The Atlantic

The Circles of American Financial Hell

There’s no escaping the pressure that U.S. inequality exerts on parents to make sure their kids succeed.
Source: Steve Marcus / Reuters

More than a half-century ago, Betty Friedan set out to call attention to “the problem that has no name,” by which she meant the dissatisfaction of millions of American housewives.

Today, many are suffering from another problem that has no name, and it’s manifested in the  bleak financial situations of millions of middle-class—and even upper-middle-class—American households.

Poverty doesn’t describe the situation of middle-class Americans, who by definition earn decent incomes and live in relative material comfort. Yet they are in financial distress. For people earning between $40,000 and $100,000 (i.e. not the very poorest), 44 percent said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency (either with cash or with a credit card whose bill they could pay off within a month). Even more astonishing, 27 percent of those making more than $100,000 also could not. This is not poverty. So what is it?

As people move up the income ladder, they escape material shortages and consume more. They have “things”—goods, houses, and, most importantly, education—to show for their higher earnings, but they

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