Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times

by Marianne Cooper, adapted from this post in the Huffington Post

“We are probably in the top 1 percent of all American households . . . So I can’t complain . . . [but] I still don’t feel rich.” To feel secure, Paul Mah, a technology executive, said he needs millions more. “For me, the financial metric, given the world today and everything I think I would need to have – it’s a very arbitrary number – but I’d say if I had ten million dollars in the bank in investments right now, then I’d feel at that point [secure.]” With millions more to accumulate, Paul was worried.

In contrast to Paul Mah’s need for more, Laura Delgado, a struggling single mother of three who works as a cashier, told me that she didn’t need much to feel secure – just food, shelter, and clothing. “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 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 precarious economic situation.

In talking with families from rich to poor for my new book, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, I learned that we are all grappling with something similar – the anxiety generated by hard times. Across the class spectrum, we all experience such feelings of insecurity. We just feel it and deal with it in different ways. In the face of high inequality and widespread financial risk, 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 reveal that economic inequalities are accompanied by emotional inequalities. In hard times, we are separated not just by how much money we have in our wallets, but also by what we feel, try to feel, and try not to feel.

 

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and an affiliate at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. She was the lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg and is a contributor to LeanIn.org. She received her PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Watch an interview with Marianne Cooper on Bloomberg TV’s “Taking Stock” with Pimm Fox.