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February 08, 2018 | Money Matters

Redefining Success: Neal Gabler on the Secret Shame of the Middle Class

Open Account podcast: Season 2, Episode 6

Neal Gabler has been in the press a lot since he wrote a 2016 Atlantic article entitled The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans. In it, Neil exposes the personal and systemic factors that lead to his very own current financial issues. The article is unprecedented, vulnerable, and provocative. It's impossible to overstate the response – dozens of reaction pieces, thousands of comments on social media and nearly a quarter million shares. Neal really hit a nerve.

His article and his own personal struggle with money exemplifies why we make this podcast. For many Americans, money is so tied up with shame and confusion that we’d rather talk about our bedroom issues than our financial ones. It’s the exact reason why Open Account was created: to dismantle the mystery and fear around money through honest and open conversations. 

America’s $400 Crisis

The main trigger for the Atlantic article was a 2013 Federal Reserve survey which asked Americans: If you had a $400 emergency, could you afford that emergency? An astounding 47% of Americans responded that they could cover the cost by borrowing or selling something— or they couldn’t afford the expense at all.

The widely-read piece dives into how we, as Americans, got here. And to tell that story, Neal had to share his own very personal tale of how he became one of the 47% who struggle to maintain an emergency cushion, or any financial cushion at all. He thought he was alone, not realizing he was in the same leaky boat with almost half of our population, most of whom consider themselves “middle class.”

Neal’s Story

As an award-winning journalist with four decades of published work, a respected film critic and professor, Neal’s had a successful career. He’s also a normal guy— someone you’d consider a peer, friend or mentor—a hard-working husband and father with an extensive and impressive resume. On paper, whether it’s his resume or tax returns, he looks to be financially on top of his game.

But when he read the 47% Federal Reserve statistic, Neal realized the deep secret he’d been keeping to himself for so long is shared with so many others. He felt so much shame, at times he would avoid phone calls or even the mailbox to evade creditors or bills that he couldn’t own up to. He kept this secret from everyone, including his wife and daughters, thinking he was the only one who could fix these financial problems.

With so many Americans in this predicament, what is the state of our middle class if it can't access the resources to handle minor bumps in the road?

The Take Away

Neal Gabler and his Atlantic article really struck a chord with many people. There was of course the tsunami wave of online responses, but the real surprise hit a little closer to home. “I had people walk up to me in the grocery store, several people coming up to me saying, ‘Gosh let me tell you my story.’ People are so pent up with a sense of financial competence that they're dying to get it out,” Neal shares.

If anything, in sharing his own financial story, he’s helped others open up and see that they’re not alone. “There's been a certain catharsis in it in the sense that it has connected me to this very very large community of people...from factory workers and salesmen and academics and writers, who wrote me and said, ‘You have told my story’,” added Neal.

Hit play to listen to the full episode of Open Account, where SuChin Pak and Neal Gabler discuss his story of success, struggle and financial shame, one that is more common in this country than many may think.

Listen to Open Account now

Open Account is a podcast that promotes real and necessary conversations about the role money plays in American life. It’s hosted by SuChin Pak, and brought to you by Umpqua Bank and Slate Group Studios.

Get new episodes of Open Account as soon as they’re released. Subscribe for free on iTunes or Panoply.