Can I afford this mistake?
Can I afford this mistake? James Woodson/

A survey conducted by the Federal Reserve found that nearly 40 percent of the adults in the richest country in the world don't have the financial resources to absorb a $400 expense-shock without difficulty.

The key passage in the "Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018."

If faced with an unexpected expense of $400, 61 percent of adults say they would cover it with cash, savings, or a credit card paid off at the next statement—a modest improvement from the prior year. Similar to the prior year, 27 percent would borrow or sell something to pay for the expense, and 12 percent would not be able to cover the expense at all..

The deep meaning of this finding? Not just that a very large number of Americans can't afford an accident (medical or natural) that's not minor, but, more tellingly, can't afford to make mistakes. Because every aspect of our lives is monetized, mistakes (or bad decisions), which are made all of the time by all sorts of people in every level of society, are a luxury. If this understanding is grasped, then we can see that the US is composed of two great camps: one for whom mistakes are a normal part of life and another which is catastrophically punished for even the slightest mistake. Our jails are filled with the latter.

Then there is the mental impact of living so close, and continuously, to financial catastrophe. There is no room in one's life for bad news or a wrong decision. You are condemned to an existence that's humanly impossible. And this is what the rich and the safe expect of those who are at the bottom. It's how they judge the people on the streets. Those filthy men and women are labeled as lazy, as lacking character, as morally lackadaisical. But in fact only a few of us can maintain anything like mental stability while tight walking on a rope with no net and no end.

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And the poorer you are, the greater the psychological stress. The Federal Reserve:

12 percent of adults would be unable to pay their current month’s bills if they... had an unexpected $400 expense that they had to pay. Altogether, 3 in 10 adults are either unable to pay their bills or are one modest financial setback away from hardship...


One-fifth of adults had major, unexpected medical bills to pay in the prior year. One-fourth of adults
skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.

The reality of the matter is there's no poverty in the US; what we have instead are people who forced to play the poor. But this kind of theater is maddening and depressing because it really damages the minds and bodies of millions of Americans.