The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty
By Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider
Review by David Wineberg
It’s not necessarily poverty, but it definitely is instability and precarity. That is what Financial Diaries has found in a yearlong study of several hundred families from across the country and the economic spectrum. It is based on a similar effort in Bangladesh, India and South Africa that led to similar insights. Morduch and Schneider collected some 300,000 data points in their quest. The gig economy, the lowering of real wages, the elimination of loyalty, permanence, benefits and full time employment has put tens of millions of families at risk of being unable to pay bills some months. These are not welfare scammers; 92% would take simple stability over more wealth. Morduch and Schneider say instability has risen faster than inequality. They visited numerous times during the year and learned their stories, their habits, and their workarounds. The first half of the book relates several different and frustrating examples of this new precarity.
The Federal Reserve says one third of Americans - 100 million people - are just getting by, juggling shutoffs in utilities, mortgage payment delays and payday loans. Holding two, three and sometimes four jobs is becoming routine as Uberization lowers incomes. There are now more small credit and payday loan stores than McDonalds and Starbucks combined. That is the economy’s answer. And they make life worse.
The families have workarounds; they have to. It could be living with your mother in your late 40s, or at least borrowing from her. It might mean a community savings club, raising money on the internet or using some of the innovative financial tools that startups are continually inventing. The most common issue seems to be saving – not for retirement, as half of Americans have no retirement savings – but smoothing out the ups and downs as pay never seems to match expenditures for long. Traditional banks don’t fill the bill, and resilient American families are trying other means. (There is a wonderful app that puts some wages aside for when they’re really, really needed, and which will lend money when there isn’t enough money saved). The second half of Financial Diaries is all about those workarounds – borrowing, lending, community, and family. It is an uplifting finish to an otherwise grim tale.
One of the biggest problems is that the standard stats don’t show any of this. Taking annual income figures doesn’t reflect the rollercoaster ride all year, let alone the stress and the anxiety. These families deny themselves everything. They try to do the right thing. But they can never seem to get ahead. It is subsistence living in an economy that brags of full employment. Shame.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.