their differences. Her godmother Dee Watts who served as her surrogate mother when things were tough with her own mother and helped her out financially and gave her a place to stay when she didn’t have anywhere else to go died of cancer, Dee’s husband Lionel Watts didn’t want Sandra around much anymore after that, so that emotional and financial lifeline was cut off. These are all of the small things things which led to the sum of Bland’s life and choices, which in the end killed her. But there is no sympathy for Bland’s ‘choices’. She chose to smoke pot, she chose to drink and get behind the wheel, she chose to assert herself and talk back to the pig (police officer) that arrested her. And as for her unpaid insurance and broken tail lights, she chose to spend her meager amount of money elsewhere instead of taking care of her business. So, while it’s sad that she died in police custody, she needs to bear some responsibility for the appalling state of affairs. This is what white supremacists will say. But Bland didn’t create institutionalized racism, she didn’t invent white supremacy, she doesn’t even condone it, she’s an unwilling participant and a victim of the ‘system’ which doesn’t benefit her but is against her at every turn.

There exists a parallel experience between the plight of the employed but distressed educated elite and the oppressed minorities. The system seeks to benefit the former, only if they knew how to use it, which according to The Fed, many don’t; while it seeks to oppress the latter and they try to fight back. While people feel sympathy for Neal Gabler because he lacks the financial shrewdness to navigate this new economy, there is only boiling scorn for Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder. The white guy who is bad with money is seen as honest, naive and undefiled by the ways of the world and ultimately a victim when compared to their financially shrewd counterparts- especially those on Wall Street, who are greedy, slimy, dishonest and criminal. Minorities and the poor who are bad with money are seen as stupid and need to be taught a lesson about the ways of the world.

People such as Neal Gabler, who have some assets (his home in the Hamptons) and means and professions that earn six-figures and above but due to their own financial impotence can’t manage the good income they earn are given lots of sympathy and empathy. Yes, they are incompetent when it comes to money, but they work hard so it can all be forgiven. But when it’s folks like Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder’s family, where either the family is headed by a single mother or unable to find gainful employment after college graduation, every single choice they make with their finances comes under scrutiny and open to criticism. Society sits there and judge how they spend their welfare checks, how they spend their meagre paychecks – why didn’t they pay the rent on time, why didn’t they pay their car insurance, health insurance? How did Sandra Bland afford cigarettes if she was so broke? If these people budgeted better on their insufficient to nonexistent incomes they’d have enough money for food and emergency expenses. And everyone is ready to impart money planning advice to the poor. Their first problem is not having any money to budget with.

Not to dump on Neal Gabler even more as he feels bad enough about himself already, but the litany of stupid things he’s done on his six-figure income is astounding considering his intelligence in other areas of his life. He sent his two daughter’s to private school, while he acknowledged that it was his choice and it crimped their finances but he was willing to sacrifice his comforts for their future careers:

I never wanted to keep up with the Joneses. But, like many Americans, I wanted my children to keep up with the Joneses’ children, because I knew how easily my girls could be marginalized in a society where nearly all the rewards go to a small, well-educated elite. (All right, I wanted them to be winners.)

He could have sold his Brooklyn co-op faster by dropping the price sooner before the vultures (potential buyers and their agents) smell blood in the water but he didn’t. Because of this mistake, he carried two mortgages for years, he obviously didn’t rent out his Brooklyn co-op while he was trying to get it sold, which was another way to stem to bleeding, especially if he knew it could take “years” to sell it. Not only did he pay two mortgages for years, all the mortgage he paid on the Brooklyn co-op didn’t even pay off because he sold if for a loss – stupid. The most appalling mistake would be to cash out his paltry 401K to pay for his daughter’s wedding so that he wouldn’t look bad to the in-laws – stupid times two. Telling your daughter that you can’t pay for her wedding is not a tragedy. A white wedding is a luxury, not a life’s necessity, unless you are keeping up with the Joneses. These are blatant financial missteps that any amateur reading his article can figure out in three minutes or less. And since he chose a very financially precarious field of work for his profession, he has more or less accepted the hardship that is to come with his chosen profession. It’s just a shame he never told his wife and daughters about it.

The solution to Gabler’s problem is just as obvious his mistakes, he can sell his house in the Hamptons in this hot market right now and free up all that cash and rent something smaller or buy something smaller and more affordable – his two girls have moved out, there’s no need for a single family home anymore. And when he gets his final payment after he submits his book, he should open a new retirement account right away, that way he’ll minimize his tax liabilities and replenish the one he cashed out. And if he’s ever short on money again, he should continue calling his daughters, the very people he sacrificed everything for during his prime working years so that they can have a leg up on their careers. Just my two cents.

 

5 thoughts on “The Subjective $400 Crisis 

  1. Interesting story about Neil Gabler. I didn’t know about it.

    He’s dead on here.

    “like many Americans, I wanted my children to keep up with the Joneses’ children, because I knew how easily my girls could be marginalized in a society where nearly all the rewards go to a small, well-educated elite”

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        1. I also wanted to point out that everyone feels like they have the right to tell poor people how to spend their money but we can’t tell the struggling middle class how they’ve colossally fucked up with their generous incomes.

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          1. It’s the Calvinist ideology. The elect (the upper-middle-class) have God’s blessing so they’re forgiven. The rest of us (the working class) don’t have the outward manifestations of God’s favor so we’re not.

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