Refinery29’s “Money Diaries” feature burst into public consciousness this week with a piece initially headlined “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour.” As it turned out, “$25/Hour” was not exactly accurate. The author’s parents paid for everything from her rent, college tuition and health insurance bills. They even picked up the tab for her cellphone and Netflix streaming. On top of that, the diarist, a marketing intern, received a further $1,100 a month from relatives.
The rage on social media was immediate. It ended up encompassing everything from how this anonymous woman spends her money (short: too much boozing in the Hamptons) to snarky comments on the publication’s possible business practices. “[A]n insult,” proclaimed one of the many who commented on the contretemps. “YOU SHOULD NOT BE WRITING ABOUT MONEY” read another tweet, which garnered more than 100,000 likes.
Refinery29 semi-corrected the headline to “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour and $1k Allowance,” but that did little quell the furor. The site had stumbled into one of the great fault lines of our time. Millennials came of age in a world of extreme income and wealth inequality, and the aftermath of the Great Recession. The numbers tell a dismal story: Millennials earn less than their Generation X peers did at the same age, while facing more substantive financial headwinds. Those who attended college are more likely to have relied on student loans to pay part of the tuition bill. Housing costs — whether to rent or own — have increased enormously over the past two decades. Childcare costs are soaring, something that’s no doubt factoring into the country’s falling birthrate.
As Refinery29’s contributor showed, those changes don’t impact everyone equally. In fact, some end up as out-and-out beneficiaries, courtesy of what economists rather bloodlessly call the intergenerational wealth transfers, but could be best understood as the “upper middle class welfare state.” Surveys show substantial numbers of parents helping adult children out with everything from cellphone bills to down payments on homes, offering a sort of do-it-yourself universal basic income to a lucky few.
This real-world financial aid, in turn, gives its recipients — who, it should come as no surprise, are mostly white — a valuable leg up. It allows people to attend fancy colleges, take unpaid internships and, ultimately, lead easier financial lives than those from less well-to-do backgrounds.
All this is often a secret, in fact, thanks to the hoary cliché that people are more willing to tell you about their sex lives than their financial lives. Instead, we fall for fairy tales like “The Millionaire Next Door,” which proclaims those with wealth got it by diligently, almost pathologically saving money, when, in fact, they are often allowing their children, as per this Money Diary, to spend it on Barry’s Bootcamp, Whole Foods and dining out at overpriced fancy restaurants.
When forced to confront the reality of the second gilded age, many get angry fast. Refinery29, in fact, was hardly alone. Late last week, Forbes profiled the teenage entrepreneur Kylie Jenner, a member of the Kardashian clan. When the Daily News tweeted out, “19-year-old Kylie Jenner is worth $900 million and on pace to become the youngest self-made billionaire ever. What are you doing with your life?,” the Internet went similarly ballistic.
Individuals like the Money Diarist, as clueless as they can sometimes be, are the wrong targets for the fury. They aren’t the problem anymore than is the mythical welfare queen, bilking the government for every last cent. The real issue is a system with a disintegrating social safety net that saddles an increasing number of young people with debt and makes it harder for them to get ahead financially, while handing out tax cuts on the wealthiest. The more people are confronted with that reality, the more likely they are to demand change. So even if it wasn’t the site’s intent, this week Refinery29 performed a valuable public service.