Introducing Emotional Investment, Joel Anderson’s new column about money.
One early April afternoon last year, during my reporting for the Slow Burn podcast, I found myself idling in front of a modest two-bedroom home. It was the house Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas grew up in. His grandparents Myers and Christine Anderson had built it with their own hands in the late 1940s and lived there until their deaths, only a month apart from each other, in 1983.
As I stood outside appraising it next to newer and much larger houses in the gentrifying neighborhood, a nagging question overwhelmed me: Is this really it?
In a way, that question was: Is this really the house? What did it mean that Thomas’ family still lived in and congregated at this unassuming, nearly 60-year-old home, in spite of his ascension to become quite possibly the most politically influential and powerful Black man in the country? What forces kept them here? Why hadn’t they already moved to the pricier South Historic District or Skidaway Island, the gated neighborhood next to the impoverished Pin Point community where the family is originally from?
But the question was more abstract too. How could this be it? At the time, there were bigger and more-headline-grabbing questions about Thomas’ relationship with money. As reporting came out about the largesse of Harlan Crow and other GOP benefactors, I wondered why Thomas dared risk his credibility and ethical standing for luxury trips and private school tuition for a grandnephew, when he had come from people who didn’t seem to value that kind of extravagance.
I’ve worked as a journalist in almost every corner of this country—the Bay Area to Florida to New York and many far-flung points in between—for the past 20 years and observed how money and class loom over nearly every story. They shape lives, determining who has power and who suffers but also, they shape how people see themselves, how they feel in relation to others, and the decisions they make.
I’ve sat in the homes of countless people who are barely getting by—like the Jamaican immigrant who served me ackee and saltfish in his family’s overstuffed room at an extended-stay motel outside Atlanta, but whose story I couldn’t use because he actually worked for my newspaper, delivering the papers. What a contrast to the experience of the woman in Shreveport whose 75th birthday I covered: She celebrated with a fireworks show and a two-day extravaganza that included circus animals and acrobats, and ended at one of the town’s best and most pricey restaurants. Reporting in Ferguson, Missouri, I learned how the St. Louis suburb once held promise for Black residents hoping to flee inner-city poverty but found that racist policing and dwindling prosperity had left them trapped in similar circumstances. In Hernando County, Florida, I met young families and retirees who’d left the Midwest and Northeast hoping to find sunnier, more affordable lives but whose dreams were wrecked by the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.
I’ve argued for the right of student athletes to make money and hesitated to fully write off professional football because I know it’s the one of the few paths out of poverty available to so many Black families. I’ve interviewed people at restaurants, pushing back the nagging sensation that while part of the appeal of talking to me is telling their stories, another big part is a much-needed free meal.
The most obvious important thing about money is how much of it you have.
This year, I’m hoping to explore this part of all of our lives more deeply as I write about the economic and financial realities of so many people who live in this country. That’s why we’re launching a regular column about these issues and more, in which we capture the economic lives of Americans in real detail—but I think, more importantly, with real intimacy. And hopefully you, the reader, will help us with this project, whether by telling me about your financial challenges and successes, making suggestions about people and stories to look into, or generally contributing to the conversation.
I see myself in these stories too. When I was reporting on Thomas’ life, his own story of personal financial struggle kept coming up. He’s talked many times of envying his wealthier, white classmates, and a former girlfriend told me she once loaned him money even as he worked for the federal government. I was surprised by some of the similarities in our relationship to class, mine and the justice’s.
I was mostly oblivious to the signs of a yawning wealth gap between my family and those I knew until I attended an all-boys Catholic high school, home to some of Houston’s most prominent and wealthy and mostly white families. One of my classmates had a father who was perhaps the city’s most famous trial attorney. One once picked me up in his own forest-green BMW to go watch a high school basketball game. Another time, I visited the home of another, whose refrigerator had an ice maker, a game room upstairs, and a pool in the backyard. It wasn’t my crowd, except that it … kind of was. The most obvious important thing about money is how much of it you have. But there’s also how much the people around you have, and the emotions—and occasional opportunities—that you might experience as a result.
As I started my professional career, the differences wealth and class can make showed up in ways that went beyond cool gadgets and fancy cars. Some friends were able to buy homes despite having what I thought were entry-level jobs. When layoffs hit the journalism industry, my wife and I worried for our futures while also joking that many of our colleagues would simply enjoy the break if they lost their jobs, traveling around Europe, with invisible sources of income. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we couldn’t help but envy those who all of a sudden decamped for summer or vacation homes. Extra homes, just sitting there, perfect for social distancing but also available to ensure that no one in the family would ever face housing insecurity.
Meanwhile, we fretted about our responsibility to provide for ourselves and family members, many of whom were entering retirement without significant savings or any financial assets to speak of. When we went to see a financial adviser, she congratulated us on our professional success. Yes, we made good money. But that hadn’t yet translated into financial security—she affirmed our fears about facing layoffs with no one to turn to for support and conceded that the path to homeownership looked precarious without a windfall of some kind. We’ve co-signed loans for family members, paid hospital bills, and Venmo’d dollar amounts that seem inconsequential to us but will determine whether the person on the receiving end can afford gas to get to work. Like so many others, we give to friends’ and colleagues’ crowdfunding campaigns for emergency medical expenses and back rent, knowing that with just a few months of bad luck, we could need the same kind of help. We’re not alone here: A recent study shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans now live paycheck to paycheck.
So, I want to know more about people like the ones I’ve reported on over the years, whose stories can’t be told and whose lives can’t be understood without talking about money. And you. And me. This year, I hope to talk to you and I hope that you’ll talk back to me and we figure out what it means to be middle-class in America, what it means to be at each end of the wealth spectrum—and what it takes for anyone in any part of that range to actually feel secure about their assets. These are the sorts of questions that are going to drive a lot of the upcoming election season, but this hopefully won’t be about politics and politicians. It’ll be about the people who have to live with their promises and policies.