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Could you come up with $400 if disaster struck?

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If a financial emergency struck — say, a health problem or a car that needed repair — would you be able to come up with $400? According to the Federal Reserve Board, 47 percent of Americans would have trouble paying it — they would have to sell something, borrow money or simply couldn't pay.

And this is true even for people who consider themselves middle class. Neal Gabler is one of them. He's a successful writer with five books under his belt, and he's a visiting professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. But in a new article in The Atlantic, he admits to having "financial impotence":

I know what it is like to have to juggle creditors to make it through a week. I know what it is like to have to swallow my pride and constantly dun people to pay me so that I can pay others. I know what it is like to have liens slapped on me and to have my bank account levied by creditors. I know what it is like to be down to my last $5 — literally — while I wait for a paycheck to arrive, and I know what it is like to subsist for days on a diet of eggs. ... And I know what it is like to have to borrow money from my adult daughters because my wife and I ran out of heating oil.

Gabler spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about this secret "shame" of millions of Americans, and why he wants to redefine what it means to be a success.


Interview Highlights

On what success means

I think by many measures in society I'm a success, I like to think. And if you were to look at me, you certainly wouldn't think that I would have trouble scrounging up $400. Or if you were to look at my resume you wouldn't think that — I've written five books. If you looked at my 1040, you probably wouldn't think that.

But that is really the whole point. Despite all of those things, I still have a difficult time making ends meet, as many, many, many Americans do.

How he ended up needing to borrow money from his adult daughter

Well, simple answer is — and I think this is true for many people — too little income, in a society where wages have been stagnant for almost 40 years, and too many expenses. I am in a situation that tens of millions of Americans share. And I'm not talking about poor people. I'm not poor. We're talking about middle-class Americans, even upper-middle-class Americans, who live paycheck to paycheck.

On the disconnect between the official end of the recession and many people's finances

Well there's a gigantic gulf between macroeconomics and microeconomics. The macroeconomic figures do not reveal what's going on in the microeconomic world. People are having a difficult time living. There is always a car that needs repair. A pet — my dog — who's limping. A faucet that leaks. There is always an emergency, and we live within that.

Are people living beyond their means?

I think that's part of it. I think we've been taught to expect more. We have been taught that a middle-class existence is ... maybe a $250,000 house, and a vacation every year, and a car for each adult, and education for the children. And indeed, those are the very metrics that the commerce department has used in defining what a middle-class life is. But as I point out in the article, if you put a price tag on that middle-class life, as USA Today did several years ago, the price tag for that middle-class life is $130,000. Only one in eight Americans makes $130,000. So the middle-class life that we've all been taught is ours — if only we work for it — is out of the reach of all but a very small number of us.

On the shame of 'financial impotence'

That shame weighed on me — and I am not overstating the case — on not only a daily basis, but an hourly basis. It keeps you up at night. It is ruinous for relationships, the shame is so great. The ongoing sense of shame, that in a country where we are told anyone can be successful, and where, as Donald Trump has told us endlessly, if you don't make it you're a "loser."

So yes, did I feel like a loser? You bet I did. But what can you do with that sense of shame? You can't share it with anybody, because to expose it is, like sexual impotence, something you just don't want to talk about.

On redefining what it means to be part of the American middle class

We do need to redefine that. But that's a very, very tall order. But the beginning is to have Americans who are suffering from financial impotence — which is nearly half of America if you believe this data — it's them coming out and saying, "You want to know something? I'm tired of feeling like a failure because I'm told that everybody in America ought to be rich if only they work hard."

Surveys show, and I don't cite this in the article, that Americans are the only people who believe that in the industrialized world. If you look at the English or the French or the Germans, they don't believe that they're totally responsible for not having achieved financial success. Americans do. And we've got to stop people telling us that it's all in our hands as to whether we're going to be successful, because frankly it is not.

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