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.

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