I just did another funeral.
Then I read about two neighborhoods in Chicago. In one of the wealthiest neighborhoods, Streeterville, the life expectancy is 90. In Englewood, one of the poorest, it’s 60.
When I go online I see a lot of memes and such about how money can’t make you happy. That’s true enough, and anyone can notice that occasionally even the wealthy commit suicide. But too many people over-emphasize money’s limitations.
I’m a financial adviser, which means I work with a lot of wealthy people. I’m also a pastor who works with the incarcerated and those escaping addictions and abusive relationships, many of whom are obviously not well-off. And I do taxes for the vast middle-class. When you work with, eat with, and live with the poor, the rich, and the middle-class, it just hits you like a frying pan across the face. Poverty causes death.
Except that it’s not exactly a low income, which is the traditional understanding of poverty, that is the problem. I know lots of people that are quite healthy and happy despite a low income. They are on social security. They’re retired. They live somewhere inexpensive, are involved in their community, and mostly engage in free activities. They can predict their income and expenses. This is a low-income life, but it is also a financially stress-free life. So it isn’t exactly the low income, necessarily, that’s killing people.
Financial insecurity is what’s killing people–the feeling that they are always one month away from ending up out on the street. One surprise medical expense, one bout of unemployment that lasts just a little bit too long. This financial insecurity can be deadly even for the middle class, many of whom worry incessantly about losing whatever minimal gains they’ve made.
Financial insecurity connects with and reinforces loneliness and isolation. The fraying or disintegrating social networks that used to provide people with jobs are the same networks that used to provide people with their group of friends, their community they could serve, their extended “family” where they felt they fit.
I also see clearly now something that I never could have seen without having multiple careers where I come face to face with people from all over the class spectrum. People are definitely getting worse at dealing with normal interpersonal conflict. And the worse they get at it, the more they withdraw. The more they withdraw, the more their social networks fall apart, which causes people to become more isolated (and more financially insecure.)
Financial insecurity, isolation and conflict connect with each other, reinforce each other, and instigate each other. This is why I write about depression, abusive relationships and financial literacy on the same website. They are not separate issues. And they are not exactly individual issues either. They cannot always be resolved with self-help, and they certainly cannot be resolved by the typical sort of self-help advice.
Anyway, like I said, I think we focus a little too much on the “money doesn’t make you happy” thing. That’s true. I work with enough rich people to know that you can be both lonely and rich. But I’ve also done enough funerals now for poor people who died way too young. It’s hard to be happy when you’re dead.
Money, or at least financial security, absolutely does solve problems. And the single most important problem money solves is financial stress itself. That stress causes people to become mistrustful, to be too ashamed to reach out for help, and too tired to connect with their neighbors. That same stress also causes people to make foolish decisions, leading to conflict, which often leads to further isolation.
There was a fifteen year period in my own life that I often refer to as my lost years. Those lost years were dominated by the unholy trinity of financial insecurity, mental illness associated with isolation, and the inability to deal with conflict. I know I am not alone. My experience is not unique. In fact, it is common, and getting frighteningly close to universal.
And it is killing us.