Friday, July 9, 2010

Naked in Public

Talking about economic vulnerabilities - your own, that is - is kind of like taking off your underpants in public. Even people who have their own vulnerabilities look away, as if you've done something embarrassing, like drunkenly photocopy your butt at the office Christmas party. It's that vaguely uncomfortable look, the one that begs you to change the topic. To anything, really.

Those conversations - it's just not done, especially amongst those of us who make good incomes and should have it all locked up.

Even if we all don't, it's social convention that you do. If you don't, then it must be a personal failing. After all, if you make a good income and don't live above your means, everything is supposed to continue along linear paths.

I typically don't follow linear paths well, having never colored within the lines particularly well, but the financial lines...well, I stay in the box. I grew up in less-than-stellar financial circumstances, and I have made darn sure that life would be different for myself, no matter how many hours I had to put in to make it so. If that meant coloring within the lines, so be it. I can conform when I need to.

But what if financial vulnerability isn't a personal failing? What if someone is good at their job, works hard, stays on top of things and gets it done still gets laid off? What if the inability to find a new job for some of the folks that have been out of work for a year or more isn't that they are substandard employees or the leftovers of the labor market? What if they, in fact, are us?

It's easier to think of them as, well, them. Not us. Never us. We're too good, to valuable, too, well, whatever - to become them. They must have done something wrong, right?

Here's the thing - what if they didn't? What if they are us?

A recent radio report on foreclosures in Massachusetts was eye-opening. See, the folks who had no economic fallback - the most vulnerable - lost it all a long time ago in this recession. With no backup resources, no emergency funds, no retirement accounts to raid, those who lost their jobs or saw their business fail because of the recession were the first to go down.

Where are the foreclosures now? In the good neighborhoods. The nice towns with landscaped lawns and granite countertops and good schools.

Why now? Because they -them- like us, had savings. Had retirement accounts. Had resources to keep the bad things away. For a while. Until they couldn't any more. And now amidst the lovely neighborhoods, close to the good schools, the granite countertops are getting dusty. The lawns are getting overgrown. And the residents? Gone.

It makes me sad to see. Not because I don't think that some people over-leveraged themselves or made bad decisions, or did strategic defaults when they didn't have to. But some of them didn't. They worked hard, saved, paid off their credit cards. And went down anyway, when a month of unemployment turned into a year. Or two.

I think that when you fall down the economic ladder, you lose something of what you were. Maybe you gain something else, it's hard to know.

Yep, it's like taking off your underpants in public. We just don't do it. Because we are not them. And as long as that is true, then no one needs to discuss things quite so unpleasant.

Am I talking about me? No. Honestly no. Are we a bit vulnerable? Sure, but not exposed - we can make it work. But could it be? Sure. More easily than I'd like to admit.

Here's the thing. You can do it all right and still go wrong. And then they wouldn't be them any more. They would be us.

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