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How coming clean about financial struggle — and counseling others — became a calling

September 7, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Despite a prestigious career and graduate degrees from top schools, Elizabeth White stood at the edge of a financial cliff for many years following the Great Recession. Author of “55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal,” White is among many who have been thrown out of the work force in the midst of a changing job market. Economics correspondent Paul Solman gets an update from White about how she’s faring.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Earlier this year, our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, profiled Elizabeth White. She was once comfortably middle class, but found herself struggling to make ends meet as she got older.

Paul recently checked back in with White and discovered that her story has touched a nerve.

It’s part of our series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday.

PAUL SOLMAN: Every Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth White heads to Malcolm X Park near her home in Washington, D.C., for a therapy session with a drum circle.

ELIZABETH WHITE, Author, “Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal”: I can work it all out in that park and just dance. And it’s festive, and it’s free.

PAUL SOLMAN: We first met White in January, after she had just self-published a book, “Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal.”

ELIZABETH WHITE: Everybody is pretending.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s why you call the book “Faking Normal”?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Right, because there’s a lot of pressure to seem like you are doing well.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, White had long been on the edge of the financial cliff.

Despite a career at the World Bank, graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins and Harvard, she’d been unable to find steady work since the Great Recession. She’d once made six figures, but she now struggled to pay the mortgage on her townhouse.

But you haven’t been in a situation where you literally couldn’t afford whatever it is, the condo fee, or…

ELIZABETH WHITE: Oh, absolutely, I have. I right now have to park outside because I’m in arrears on the condo fee, right now.

PAUL SOLMAN: And she’s refinanced to the hilt, taken in a boarder.

Well, you haven’t used food stamps.

ELIZABETH WHITE: But I have. I have had to.

PAUL SOLMAN: White worked scattered freelance gigs, but still had to borrow money from friends, like neighborhood free spirit Elijah, a clothing minimalist.

ELIJAH ALEXANDER, Friend: I’m not a things person. How much money do you think I’m spending on my attire, OK?

PAUL SOLMAN: White is far from alone, as we learned at what she calls her resilience circle.

Deborah Burkholder hadn’t had a full-time job since 2009.

DEBORAH BURKHOLDER, Job Seeker: I don’t have enough to cover January bills if nothing changes. It’s hard to predict what will happen the next month, and calculating, how many times do I have to go through this until I’m buried?

PAUL SOLMAN: Nine months later, the economy has improved with the weather. Although overall unemployment ticked up in August, it’s at a low 4.4 percent. Still, more than 30 percent of job seekers over age 55 have been out of work for more than half-a-year.

No wonder White’s story has resonated in the months since her appearance on the “NewsHour.”

ELIZABETH WHITE: Spoke to groups in San Francisco, in Boston, in Memphis.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, you have become the voice of faking normal?

ELIZABETH WHITE: I’m becoming a voice, for sure.

PAUL SOLMAN: White has done a number of paid speaking gigs. She even did a TEDx Talk in July.

ELIZABETH WHITE: We live in a world where success is defined by income. When you say that you have money problems, you’re announcing, pretty much, that you’re a loser. When you’re a graduate of Harvard Business School, as I am, you’re some kind of double loser.

PAUL SOLMAN: The talk has about 100,000 views already.

ELIZABETH WHITE: I’m getting a lot of: Thank you for just bringing this topic up. I thought I was by myself.

I get a few e-mails every day of stories of what’s happening to people.

PAUL SOLMAN: What is happening to people?

ELIZABETH WHITE: People are worried. Someone wrote me that they had to move out of their housing into subsidized housing. They never expected to land there. They had to give up their car. They’re doing jobs that they never expected that they would have to do, dog walking and all of this.

PAUL SOLMAN: Have you become more reassured about yourself as you encounter more and more people who have had the same experience?

ELIZABETH WHITE: I have become more convinced that I’m doing the work I’m supposed to do. I did a great consultancy since I saw you with Senior Service America helping low-income older adults find work.

PAUL SOLMAN: As part of her work with the group, White went to speak to ex-factory workers in rural Martin, Tennessee.

ELIZABETH WHITE: The factory had been China, Mexico, outsourced somewhere, and then they were left, at 50, 55, 57, maybe with a high school education, maybe a little bit of college, and they were jettisoned out of the work force.

And I got a standing ovation there.

And then the great recession hit.

Two weeks before that, I was at an event at MIT. These were former high earners, long-term unemployed. And hearing the two conversations close together, they were almost exactly the same. It didn’t matter whether you gave up salmon or catfish. It was the same conversation.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, were you surprised when you went to Martin, Tennessee, and saw that factory workers were feeling and talking exactly the same way?

ELIZABETH WHITE: I have a very urban appearance.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, you do.

ELIZABETH WHITE: Yes. I have the hair and the diamond nose bolt. I didn’t know kind of how this was. And none of it mattered. None of it mattered.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because they had been faking normal too.

ELIZABETH WHITE: If faking normal means that you’re not sharing with people candidly what’s happening to you and what you’re afraid of, yes.

I had a situation here where I spoke, and a woman jumped up, screaming and crying and running out of the room. And what she said is: You are telling my story. How did you get into my head? How did you know this was happening to me? How did you convey the pain that I’m feeling about where I have landed?

I have had men cry. And…

PAUL SOLMAN: Really?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Absolutely.

There’s a man, he told me he had been living in his car, had been living in his car. And that was at MIT. He’d been living in his car.

PAUL SOLMAN: This guy was a former high earner living in his car?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Yes, living in his car.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, where are you financially now?

ELIZABETH WHITE: I would say a bit better. OK.

So, it’s still feast or famine. It is not the Cinderella story, bow on the end. I know that’s what people want. I don’t think it’s going to be that for really any of us. Where I am is, I can see a pathway forward. I like what I’m doing, a lot.

I feel like I am contributing. People like getting that affirmation. I feel like I am creating a really interesting casserole of work.

PAUL SOLMAN: And you’re making money by doing speaking engagements, consulting on this very issue?

ELIZABETH WHITE: So, it’s a combination.

I sell some books.

PAUL SOLMAN: Right.

ELIZABETH WHITE: OK? I do some speaking. I teach. And then I have one remaining consultancy from before. The cobbling that together is enough to kind of keep me — I’m OK.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, according to White’s friend Elijah, whom we bumped into at the park, she has found her purpose.

ELIJAH ALEXANDER: At first, it was like, uh, uh, uh, I need help. But then now it’s like she’s got a enough of a footing, and she sees how there are millions like her. She says: Oh, I have got a purpose. I have got to do this.

PAUL SOLMAN: Life hasn’t turned out quite as White expected. She scrimps, doesn’t save. But she’s drummed up work that matters.

You knew that line was coming, right?

Living a rich life on a modest income, and not faking normal anymore.

This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, updating from Washington, D.C.

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