As the world struggles to emerge from the economic near-collapse of last fall, there is one sub-group that has slid below the waterline in record numbers: formerly middle-class women. A new report shows that a million American middle-class women will find themselves in bankruptcy court this year. This is more women than will “graduate from college, receive a diagnosis of cancer, or file for divorce,” according to the economist Elizabeth Warren . Their plight, symptomatic in many ways of the plight of women around the world, holds lessons for us all.
These bankrupt women are better educated than their male counterparts: most have some college; and more than half own their own homes. What tipped them from middle-class lifestyles to incomes just above the poverty line were likely to have been one or all of three factors. Two are economic, and, for many women, the third may be emotional.
First, these women tend to be awash in debt. Just about everyone spent above their means in the recent bubble, but middle-class women have a special relationship to debt. Many of them have jobs that require them to dip into credit lines just to stay afloat. But others have been successfully targeted by luxury-goods manufacturers and credit-card companies, which benefit from the way that mass culture ties certain kinds of consumerism – the latest designer clothes, this season’s “it” bag, the right highlighting, and even the trendiest sports car – into a narrative of successful femininity.
Nor is this pressure confined to the United States. New middle classes are emerging globally, and magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue are targeting newly middle-class women in India and China – many of them part of a generation with its own disposable income for the first time ever in their family histories – with the very same luxury goods.
The second reason that a million US women have filed for bankruptcy is that legislation enacted in 2005 now pits individual women – who can’t afford costly legal advice – against credit-card companies in terms of who gets paid first when ex-husbands owe delinquent credit-card payments and child-support payments.
These pressures are serious, and both are discussed publicly. But there is frequently a third factor in middle-class women’s economic stress, one that is seldom publicly addressed, much less measured. It has to do with many middle-class women’s emotionally complex expectations and projections about money.
In the young women’s leadership program that I help to run at the Woodhull Institute, we regularly see that middle-class women, more often than working-class women, find it embarrassing to talk about money. When they do bring it up – to employers, for example – they use apologetic, self-defeating language. They are reluctant to negotiate salaries and rarely know how to do so. They believe that asking for money in exchange for their labor makes them “unfeminine.” They frequently assume that working twice as hard as those around them – while never speaking up for their own worth or accomplishments – will generate a raise because an authority figure will notice.
Moreover, these women tend to have unrealistic notions about their economic paths. Young, middle-class women often fail to save because they assume – still – that marriage will rescue them financially. As a result, they often see buying trendy shoes or a great haircut – rather than giving some money each month to a broker – as an “investment” in their romantic futures. And the familiar cliché is all too often true: older middle-class women fail to become financially literate in their own households, leaving brokerage accounts, pension accounts, taxes, life insurance, and so on to their husbands. This leaves them economically vulnerable when divorce or widowhood strikes.
Paradoxically, we have found that working-class women (and women of color) rarely harbor such economically problematic structures of denial. They tend to be more ready than middle-class white women, in our experience, to master the basics of financial literacy and to learn salary negotiation, because they don’t have the luxury of assuming that a knight on a white horse will rescue them economically.
Indeed, the financial pragmatism of working-class and poor women is the reason for the successes in the developing world of micro-financing that puts money in their hands. It would surprise me if middle-class women anywhere in the world – brought up to view certain forms of economic ignorance and naiveté as socially appropriate – could, without climbing a steep learning curve, be as reliable and hard-nosed as the world’s poor and working-class women consistently prove themselves to be.
The new book Financial Intimacy , by Jacquette Timmons, a talented financial coach who focuses on women, offers truths that would have been valuable to any of the middle-class women now in crisis. “Many women today earn significantly more than women in previous generations,” she writes. “But, ironically, that hasn’t necessarily resulted in a higher degree of financial security,” owing to the “don’t talk about money taboo.”
When middle-class women anywhere in the world get over this taboo, we will do so by understanding that money is never just about money, and that becoming financially literate means pushing back against a social role that casts middle-class women as polite, economically vague, underpaid, shopping-dazed dependents.
All the other awful pressures that are driving so many women into bankruptcy will still exist, but at least more women will be facing these pressures with their eyes wide open, and, one hopes, with many better options.