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 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post

Left to the tender mercies of the state, a group of veterans and their families continue to reside in a shut-down town

Article
Stonewall at Fifty·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

Article
Downstream·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

Article
Is Poverty Necessary?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

Article
What it Means to Be Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The United States is nearly drought-free for the first time in decades and is experiencing unprecedented levels of flooding.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today