A trip to Under-earners Anonymous

David Brancaccio May 30, 2012

A trip to Under-earners Anonymous

David Brancaccio May 30, 2012

David Brancaccio: There are 12-step programs for things that hold us back in life: alcohol, eating. What about not living up to our paycheck potential? 

In the June issue of Harper’s Magazine, Genevieve Smith goes to Under-earners Anonymous. Ms. Smith, good morning.

Genevieve Smith: Good morning.

Brancaccio: So before you went on this journey of discovery, you yourself felt a bit like a person who doesn’t earn quite what their potential is?

Smith: I think that’s right. I think that a lot of us now are dealing with readjusting our priorities, and I definitely had started to feel what I think is a pervasive anxiety that we were never going to get the kind of financial security that we all assumed was definitely happening.

Brancaccio: So in the beginning, who did you blame for that?

Smith: Well I think that I worked at Harper’s for a while, the tendency is to see it as systemic problems, to see that there are huge issues of poverty, of a lack of proper job training that is preventing a lot of us from achieving what we thought we were going to have.

Brancaccio: But there’s a different thesis here — some believe maybe it was you, maybe you needed some improvement. So where did you guys go? It’s called Underearners Anonymous?

Smith: Under-earners Anonymous is a 12-step program. It’s based on the same idea as Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea is that under-earning is a disease where you work on yourself by taking steps. They also give some more practical tools: being on track of your time, creating a budget, and asking for the amount of money that you deserve.

Brancaccio: Do you think the process helped people that were in that group?

Smith: At a minimum, people were there and got out of their own shell. They got out of these feelings of loneliness and despair that were preventing them from getting a footing and starting their lives over. And that model, that optimism, can really breed hope, and it can really be the thing that keeps you sending out resumes when you’ve only gotten rejections.

Brancaccio: What about the basic, let’s call it a philosophical issue here, which is who’s to blame for all of this. Do you accept this notion that the fault, the Brutus lies, somewhat within ourselves if we are not earning what we should?

Smith: I don’t tend to see it that way. I do think that there are a lot of things, a lot of pressures that are beating people down and making them feel hopeless. But at the same time that doesn’t mean that we can’t have some agency over our own lives, we can’t take proactive steps.

Brancaccio: Genevieve Smith wrote the piece “In Recovery: 12-steps to Prosperity” in the June issue of Harper’s. Ms. Smith, thank you very much.

Smith: Thank you.

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