Commentary — May 23, 2012, 3:44 pm

The Underearners Test

Underearners Anonymous, the mutual-aid group I write about in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine, includes a diagnostic test in its newcomers packet, consisting of the following fifteen questions:

1. Do you have little or no money left over at the end of the month?
2. Do you keep possessions that do not fully work or clothes that are threadbare?
3. Do you cycle from under-working to over-working?
4. Do you dislike your work, but take no actions to improve it?
5. Do you sabotage new income or work ideas?
6. Do you see the gross and not the net?
7. Do you feel you’ll always have to do work you don’t like to survive?
8. Are you filling up your free time with endless chores?
9. Do you fear asking for a raise?
10. Is it frightening to ask for what you know the market will bear for your goods or services?
11. Are you afraid of spending money but sometimes go on a buying binge?
12. Are you afraid that if you spend money, no more will come in?
13. Do you feel you’ll never have enough?
14. Do you believe money will solve all your problems?
15. Are you attracted to isolation?

Below the questions it adds:

How did you score? If you answered yes to eight or more of these questions, you most likely have a problem with compulsive underearning, or are on your way to having one. If this is true, today can be a turning point in your life. One road, a soft road, leads to misery, depression, anxiety, and in some cases mental institutions, prison, or suicide. The other road, a more challenging road, leads to prosperity, self-respect, and personal fulfillment. We urge you to take the first difficult step onto the more solid road now.

As the test makes clear, it’s not the dearth of earnings that makes the underearner. Underearning, according to UA’s adherents, is more a reflection of the feeling that we’re not where we thought we’d be, whether in terms of savings, career goals, or however else we measure prosperity and success.

It was this anxiety, more than my sorry bank account, that drew me to my first UA meeting. I’d come not because I was destitute (I’m not), but because I’d grown anxious that I’d never achieve the financial security I’d always assumed was inevitable. Given that there’s a lot of real poverty in the United States, I was sure I’d be exposed as an employed, debt-free fraud and booted from the proceedings. As it turned out, the underearners were a diverse coalition. Sure, there were those struggling with debt, eviction, and long bouts of unemployment, but there were also many people whose financial circumstances seemed enviable—one guy claimed to be bringing in more than $200,000 a year—who nevertheless felt they were underachievers.

When I first took the test, I scored a ten, which wasn’t all that surprising; most people I know would probably ace it. By the test’s standards, the country is full of unwitting underearning addicts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that without UA, they’re on a path to “misery, depression, anxiety, and in some cases mental institutions, prison, or suicide,” or that the solution is to recognize their powerlessness over their addiction and turn over their wills to a higher power. That approach might work for some, but it risks overlooking real systemic issues: no amount of step work or mutual aid is going to patch the craters in our social-safety net or expand job-training programs. What UA does do well is to help ward off some of the loneliness and despair that financial woes can cause—and that, as I write in the story, is itself a valuable part of the economic recovery.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Genevieve Smith:

From the May 2014 issue

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

Inside the industry that’s making therapy obsolete

From the June 2012 issue

In recovery

Twelve steps to prosperity

Weekly Review January 31, 2012, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2016

The Trouble with Iowa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Queen and I

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Disunified Front

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Isn’t It Romantic?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trusted Traveler

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.
Article
The Queen and I·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.”
Photograph (detail) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Estimated percentage of New Hampshire’s bat population that died in 2010:

65

A horticulturalist in Florida announced a new low-carb potato.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today