by Nicole Braun
“How in the world can you have no savings? At one time in my life I made less than $20k a year and was still able to save 3 months of living expenses. True…the 4th month would’ve brought challenges but I was still able to save. People (especially the uneducated) live WAYYYY beyond their means. They have expensive iPhones, Netflix, and other ‘wants’ that they should leave off the list of ‘necessities.’”
That seemed to be the general sentiment in the comment section of a recent New York Times article in which commenters blamed me and others for not having enough savings during the pandemic, without knowing anything about any of us.
This is what happened: The New York Times published an article by Alissa Quart and Yaryna Serkez (April 23, 2020) which pointed out that the CARES Act did not go far enough to help folks during the pandemic, mentioning me. I agreed to be in the article because “the personal is political.”
I am an adjunct professor, a single mother of a grown son, and my life has been considerably challenging, to say the least. Like many others across the country, I currently have no health benefits, a whopping student loan debt, high rent and no job security or retirement. Yet I have tried really hard to transcend what was to be my lot in life, and fought against many obstacles and structural barriers. Most folks who know me well know that is true, but even so, reading the comments felt like a terribly hurtful and erroneous blow.
One commenter wrote, “Everything is a choice. I always make sure when I vent about something in life, I start the sentence with I chose…..That is, I chose this low-paid career, I am choosing to live in an expensive city, etc. It is empowering b/c it makes me realize I do have the ability to change my circumstances if I want. So, think about whether you are choosing to save or not–and then adjust!”
Commenters blamed me and the others for not having enough savings without knowing anything at all about our lives and our stories. They said things like we did not work hard enough, and we did not make the “right” choices in life. The sanctimonious savers said we did not manage our money well and we were not taking personal responsibility for our poor economic choices. Some readers boasted of their own savings while shaming those with little to no savings, calling us “illiterate and dumb.” Readers suggested folks have no savings because “we” are spending too much money on Starbucks and Netflix and/or having too many babies and/or pet(s), and/or buying too many fancy cars and/or fancy phones — even though none of this was relevant to the points of the article.
As one example, “It is mind numbing how dumb the current generation is with money. A few days ago on TV they showed a line of cars waiting for their turn at the food bank distribution tent. I could not believe the cars they drove almost everyone had an SUV and almost all of them looked fairly new. I always joke that our cleaning lady drives a car more expensive than both our cars combined.”
In short, readers were projecting/inserting internalized classist narratives onto something that was not even there, real or true.
As another example: “I am a professional who got into debt years ago. To get out of it, I worked 3 jobs. THREE, and it took me 3 years to do it, but that was my goal. And I lived in NYC — Manhattan — one of the most expensive cities to live in in the USA. So you can be poor because you work a job that pays minimum, or you can work more than one and live in thriftier circumstances….A lot of it is about choices. Do I get a second job? Do I live in a house or a studio? Do I have a child, more than one child? Do I get Netflix? Do I eat one meal a day? Do I forgo the divorce and work with the spouse to make it OK for each of us? Do I take that vacation?”
Even though I should not have to justify my material existence and how much I work, for the record: My car is over ten years old and it is the first car I ever purchased “new,” and it is just a little cheap Kia. For most of my life, I had cars that were constantly breaking down and unreliable, which was really tough as a single mom. I’ve had belongings in storage and lived in less than desirable living situations because of the high cost of housing. I do not go to Starbucks. I have had no real health insurance my entire adult life. I have been working since I was 12 years old officially and I am 53. I have worked multiple jobs most of my entire life. I never had a chance to take my son on a real vacation. I have not inherited a dime and did not have parental support as I left home at 17. I still have the first iPhone I purchased which I needed for work, and when I purchased it, it was an older version which is now obsolete. Friends tease me about my phone’s age. I am constantly anxious about money and I am ruthless with myself when it comes to spending money at all. I also have been proud of my ability to “make do” and to be creative on basically nothing—and I do know I am frugal (cheap?) compared to many others who have more disposable income; however, there is a difference between feeling pride for living a simple life and being classist and clueless like many of The New York Times readers who commented.
“A dog is not a necessity, clothes can last for years if properly taken care of, live without internet and use the library…try re-evaluating your necessities and you’ll find money to save,” advised another reader.
There were numerous comments about pets being a “luxury.” I do have a dog, but pets are not a luxury for many folks. Animals are important emotional support systems, especially during hard times. I have had numerous students throughout the years who said that their pets are the only reason they are not suicidal and depressed. The psychological research also indicates the important role pets play in healing, health and well-being. In my case, the dog I rescued from a bad situation costs nothing compared to my student loans, so abandoning my sweet dog would not make that debt disappear; however having her greatly enhances the quality of my own life. In addition, living without the internet in this day and age is a pretty ridiculous thing to suggest. As one example, kids need the internet to do their schoolwork, especially now.
“If you’re not ok being poor, do something else.” Contrary to how we are socialized, social location is not changeable—and social mobility is not very possible. In fact in my experience, trying to obtain higher education against all odds has wound up to be a rather useless endeavor despite the fact that some commenters felt that “education” was the path “out” of a life of economic stress and uncertainty. It basically has given me a life debt sentence.
A couple of readers even complained that I was “ungrateful” because I pointed out that the $1200 stimulus check was too low, given that the average rent right now in the US is $1400 a month.
And finally, the comments also imply that folks should suffer low wages in silence and in shame—and that everyone who struggles economically should “shrink” into the smallest life possible, with no joy, no peace, and work whatever job is necessary—even at the risk of one’s health and one’s life, without fighting back, speaking out, and/or questioning the injustices. As one example, one commenter wrote, “The simple answer to your question is, put on a mask and get back to work. If you don’t have 3 months of money, you can stay home, blame Trump and bury yourself in debt. Or, take responsibility for yourself.”
That classist mindset of many of The New York Times readers needs to be dismantled. Many people up until the pandemic have been working multiple jobs for years and are still not able to make ends meet, let alone save. That means the problem is a social problem and a result of problems in the social structure, not the individual. People are not broke because they are blowing money on coffee and Netflix.
The assumptions made in the comments reek of class privilege. They also reflect a frightening ignorance of the current economic realities facing many Americans. The assumptions also ignore the importance of what it means to live a human life.
Every human deserves to have a decent quality of life. Social problems will not be solved holistically if class privileged folks keep blaming struggling individuals for their economic woes. Low paid work is the norm while corporations make record profits. This is an enormous problem in the US. And the cost of living keeps rising.
Moreover, it is not just the “poorly educated” who are struggling, as a couple commenters hypothesized. Most professors are paid poverty wages in the US—-at this time, almost 75% of faculty teaching in colleges are part-time workers who work multiple jobs to make ends meet, with no healthcare.
The research also shows that most folks in the US do not have any savings and are one paycheck away from homelessness. This is a result of lots of larger structural/economic trends that have been going on over the past few decades. At some point we need to acknowledge that focusing on individual variations in choice is a moot point.
Sure, some people might have spent too much on an item that they could have gone without; and people are human and make mistakes; however, that is not the point. The problem is the rich keep getting richer and the rest of us are falling, falling, falling. It is important to change the focus, instead of scrutinizing struggling workers; it is time to put a microscope on the wealthy.
Structural realities are real; they are not things that people can simply push past, especially not during an economic meltdown on top of a global pandemic. No one wants to be poor and to struggle. These kinds of comments are especially unhelpful during a global pandemic and the second Great Depression. The classist assumptions made about folks with little to no savings only serves to keep struggling folks quiet and ashamed.
It is time folks examine and deconstruct the individualistic narratives that blame individuals for structural problems to think more critically. Again, we might consider looking more specifically at corporate welfare and corporate bail-outs, if people want to get all judgy about who has what and why. Even if someone saves $6.00 a month instead of having Netflix, it does not compute to a down payment for a house.
Dismantling classism requires folks to do work. It is important to do research as well as examine belief systems, class/race privileges, and the role upper middle class folks play in upholding a terribly unequal and unjust social structure. These individualistic narratives say more about the commenters’ lack of compassion, their class socialization and lack of real education, and the ways in which class socialization is used to justify one’s own class (and race) privilege.
I suppose the truth is that it is easier to blame folks for not having enough money in the bank than to examine what is happening in this country, especially if you yourself are doing fine.