By Marianne Cooper
Despite having assets that total over a million dollars, Paul Mah, a technology executive, feels anxious about his financial future. "We are probably in the top 1 percent of all American households... So I can't complain," he told me. "[But] I still don't feel rich." Only accumulating millions more will allow him to completely relax.
Laura Delgado, a struggling single mother of three who works as a cashier, has zero savings, but in many ways is less concerned. Unlike Mah, she has stopped hoping for more. "Having nothing isn't always a bad thing," she said, reminding herself that things could always be worse. To cope with her financial trouble, Laura scaled back her definition of security to just the basics (food, shelter, clothing) and filtered out bad news by always trying to look on the bright side of things. This kind of approach enabled her to control the anxiety she felt about her difficult economic situation.
In talking with families from rich to poor for my new book, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure times, I learned that the rich don't think they have enough and strive to attain more, while middle and working-class families realize they can't do much to improve their situations so they lower their expectations and try to get used to less. These different approaches to managing insecurity don't just reflect inequality, they actually fuel it.
This is the emotional story behind the statistics documenting the fact that we live in precarious times. It's a story that is much less talked about or examined. It is the toll that it takes on all of us for living in an unequal and insecure age. As Americans scramble to hold on to jobs, deal with pay cuts, afford rising college tuition, fund retirements, manage debt, weather the costs of medical emergencies and give their children an edge in an increasingly competitive world, there are deep psychological reverberations -- for us all.
Of course these reverberations look and feel differently for different groups of Americans. While economic insecurity has grown, so too has the divide in our country between the haves and the have-nots. This means that families face different obstacles and have varying amounts of resources at their disposal. But what unites us is worry. From well-paid business executives to low-paid retail workers, everyone I talked with is weighed down by something similar -- the anxiety generated by hard times. Across the class spectrum, we all feel insecure. We just feel it and deal with it in different ways.
Like Laura Delgado, many middle and working-class families I talked with had become so beaten down by the economy that they had let go of their dreams for a better life. Instead, they tried to make the insecurity they faced more tolerable. When Laura's heat got turned off, for example, she made light of the situation by telling me it was like she and her kids were just "camping."
Affluent families, in contrast, moved in the opposite direction. Rather than trying to accommodate to greater insecurity, they sought to create an economic firewall that would protect their families from it. For some of the wealthiest families I talked to, it took having a net worth north of ten million dollars before they felt completely financially secure such that their families had the resources to weather any storm they encountered. With such large monetary goals, many affluent families worried that they were behind financially.
Economic conditions are often examined from a distance, as if they are best understood by gazing at them out the window from 30,000 miles above. But in reality, economic conditions reverberate deep inside us, influencing our innermost thoughts and feelings. As each of us struggles to achieve security in a go-it-alone age, we develop coping strategies -- ways of thinking and feeling -- that help us deal with the changing nature of inequality and risk in our time.
Like economic disparities, emotional disparities have real consequences. The price we pay for pulling apart is that inequality and insecurity are experienced more as personal problems that we each individually need to fix than as social problems we need to solve together. As the rich push for more and everyone else gets used to less, we make inequality worse. And then because we are all so busy treading water in our separate ponds, we fail to come together with the collective will to stop it.