Recently someone did a survey on the American public. The question was simple: could you absorb an unexpected expense of $400 without putting it on cards, selling something or asking for a loan?
The results… are dismal.
Apparently only 48% of the people can do that.
Now, consider this is me, a person who not so long ago budgeted the $8 for contact lens solution, the person who routinely tears out her hair when buying school books for younger kid. And then keep in mind the sum in question $400. Not $4000. We’re not talking replacing a car or having major repairs done on the house. $400 is a visit from the plumber when our sewer line gets clogged. (It’s a community sewer line problem. The clog is usually out of our property, but…) or it’s having to replace headlights on one of the cars. (Stupid design. You need to remove the front bumper to replace it.) or filling my gas tank five times. $400 is enough food, cleaners and consumables for a month. $400 is a vet visit if we take all the cats in for vaccination.
It’s not what it used to be, in other words. $400 thirty years ago was real money. Rent and electricity paying money. Now it’s moneyish, money to meet some expenses, money to get by, but not big money. But it makes or breaks almost half of us.
Yeah, 48% of us are that close. I wonder how close the other 50% are (2% I presume being very well off.) Are they “$1000 and it goes on cards?” Are they “$2000 and we don’t know where house payment comes from next month?” how close are they?
Reading this survey was one of those moments – like when I figured out that after April half the houses in my neighborhood went up for sale and I went “So, we didn’t hit the wall alone!”
And note that through all this we’re assured that the economy is booming. Guys, when people can’t muster $400 they’re not going to make their Christmas really special, ($400 is two laptops if you’re REALLY good at shopping) and you know the role Christmas plays in our economy. (Last Christmas the boys got socks and underwear. We don’t really need gifts for Christmas, and we don’t feel comfortable splurging on them. NOT right now. I like to get a book that I can spend the day reading, but what with all the kindle free stuff… it’s not needed.)
Of course the survey also says that Americans report they’re doing okay. They’re fine. They’re comfortable.
Of course note those words. No one says “I’m in wonderful shape.” “Things are Great!” “I’m growing by leaps and bounds.”
I suspect what is relative to is that all of us – every one of us – knows people who are worse off.
To quote Leonard Cohen:
When you’ve fallen on the highway
and you’re lying in the rain,
and they ask you how you’re doing
of course you’ll say you can’t complain —
If you’re squeezed for information,
that’s when you’ve got to play it dumb:
You just say you’re out there waiting
for the miracle, for the miracle to come.
No, it’s “Okay” and “comfortable” but no one knows relative to what. Yes, yes, William O’Blivion will come and tell us we have full stomachs and roofs over our head and functioning infrastructure. And he’s right.
But part of the reason we have those is that we expect those. Let me explain: in Portugal, growing up, we’d put up with the electricity being turned off every day in summer for up to six hours. We just stocked candles. Here it would be considered an outrage. Ditto with the countries which are in really bad shape. Take Argentina — they took the slow slide down with “I’m okay. I’m surviving.” What they put up with by now, would frost your hair, even though they were, in every sense a first world country when the slide started. Oh, and Venezuela. Shortages of toilet paper, milk, water…. everything, really.
The problem with that survey is the problem with all our sources of information these days, when you read it you feel guilty and alone. You feel guilty because people say they’re doing well – so why aren’t you doing well?
Look, we’re not starving (we could use some starving around here! Well, not really, because then I can’t write, but you get the point) and if I can just get off my duff and deliver books, we’ll be okay.
I feel guilty enough for that – survivor’s guilt – when I look around at my friends in immeasurably worse straits. We’re getting by. A $400 hit means some adjustments, and maybe we sell some stuff (there’s a reason we’re selling the books) but they’re just things, right, and anyway, we want to move so we’re cutting down on stuff. And we’re okay. We’re not losing our house, at least not if we can sell it. We wouldn’t put $400 on credit. I’d just call a few people and see if they needed a short story. And I have friends who’d pay for cover design if I cleared my throat in their direction. So – we’re really okay. We’re comfortable. And the savings are recovering from April (thanks to Indie) so that we can meet stuff like that from them. We’re even planning and prepared for the dreaded College Book Season. (Apparently they engrave engineering books in gold leaf. Doesn’t look like it, but really, have you seen the prices?)
Provided another year of illness doesn’t intervene, or another hail storm, we’re probably going to be okay.
Not wonderful, but okay.
But the other side is when the reports tell us it’s boom times, and everyone is doing great an rolling in dough. And we feel alone. And well, we shut up and don’t make a fuss, and we allow the slide to continue.
Look at the numbers. $400 means a payday loan (and a horrible cycle to enter.) And $400 could be… a new set of tires. A minor fender bender. Nothing much. The sort of accident that happens to everyone sometime.
We’re all fallen on the highway and lying in the rain. We’re waiting for the miracle. We’re waiting for the miracle, because we think everyone else is doing great, so it must be our fault. And we’re not that bad. We can’t complain.
Maybe it will come. We know what they say about Himself’s affection for drunkard’s, fools and the United States of America.
In the mean time, I propose a simple plan: If you’re doing okay (we sort of are, provided Indie doesn’t totally collapse. It’s taken our fat out of the fire, and now if I can deliver for Baen, we’ll be fine) stop feeling guilty. Pay it forward. You might need it tomorrow. What goes around comes around.
If you’re not doing okay stop feeling like you’re a massive failure. (And if you’re indie publishing, yep, there’s been a big dip since April. From the fact sales move massive amounts of merchandise I’m going to guess people still want to read, they’re just broke. Consider sales. I hate going KDP exclusive, but the countdowns DO help.) You’re not a failure. It’s not your fault. There are tides in economies that drown people pretty much arbitrarily.
This doesn’t mean you should stop trying, and if you already know you can’t find anything in your field/specialty/knowledge, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come up with something new to try and maybe support yourself.
Work at working. If you’re unemployed, find other ways to make at least some money. Learn better ways around. Get creative. fix stuff to sell. Do whatever fits your abilities.
But it means you shouldn’t give yourself ulcers while doing it. You should be kind to yourself. If you’re surviving, no matter how barely, you’re doing okay. You’re doing as well as can be expected. Keep trying, keep aiming for more, refuse to embrace the decline, but don’t kick yourself in the process.
And if you’re doing okay, see what you can spare and help those who can’t. It seems every other week some friend is facing something really serious. Keep your eye on your tribe. Give them a hand.
And when money comes in – those unexpectedly good indie royalties, for instance – set it aside to meet the next smack by fate.
We’re all doing okay at best. The sea is choppy and stormy. Some people will get washed overboard. Stop feeling guilty that you can’t hold your personal boat steady and everyone in luxury. Reports of luxury might not be a lie, but they’re not typical.
Adjust and make your fun in smaller ways, find happiness in different things. Learn to make your own beautiful music. Learn to take help, learn to give help. LEARN. Learn new ways to do things around the ones that no longer work.
The people at the top wish us gone or broke or used to the decline. But we’re Americans. We won’t give them the satisfaction.
We’ll build under, build around, build despite them.
And work towards getting our would-be Aristos defeated at the ballot box. Yes, fraud is massive. So your involvement needs to be bigger.
The country is struggling. The American people are okay. And we’ll be better.
We will make the miracle HAPPEN.