Broke, Not Poor: The Steep Slide To Downwardly Mobile

50% of Americans born in the 1980s are set to end up worse off than their parents.

By Lynn Steger Strong
The Guardian (12/3/19)

A couple of months ago, I told a friend I’d not been to a doctor in five years. She was aghast, concerned. My friend wanted to talk to me about all the ways I need to take better care of myself, and I mostly let her talk. I vaguely mentioned money, but how broke my husband and I are is something I usually avoid talking about.

The truth is, we only have sporadic health insurance. I have only once, and for just nine months, had dental insurance in my grownup life. I have bad teeth and I have never left a dentist’s office with a “treatment plan” that cost less than $5,000. I do not go to the doctor or the dentist because if either of them told me there was something wrong with me, we are so broke I’m not sure how I’d pay for it.

I’m glad my baby is OK and I’m glad we went to the hospital. It makes me sick to think that in this moment, I had to think about the money.

To be clear, I believe that to be poor and broke are different – and my husband and I are not poor. Poor implies generational precariousness and instability, and though our lives are filled with financial uncertainty, we also have educations, credit cards and people we could call in dire circumstances.

What we are is people who were brought up to believe that wealth is intrinsically connected to one’s inherent worth, only to find, with two kids and in our late 30s, that, if that’s the case, we’re not worth much.

Middle-class downward mobility

According to a 2016 study on social mobility, 50% of Americans born in the 1980s are set to end up worse off than their parents were. Downward mobility is a relatively new thing for middle-class white people in this country. It used to be, if you were born into a certain type of family, you went up from there. To be one of the first generations to go backwards is often dizzying.

What feels useful about our experience is the ability to see clearly how success has never been a straight line forward, how plenty of people have never had the sort of privilege and access that we had. How the sense of safety some of us grew up with has never been accessible to a large number of this country’s population. How all of it has always been bolstered by forces other than our own.

I’m a writer and an adjunct and my husband works for a small business. There are two Ivy League degrees between us, as well as some of the debt that comes with that. Neither of us gets benefits from our jobs. I teach at three different places. There are, some years, as few as three or four full-time positions across the country in my field …

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