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The Shame of Being Broke: Going, Going, Nearly Gone

01/23/2013 06:34 pm 18:34:51 | Updated Mar 25, 2013

2012 was the year when people started freely telling casual friends they were broke -- or living in their car. It was the year that contract-thumping moralists lost their voice. It was the year that sleeping on a friend's couch became acceptable and accepted.

No, you don't reveal these things at job interviews -- in fact, you park your beat-up car around the corner. And a few people with secure $100,000/year jobs might still sneer at you.

But in 2012, among most 99-percenters, couch-surfing became socially acceptable -- including long-term stays. It's been acceptable forever among the congenitally poor. Now it has become a reality of life in wealthy areas such as Marin County or Silicon Valley, or wealthy suburbs of New York City or D.C. Couch-surfers no longer have to cringe at dinner time; they are equals at the dinner table.

It's a new breed. They kick their food stamps into the household budget. They cook dinner, clean the bathroom and tend the garden. They pull their weight. And they get respect in the household.

Benjamin Franklin famously observed that "Fish and guests begin to smell after three days." Not in the Great Recession, though. A couch is a small tradeoff for a cheerful share-the-work roommate.

Kick in their food stamps? Of course. With more than 40 million Americans on food stamps, most couch-surfers have something to kick into the stew pot -- and that goes over very well with the people whose couches they are sleeping on.

Why is it working?

As social and economic analyst Dmitry Orlov wrote:

... Americans make better Communists than Russians ever did, or cared to try. They excel at communal living, with plenty of good, stable roommate situations, which compensate for their weak, alienated, or nonexistent families.... Where any Russian would cringe at such an idea, because it stirs the still fresh memories of the failed Soviet experiment at collectivization and forced communal living, many Americans are adept at making fast friends and getting along, and generally seem to posses an untapped reserve of gregariousness, community spirit, and civic-minded idealism.

I can't speak for Russians, but I will say that Americans make better commune-ists than French or Italians. Those are both intensely family-oriented cultures, whereas Americans have a 200-year-history of putting up strangers based on a quick look-and-feel -- embodied in the wild, wild West, where sacking out in a ranch's bunkhouse for the winter meant you pulled your weight by doing chores and helping herd cattle, even if you were not on the payroll.

That formula is working again today -- with dignity for all concerned -- and I believe it's creating a better breed of American.

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I initially titled this "The Shame of Poverty," but was correctly reminded that poverty is a state of mind, whereas being broke is a condition ... preferably a temporary condition.

Source information: a lot of recent trips to Silicon Valley and Marin County, where I was startled to find people couch-surfing everywhere -- confirmed by phone calls to other parts of the U.S.

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