Oct. 12, 2022

Bootstrapping #Fail: Why the American “Solution” to Systemic Problems Keeps Falling Short

Bootstrapping #Fail: Why the American “Solution” to Systemic Problems Keeps Falling Short

Plus, an interview with the legendary Rebecca Walker.

This week’s episode holds two complex truths simultaneously: That sometimes, the answer is working harder, and other times, the answer is policy, interdependence, and community. Sure, individual responsibility is important—but when we try to solve complex, collective problems with individual exceptionalism, we create a recipe wherein quality of life for all but a select few worsens over time. 

Our individual wealth accumulation and experience of personal finance do not exist in a vacuum—they exist within the context of the economic policy decisions and cultural norms of our time. 

You can work on your metaphoric swimming and freestyle upstream for as long as you’ve got the energy to do so, but the strength of the current is outside of your control. Usually, we talk about your swimming. Today, we’re talking about the current.

Plus, this episode features an interview with Rebecca Walker, activist and author of Women Talk Money (https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Women-Talk-Money/Rebecca-Walker/9781501154324). Get ready!

To learn more about our sponsor, Vin Social, check out https://vinsocial.co/.

Episode transcripts can be found at https://www.podpage.com/money-with-katie-show/.

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Katie: What do state-mandated and paid family leave, universal childcare, and single-payer healthcare systems have in common? The US doesn't guarantee any of them, making us an outlier amongst all other rich countries. So where does that leave Americans? Well, most are seeking privatized individual solutions, trying to keep themselves afloat and get ahead with their ratty bootstraps in a world where there are a few glorious winners who strike it very rich, while everyone else makes do with the leftovers. Bootstrap mentality has its limitations. And when we rely on individual success to navigate collective issues, we drive ourselves and our country further into the depths of inequality and debt. There is a lot going on here that makes it unnecessarily difficult for us to reach our full potential as humans—earning potential and otherwise. So let's get into it. 

Welcome back, #RichGirls and Boys, to The Money with Katie Show. I'm your host, Katie Gatti Tassin, and today we are diving into the American solution to pretty much everything: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. My guest today, Rebecca Walker, is the woman responsible for coining the term “Third Wave feminism.” Yeah. She writes a lot about feminism, gender, race, cultural power structures, and most recently in her book, Women Talk Money. I was thrilled that she agreed to sit down with me for this conversation. So this topic seems like a natural one for The Money with Katie Show. After all, I started blogging about money in 2018, driven by a genuine concern that none of my friends seemed all that interested in or informed about their financial choices. And after embracing FIRE rhetoric, I assumed it was my moral duty to spread the gospel of Brad and Jonathan—for the uninitiated, they are the hosts of ChooseFI, a podcast about saving aggressively and retiring young—to all of my blissfully aware, vagina-possessing friends and colleagues. A few years ago, we started to conflate a woman who earns a lot of money with feminism. This is the classic mix-up wherein we assume because one exceptional individual has overcome barriers that affect the whole, they're somehow inspirational evidence that everyone can and should be doing the same thing, regardless of the fact that that's technically not even possible. Like, not everyone can be the CMO of a Fortune 100 company like Sheryl Sandberg; technically, only a hundred women can be. But I was fully gung-ho on the individual solution train, because I hadn't yet learned enough about our country's political history, or frankly, the way other wealthy nations were run. At that point in time, I was 24. I had never traveled outside the United States, which is the case for 40% of Americans. 

I wrote a blog post earlier this week—we'll link it in the show notes—about how Girlbossification, or pinkwashed capitalism, or Girlboss feminism (honestly, take your pick) compellingly positions individual female wealth acquisition as progressive, moral, and in some ways politically defiant. I have often encouraged women to relentlessly and unabashedly pursue wealth, because it's not wrong to want to be rich. As someone who fully bought into the Girlboss mentality for years, I now see the error in my ways. Turns out making myself magnificently rich and successful (still working on it) does very little to advance the position of all women or other marginalized groups. Go figure. As Jia Tolentino muses in Trick Mirror, “We ladies wanted policy and social change, like paid family leave and universal childcare. And instead,” she says, “we got Girlboss rallies and pink deskplates that say She-EO and fanny packs that say ‘Feminist as Fuck’ for $49.99.” And while I still stand by my original assertion that people, women especially, should not have to justify or apologize for their ambition, I can also recognize the complexity around doubling down on the cultural messaging we are already inculcated with: that one's utmost purpose in life should be ascending a ladder and making a shit ton of money doing it. That idea is not radical, and it doesn't really need to be reinforced any further. Now, before we dive into more, we will be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode. 

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Katie: We often discuss things like the gender pay gap or the racial wealth gap as issues of individual failure—that women at an aggregate level choose jobs that pay less, or that Black and brown people on the whole just don't work hard enough, or that parents of young children didn't plan for childcare expenses responsibly enough. We are very quick to point the finger at groups who express challenges, but we are not as quick to examine the policy-driven economic framework or larger cultural norms that these groups exist within. So let's talk about some of the policies that can actually start to improve things. The Girlboss movement and the broader era of market-driven feminism that it symbolizes is our way of saying, hey, we just want the cultural support to pursue our careers and individual wealth accumulation as unashamedly and casually as men have for centuries, without being told that we need to get back in the kitchen and push out another kid. And on the note of pushing out another kid, it's difficult to have these types of discussions, aka women's wealth accumulation, without them bleeding over into other issues like the lack of state-mandated and state-provided paid family leave and universal pre-K or childcare.

And as we covered in the blog post linked in the description, those policy changes wouldn't be enough on their own to close the gender wealth gap, but they would go a pretty long way. How do we know they would go a long way? Because we have data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, a group of 38 democracies that work toward equality and opportunity about the gender wage gap across countries. The gender wage gap is what you get when you compare the median earnings of men to the median earnings of women in a country. Now, some claim that it can be explained away by personal choice and preference—that women simply choose jobs that pay less—while others claim that women are accurately paid less because they are less productive or less valuable in the workforce than men are. And if you don't believe me that people actually think that, just get on Reddit or any Wall Street Journal comments section about the wage gap. And you will see the justifications that I'm talking about. 

The US stacks up pretty pitifully against other countries. 38 other countries have smaller gender wage gaps than the US, including several much smaller, much poorer countries like Slovenia, Bulgaria, Brazil, Chile…I could go on. Of course, the other predominantly white, predominantly rich countries like Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Italy, the UK, Norway—again, I could go on—also have smaller wage gaps than the US.

And what do all of these countries mentioned have in common? State-mandated paid family leave, and in many cases, some form of subsidized or universal childcare. 

Now I know I'm implying a causal relationship here, and there are notable outliers wherein a country has paid family leave, but a higher-than-the-US incidence of wage disparity between men and women, like Japan. Japan offers more than 60 weeks of paid family leave. That's 15 months. But the median Japanese woman makes 22% less than the median Japanese man. Like I said, these policies alone are not enough to compensate for deeply entrenched cultural norms. But generally speaking, I think it's safe to say there is an observable correlation between countries that offer paid family leave and universal childcare, and more egalitarian compensation between men and women in the workforce. And as Pew Research finds, of 41 countries studied, the US is the only country that lacks government-mandated paid family leave for new parents…aka, we are the outlier. 

Recently I saw my friend Trey Lockerbie, host of The Investor’s Podcast, tweeting his frustrations that daycare costs $2,000 a month where he lives, but pickup time is at 3:00pm. He lamented, “How do working parents make this work?” His frustrations are obviously valid. The US is really the only wealthy nation that does not treat childcare as infrastructure. But one reply to the tweet caught my eye, because it was just so quintessentially American: “Why don't you raise your own kids?” the reply tweet posed tauntingly. “Maybe if you didn't pay someone else to do it, you wouldn't have this problem.” Ah, let us count the ways in which this is problematique. First of all, the fact that this comment was levied at Trey, a man, is unusual. Usually this level of vitriol and parent-shaming is reserved for those damned women, so good on this asshole for his equitable approach to shaming others. 

Secondly, the idea that every person with young children could simply quit their jobs and raise the kids themselves is both asinine on an individual level—because last I checked, people need income to survive—and add an aggregate economic level. Many Americans don't even have the option to have one stay-at-home parent, because a single income is often not high enough to support three or more people. Almost 7 million households in the US have children between ages three and five, as of 2021. Assuming all of these households include working adults, that means this reply guy is suggesting a full 5% of the 133 million working Americans should just exit stage left, en masse. I don't think you have to have a PhD in economics to see why that would be disastrous. 

It reminds me of the similarly shamey, equally ignorant sentiment that you sometimes hear tossed around: “Well, you chose to have kids. You shouldn't have had kids if you wanted to…” fill in the blank: have a career, have extra income, have any number of things that parents in many other parts of the world are allowed, encouraged, and expected to have. It's an example of how we Americans tend to make societal needs an individual responsibility. And if we want doctors, accountants, and restaurants 30 years from now, people kind of need to continue having children.

You can expand this to healthcare and higher ed, too. If you want people to be healthy and educated enough to work, to participate in the labor force, they need reasonable access to these things. This attitude that “It's your problem to find someone to watch your kid while you go to work all day so you can provide for said kid, your future tiny laborer for the US economy,” is uniquely American. Can we please not bootstrap childcare? Humans need help. Humans need community. Humans need structural support systems. We have evolved to participate in and cooperate within supportive, mutually beneficial groups.

But in many ways, everything about the American cultural and economic situation suggests that we should be able to do the opposite: solve for all of these matters privately and individually. The point is, it's difficult to talk about one problem, like gender wealth disparity, without talking about things like paid family leave and childcare, because these issues do not exist in a vacuum. So why do we want to believe and lean into individual solutions? Why are you likely to be called a lazy and entitled socialist cupcake if you mention you think the state should provide some of these things for its populace? 

I think we all want on some level to lean into the reasonable-enough-sounding advice that you should be able to do it all on your own. Why? Because it makes us feel on some sick, twisted, dark level like we are in control, that we only have ourselves to thank or to blame. But think about all the things that we have just patently accepted as not our responsibility. We don't have free market fire departments; we don't have free market sanitation departments, highway systems. There's no late capitalist solution for when your house catches fire—though, can you imagine? Only the rich people get to have their homes extinguished when they catch fire? Honestly, I'm kind of afraid to even say that out loud because I feel like it's gonna give someone an idea for a startup to “disrupt public services.” Put it in a subscription model app. I'm kidding. Please don't. But when our fire alarms started going off one night and we couldn't figure out why, we called 911. The fire department arrived in five minutes. They quickly diagnosed the problem for free, fixed it, and went on their merry way. No deductibles, no monthly premiums, no haggling with the billing department. It was a pleasant, seamless experience of local government gone right. My tax dollars at work. Now contrast that with a recent experience attempting to schedule a female wellness exam with an ob gyn. Last year when I visited the gyno, I had a different employer, which meant different health insurance. Now, in many other wealthy nations with a single-payer healthcare model, switching employers would have no bearing on which doctors I could see or how much I would have to pay. 

But I don't live in other countries. I live in the United States. So I opened my handy dandy cutting-edge private insurance app, and I searched for an in-network gynecologist near me. And I'm sure you know what happened next. The first nine, yes, nine numbers listed for in-network doctors were out of service or disconnected. By the time I was finally able to reach one, I was informed there was a two-month waiting list to get in, and that my first appointment couldn't be a wellness exam—that I would actually have to come in for my first appointment two months away for quote “data collection for insurance purposes.” And then I would need to schedule a follow-up to, you know, actually see a doctor. 

But sure, tell me again how fast and efficient and wonderful our dystopian for-profit, privatized healthcare system is in the US. How much faster it is. The free market is not the best way to provide necessary public services. And some problems should not be solved for on an individual level. What if they decided it's on you to figure out how to get clean water, how to dispose of your trash? The state's presence in our everyday lives, when it works, is so seamless and so unobtrusive that it is nearly unnoticeable. We just take it for granted that our trash will disappear if we put it on the curb, and that our waste will be flushed away, and that clean water will come out of the tap—unless you live in Jackson, Mississippi, or Flint, Michigan, where they decided, “Screw those poor communities. Let them figure it out.” 

Sure, we pay for these things with our taxes or through public utilities and services, but they are largely subsidized and orchestrated by state and local governments. Now, that's not to say corruption doesn't happen or that there aren't bad actors or failed government programs. There absolutely are. But the point is that the things we deem “individual responsibility” are culturally influenced and, importantly, politically strategic. 

Some solutions should not be dictated by how much money you have or who you work for. I will die on this hill. And rugged American individualism as the answer to our collective problems is making me crazy. We are bootstrapping ourselves to the point of collective failure in the name of radical self-reliance. 

And remember that wage gap that we talked about? It turns out there's even more of an egregious male/mother divide, as an article in Crosscut points out. It's not that the US cannot afford to solve these problems at the collective level. It's not because of money that we don't have universal childcare or paid family leave. It's because of ideology: the lingering myth that women belong in the home and that men should be breadwinners and that women should be homemakers. And yes, we are using the word “myth” intentionally. In the book The Way We Never Were…well, I'll just read you the description. Quote: “Leave it to Beaver was not a documentary. A man's home has never been his castle. The male breadwinner marriage is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today. In The Way We Never Were, acclaimed historian Stephanie Coontz examines two centuries of the American family, sweeping away misconceptions about the past that cloud current debates about domestic life. The 1950s do not present a workable model of how to conduct our personal lives today, Coontz argues, and neither does any other era from our cultural past.” End quote.

In many ways, when we argue about returning to this idealized time, we're arguing for a reality that never really existed. The ideology tells us, of course, that things like childcare are a private family matter, to be privately funded by said family and usually performed by the family's maternal parent. Joy Borkholder writes in Crosscut, “The result of that stance deeply affects the economic opportunities available to women and the care available for their children. It turns out, for instance, that the gender pay gap in this country is largely a motherhood pay gap.” Of course, it is not all on the state. It cannot all be solved with policy change. There is compelling evidence—we'll get to that shortly—that suggests that women don't talk about salaries and don't push back on these norms. And when individuals or corporations deny these norms even exist, it directly contributes to the fact that women earn less, invest less, and end up with smaller retirement accounts than their male counterparts. Our guest, Rebecca Walker, has some interesting insights into these thorny topics. We'll be right back, after a message from the sponsors of today's episode. 

I am now pleased to welcome Rebecca Walker to the show. Her writing focuses on race, gender, politics, power, and culture. And she recently released an anthology of essays called Women Talk Money that I've been reading for a few weeks. Now, these qualifications alone would've made me more than interested in bringing her on the show. But what really got me was backlash to another interview that she did on one of my favorite finance podcasts, Rational Reminder. So Rational Reminder is this super-technical academic show by these two delightfully nerdy Canadian wealth managers, and they have episode titles like “Effective Equity Duration” and “An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding Cryptocurrency.” So, like, if The Money with Katie Show is SpongeBob SquarePants, Rational Reminder is Squilliam Fancyson. So their audience does skew pretty heavily male, and while I—one of their seven female listeners—found the episode with Rebecca to be very interesting and insightful, it turns out that their hordes of male followers, some of them, were outraged that they would invite a woman (gasp) on the show to discuss gender differences in financial outcomes. So we're gonna play a clip. Listen to this: 

Rational Reminder hosts: “We knew it was a different episode, we knew it was a different type of guest, all that kind of stuff. It was the most controversial episode—and I have specific measurements for that—that we've released so far. And I'm measuring controversiality—I don't know if that's the right word, how controversial it was—by the comments, the sharp division in the comments, both on YouTube and in the Rational Reminder community. It was literally, like I said earlier, there was comments saying “This was the best episode ever. And I got my wife to listen to the whole thing,” and there were comments saying not very nice things.” “Lisa really enjoyed it.” “There you go. And then also measured by likes and dislikes on YouTube. So you can't see it in the public-facing video, but in our back end, you can see the ratio of likes versus dislikes. And this was by far the—both on CSI and Rational Reminder—it was by far the most controversial, from that perspective, video that we've ever done, which is interesting, because it…none of it seemed overly controversial to me. Now I do think it's an important topic. So we just wanted to address some of the feedback that we got. A common comment was that Rebecca didn't have evidence to back up her claims. So I thought we would talk a little bit about some of the data that's related to some of the stuff that she talked about.” 

Katie: Now, Ben and Cameron go on to explain how there are actually ample studies that confirm the ideas Rebecca raised in the initial interview. Namely, the fact that all around the world, even in countries like Finland where the culture is a little more egalitarian, there is a meaningful gap in financial literacy between men and women. It persists across different countries, financial topics, income levels, and age groups. No matter how you slice the data, this gap seems to exist at the aggregate. And there's a further gap when we introduce any sort of intersectionality, so for example, being a Black woman. 

So Rebecca, I found this backlash fascinating and infuriating, that we accuse calling attention to something like this being “politically motivated.” The word “political” literally means relating to the governing or public affairs of a country. So sure, in that respect, it is political, because we are referring to the experience of parts of our populace. But I did not get the sense from this rage that people are using the word “political” in that way. They're using it like it's a four-letter word, like it's code for “You and your liberal agenda introducing problems where they don't really exist.” Like this isn't even real. So I gave Ben and Cameron a lot of credit for devoting a couple follow-up episodes to pushing back on the controversy and confirming that no, in fact, there is empirical data to support everything Rebecca said. So what gives? Like, why are there, for example, 1,500 comments on a Wall Street Journal article about the wage gap, lambasting the publication for pushing this agenda, or worse, justifying the gap by claiming women are just less productive and valuable in the workforce? Why does this topic make people, read, typically white men, so angry? 

Rebecca Walker: People are angry. I mean that's…you know, anger is a real problem in our world, as we can see from what's happening all over, every day, every minute. Fundamentally, we're dealing with anger at a very deep level, and anger coming out of profound frustration and pain and discontent and fear and a sense of not having enough, never having enough. You know, I think a lot of human beings right now are really, you know, expressing their existential anxiety about where we are as a species through anger. And so I think fundamentally, we're dealing with an anger issue, you know, because we've lost this…we haven't lost it, but we're at a moment when people need more than ever to stay calm so that they can have reasonable conversations that can actually get us out of this terrible crisis that humanity seems to be in. And yet it seems that people do not have the tools they need to calm down and listen, you know, and invest in solving problems, as opposed to creating more problems with vitriol and anger and upset. So fundamentally, I think this is an anger problem. 

And fundamentally, under that, I think it's a problem, you know, that's fear-based, and people just really not knowing what's gonna happen. So sadly, historically, when we've got fear, you know, about survival and greed, you know, that revolves around this need for survival and fear that they won't survive, then we get greed and hoarding because of this need to make sure people are gonna survive. And then if anybody challenges what has been hoarded and what has been, you know, extracted out of communities, out of the earth, out of, you know, everything, and they've got it, they are very upset if people bring a critique around how they got it, you know, when they got it, who doesn't have it, the repercussions of them taking it.

Katie: That totally makes sense. 

Rebecca Walker: I get it. You know, I mean I think we all struggle with that. You know, each and every one of us struggle with feelings around, you know, what we have, what we've worked for, you know, what we've managed to cobble together. When people come and, you know, criticize what we have, or say that we have gotten it in ways that are untoward, we naturally first get upset. But then hopefully, you know, your next thought after you're upset and scared someone's gonna take it from you, is to reflect on that and to think, well how did I get this? And what are the implications of what I have? You know, what's underneath this? How did I get it, and how did it affect other people? And then you start to make systemic changes. It starts, you know, in your own life. How can you stop yourself from hoarding, stop yourself from feeling this terror, and realize that if you can't find a more equitable way to live, even in your own personal life, in your own community, then this existential anxiety will never go away, because the people around you will suffer and be suffering and will always be looking at you in this critical way. So, you know, I think deeper reflection is needed, and accountability, people taking accountability for their own actions and the actions of people who've come before them is critical. 

Katie: I read recently in Dorothy Brown's book, The Whiteness of Wealth, she said something that really jumped out at me. So I wanna adapt it for the conversation that we're having now. You can believe that there's some extrinsic factor or factors that cause women to have lower earnings and lower levels of financial literacy, social, cultural stereotypes or expectations that cause them to work less or take lower-paying work so they can do other things in the home. Or that there's something intrinsic about women that just makes them bad with money or inferior earners or not hard enough workers. And that, you know, women just choose jobs that pay less because we want to, and we wanna work less 'cause we're just lazier. We're bad with money, we're not very smart, that it's kind of our fault. So to borrow Dorothy's language, you know, if you believe it's extrinsic, then it is something that we can change. It's systemic. If you believe it's intrinsic, then that is sexism. So I'm kind of at a loss, though, for how we get through to the people who believe the latter, especially when some of those people are the ones that are making our laws and thereby kind of shaping our culture. What is your perspective on That? 

Rebecca Walker: My perspective is that it's a real problem. I mean, obviously we vote them out, you know, we have to continue to use the mechanisms that are at our disposal. This is a problem of ignorance and arrogance and hubris, and people not wanting to put the time into actually studying the culture. You know, studying the economics. You know, there are, you know, there are dozens of brilliant economists who have, you know, the credentials, you know, out the door. And if…who are talking about this. This is not rocket science. This is not some kind of magical thinking that I've just come up with, or women, or people of color, and all of us who've been marginalized within financial systems for hundreds of years. We didn't just come up with this, and we're not talking about it baselessly. So obviously, you know, voting is very important, and education is very important. And I think that's why we're seeing so many of the people who hold these beliefs attacking our educational system and making, you know, banning books and restricting the kinds of information people have access to. This is why in totalitarian authoritarian regimes, they have completely shut down parts of the internet. So people cannot have access to information. 

So the control of information is really at the core of this. People who don't understand because they have not been really educated, you know, I mean our culture is in an educational crisis. You know, I was thinking about my son, actually, and how at his school, which is an, you know, an excellent school in many ways, you know, they don't study economics until junior year, right? And many, many kids, young people in our country, don't study it ever. You know, so forget about, you know, all of the things they need to understand about our history in terms of race and class and gender and sexual orientation and the human psyche, you know, forget about those basic things. But economics, you know, how this system works at a very basic level. They are not being taught, just like they're not being taught, really, about government and how our government works. And so people are less likely to be able to meaningfully participate in these conversations, because they literally do not have the skills. They do not have the information. You know, they may have one little bit of the information, but they don't have the whole picture, right? 

And so, so many of us who are bringing up the issues that we bring up about, you know, racial inequality and gender inequality and all of the different ways that we are disallowed from having the information and access we need to be prosperous and to fulfill our vision of the American dream. We often have studied everything they've studied because we've had to. If we were allowed to do that, that's what we were taught. And then we've studied even more, because then we've had to come up with, you know, “Wait a minute, if this is true, then why are we all still struggling?” So we have to come up with…somebody's gotta have written about that. What I know is limited. And I think that I am very open to having meaningful conversations with people who want to learn as I do. Because the only way that we can work through this is for us to be as well-informed as possible, so that we can come up with some good solutions. But you have to care about solutions. You have to care about people. In addition to anger and ignorance, there is a real lack of empathy and caring. You know, you have to really want things to be better. You have to look out and see people suffering and think, you know, I wanna understand this so I can change this. I want to help people. I want people to be well, I want this to be different. So you have to care. So part of it is that a lot of people are having a crisis of caring, you know, that their empathy is really compromised. And part of that is just being so desensitized because there is so much suffering in the world. 

Katie: Well, I think there's an element of it that I saw in The Wall Street Journal comment section that I referred to earlier, which is, it's like we see someone that's in a worse position and we think, well, they must have done something wrong to end up there. They must have made some decision, or there must be something wrong with them if they're in that position. 'Cause I'm not in that position. I clearly did something right. And I think that that's kind of where the deeper level of kind of curiosity and questioning and empathy has to come from, of like, well maybe if we observe these patterns at an aggregate level across genders or across races, maybe it's not that these are individual decisions that are fully to blame here. Like there's probably something else going on. 

And there were a couple papers published by Penn researchers that found high levels of financial literacy—surprise, surprise—lead to more intentional planning for the future, which results in statistically significant improved financial outcomes. And one of these papers went as far as to say that up to 40% of wealth inequality in retirement among the cohort studied could be attributed back to differences in financial literacy. So I think that's interesting, because more research that kind of piggybacked on that found that families with a financially sophisticated husband are more likely to participate in the stock market than families with a wife of equal financial sophistication. So the paper from the Journal of Finance chalked it up to, well, we have these like gender identity norms which constrain a woman's influence over intra-household financial decision-making. That gender roles are incredibly pervasive, both societally, but also like in that nuclear family individual level, that stereotypically the woman tends to manage the bills, the day-to-day budget, while the man is typically managing like the grander task of long-term wealth accumulation and strategy. And I just think it highlights, like, our relationships with money as women do not exist in a vacuum. Like they exist within this broader cultural context and familial expectations for what it means to be a good woman. I'm curious what you think about why challenging this stuff matters, how we kind of challenge it, especially when you still have subsegments of society who either don't think it's real, that like these are imagined barriers, or that oh, it's just the way it should be. 

Rebecca Walker: The most important thing…for women, to educate ourselves and to become more and more comfortable talking about money, managing money and realizing that it is completely within our purview. It is not rocket science. We should not be intimidated by it. And that it is a lever of power that is being wielded, you know, against us. And part of that process, and why I decided to do this book, Women Talk Money, is to really get in touch with your money story, to figure out, as women, what narrative we're holding about our money. And when you really start to get women's stories about money, what they grew up learning, what they've thought about it their whole lives, you start to see these kinds of institutionalized gender and racial inequality within the very story, right, that they tell. 

So one of my favorite stories in, in Women Talk Money is by Latham Thomas, who as a Black woman, talks about her, the story that she's holding about money, which is that when she was, I think eight or nine, maybe 10 years old, her mother, who was a real estate broker, went in to cash her commission check at a bank. And the teller did not believe that as a Black woman, she would possibly have gotten a $23,000 check, honestly, and called the police. And Latham, you know, experiences that she saw her mother being handcuffed and brought, dragged out of the bank, right, by police, because this teller did not believe that a Black woman could have honestly made that money. So just right there in that one story, you start to understand, and that is not an isolated event. Many, many Black women have stories like this. This is part of our experience, okay? Going into stores and people not believing we can buy things, you know, for instance. Not being taught about money. Having been, as slaves, currency ourselves. Our very own bodies have been currency that we have no control over. 

And then another great story in the piece is by a white woman, Mandy Catron, who writes about the reason that she was able to make money is because every generation before her made sacrifices and had access to the ability to make money themselves. So her great-great-grandmother, as a white woman, was able to get a job and, you know, a good job, a decent job, and save money so that her daughter had a better start, and then her daughter then had a better start, and then Mandy was able to go to graduate school and then have her own access to money. Now that's a story about generational wealth, which white people in this country have been able to build for 400 years, at least. We talk about the first slaves coming in 1619, and we just have not, as Black people, had that kind of generational opportunity and access. 

So even in these stories, we have a story about an immigrant woman, you know, first-generation Chinese American, who talks about what her mother taught her about scarcity and about fear and about debt and about, you know, all of the different things that shaped her narrative around money. So each of us is holding a story around money, and I think it's up to every woman to really excavate that story, figure out how to rewrite that story in a way that is empowering. So, you know, Latham talks a lot about being uncomfortable in banks, and she's gotta, and she does, in her piece, work through that, because as a businesswoman, right, she's gotta figure out how to get over that fear so that she can build wealth that can help herself, her family and her community. 

So I think it's important for every woman to think about what we're holding, and then educate ourselves. I think we live in a great moment in terms of the information that is available to us, but we've gotta strip away these our feelings of, you know, not smart enough, you know, not savvy enough, like, “Oh, you know, the men do that. It's the men's space, that, you know, money and economics, that's too hard.” I remember somebody telling me when I was quite young, you know, “You're not good at math, so just forget about it,” you know? And to me that was like…and I held that idea for a long time, and somehow I translated that into, oh, I'm not good at math; I must not be good at managing money, right? Because math and money go together. So I had to really let go of that idea and say, you know what, actually I'm very good at math, and even if I'm not very good at math, I can still understand how to budget, invest, plan for my future. 

Katie: You've touched on something about kind of, like, the individual education, and self-awareness, and kind of excavation of stories here. And I do think that that does tend to come up quite a bit with, you know, in order to reverse these decades of, millennia of oppression or of marginalization, that like you have that kind of quippy Girlboss answer of—not you specifically, but like there is that Girlboss, like, “Well, just work harder, like just lean in, like just you be so good that you prove they have to listen to you.” And I think that that's flawed as well, to take that to the extreme of like, well, it's on you as the individual. There's a larger thing happening here. And you had mentioned in your book that women's domestic labor, specifically, is still undervalued, to the tune of $11 trillion a year. And that the wealth of 22 men in the world is equal to or surpasses the wealth of all African women. And like this mass exodus of women from the workforce during the Covid pandemic because of the childcare challenges is set to reverse a decade of progress toward global gender equity. I kind of wanna hear you talk about how you think about these solutions, and how maybe this answer that we sometimes give women, of like, “Well, you just be, you know, you just go be so smart and hardworking and talented and educated and amazing that like they have no choice but to pay you equally.” 

Rebecca Walker: That's not really gonna do the job. I mean, we clearly need systemic changes, you know, beyond education and self-reflection. You know, there are a lot of very smart people who are working on these issues, and I think, you know, one of the places I'm a little upset about what just happened in Sweden, and I know we all always talk about Sweden as this idyllic place, but it's a very challenging place, but it does have some good things happening, and I've spent a lot of time there. I have some wonderful readers and supporters there, but what they have done is they have really thought about taking care of their population from birth to death, you know, financially, you know, so that, you know…and we're not talking about like some welfare state that's going to make people, you know, infantilize them and they're never gonna work. I mean, if you go to Sweden, everybody's working really hard and creating all kinds of fabulous stuff. So it's not like, you know…so anyway, so basic things like family leave, right? So when you have a child, you know, people get…

Katie: Like six plus months…

Rebecca Walker: Months, in Sweden, right? But the point being, there is a sense of, in the beginning, parents are able to get the kind of economic support they need to help their children. There is access to affordable, if not free, childcare and healthcare. And then there is, you know, a stipend that parents are given per child, because there is an understanding that the labor of raising the next generation is labor. I mean, when I think about my parenting right now, I am basically creating the workforce of the future. I am actually growing the actual “materia” that is going to keep this economy, this whole entire system, going. And yet I am not being remunerated for any of it. So Sweden really gets that, you know. And so there is an understanding that the work that we're doing as parents needs to be compensated. So that's another way that that can be handled. And then people are supported in these different ways throughout their lives. So that there is a great equalizing.

It's not to say there isn't wealth disparities in Scandinavian countries. There are, but they're much less extreme, and people are, you know, on the whole, not as concerned with, you know, where am I gonna sleep tonight? What am I gonna eat today? What's gonna happen to me when I'm 50, 60, 70, 80? How am I gonna handle, you know, becoming ill? What am I gonna do with my children? I mean, you know, here in our country, we are so far behind in these kinds of systemic changes. I mean we had to lose pre-K, we had to lose childcare, we had to lose extended family leave in this last go-round with Biden's proposed bill. You know, these are the kinds of conversations we need to be having, in addition to this narrative of, you just go out there and make it happen yourself, because that's not gonna work without the supports in place to actually make that reality. And you can't look at any group in this country that just did it on their own. I mean, this country is built on the backs of slaves. So the idea that anybody could build anything and create anything without a whole lot of support of some kind is a complete delusion. And again, we're going back to ignorance and a real resistance to understanding history.

So nobody in America really has pulled themselves up from their bootstraps. We've all had to work hard in different ways, and some of us have had more access and privilege than others. And those things need to be acknowledged so that more people can have more access and we can try to make this country better. 

Katie: Yeah. Preach. The way that I think about Scandinavia, and I mean I would say like a lot of Europe in general, is just that your floor is so much higher. If you are poor in America, you are in the basement, compared to what poor in another one of these countries would be like. 

Rebecca Walker: Absolutely.

Katie: I think it's a little dystopian, and I think it's been a very disillusioning experience for me as an adult to really understand just how different the US is from a lot of these other very, very wealthy nations that do consider a social safety net. 

Rebecca Walker: Exactly. Because what are they gonna, who are they gonna hire if we don't do this work? Who's gonna create the next business? Who's gonna create the next engine for this economy if us parents are not doing it? You know, we are creating…it's the raw material. And it's infuriating to me. 

Katie: Same. Well, especially 'cause it tends to fall on women. 

Rebecca Walker: Exactly. 

Katie: The parental considerations, more often than not. It's like it's on the individual woman to determine how that is going to play out, which means it typically impacts her. I mean, it's all connected, right? Like that's kind of the point, is that…

Rebecca Walker: Yeah, and it's women and men. I mean, when you think about especially communities of color and poor communities, I mean, it's families, it's women and men, you know, men who have been…Black men, you know, men of color, poor white men. I mean, everybody's trying to raise their family, you know, to support their family. Not everybody, but many, many people. The gender gap is real. But I don't wanna leave men out of this conversation, because so many men who are not white men of a certain level of privilege are also kept out of the information stream, are also sidelined within this economy and this system. And they too deserve more. 

So yeah, but I think what you're saying, I, you know, I wrote about this, I think, in Baby Love, my memoir about having a child, but the experience for me of going to Sweden the first time and seeing all of these mothers who looked completely happy, you know, like they…I mean, this is like, I'm completely idealizing the situation, but I actually felt this. I was standing…I'll never forget this, I was standing at the, was it the town hall? Right there on the water in Stockholm. And I saw these women with their strollers, and they looked more relaxed than I've ever seen any mother look anywhere else, really, in the world. And they were way more relaxed than I ever was as a mother. And I got this hit of like, oh, this is like a completely different situation here. And I literally started to cry, because I was just struck by the difference. 

And I really think that so many Americans need to travel, you know, and see that people are living in very different ways, you know, and it's not just the socially democratic societies and countries. It's even very, very poor countries in India, in Africa, in Southeast Asia, you know, where, you know, there might not be a lot of financial wealth, but there's an entirely different way of relating within the community, within the family. You know, there's a way in which money is not playing the same sort of divisive role, or let's say there's more support, you know, communally, than we have here, you know, where people are so separated from one another. And that's another element of a kind of economic struggle, to be removed and separated from your family in the name of progress, in the name of modernity, you know. I have to go, you know, move to New York to get this job and to be successful. And then you leave your own personal safety social net, you know, your community. So there are a lot of ways to look at this, and I really invite anyone listening to open your mind to as much exploration of these different worlds and ideas as possible, and really reflect on your own story of money and how you wanna change it, whether you're comfortable with it, whether it serves you, whether it serves your family. You know, don't be afraid to actually do the numbers. The psychic numbers, the psychological numbers, the emotional numbers, and obviously the practical numbers. 

Katie: Rebecca, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it. That was a great conversation. 

Rebecca Walker: It was. Thank you so much for having me. It was a lot of fun. 

Katie: The point of this episode is not that individual responsibility is not important, or that hard work is not valuable. The point is merely that when we try to solve complex collective problems with individual exceptionalism, we create a recipe wherein quality of life for all but a select few worsens over time. We can hold these two complex truths simultaneously: that sometimes the answer is working harder, and other times the answer is policy or interdependence or community. As Rebecca pointed out, emphasizing the former two strongly encourages hoarding behavior, which only exacerbates the problem. I have become increasingly cynical of the expectations placed on me to overcome these barriers personally. Everything from someone suggesting the answer isn't more egalitarian attitudes toward caretaking and policies that make it easier for both parents to have children and work, but women to just be more quote unquote “confident,” to the healthcare administrator at the ob gyn office chastising me for not scheduling sooner than September if I wanted an appointment before November.

More than anything, it's important to remember that your own individual wealth accumulation and experience of personal finance does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the economic policy decisions and cultural norms of your time. You can work on your metaphoric swimming and freestyle upstream for as long as you've got energy to do so, but the strength of the current is outside of your control. 

All right, everybody, let's dig into another Rich Girl Roundup. As a reminder, we will take listener questions every month. I'll put a call out for questions on Instagram—follow Money with Katie if you're not already—and we will pick one that feels interesting and widely applicable and answer it. As my standard disclaimer, I am not a licensed financial professional. This is not financial advice. This is “What would Katie do?” This segment is brought to you by Betterment, the online investing platform that gives you the tools, inspiration, and support that will help you become a better investor. Investing involves risk, performance not guaranteed. 

This week's question is from Gavin. “I'm buying a house, 31 years old, looking to retire in 15 years.” Hell yeah, Gavin, you go. “Should I get a 15-year mortgage or a 30-year mortgage and invest the difference between the 15–30 year price? Advice?” 

All right, Gavin, if you had asked me this 12 months ago, I would've said, “Dude, money is so cheap right now, you would be crazy to get a 15-year term when you get a sub 3% 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.” But that's not really the case anymore. So I do wanna raise a couple of considerations for you. Number one, do you think it is the house that you would want to stay retired in? In other words, would paying it off before you retire create a situation wherein you would only be paying property taxes, insurance, maintenance, et cetera, but you would no longer have a mortgage payment like ever again—you would not have to support a substantial housing payment ever again? If that is the case, I could see this 15-year being attractive, because it lines up so nicely with your retirement plan. And if you have the cash flow right now to support the higher monthly payments and you would like to live in this house permanently or semi-permanently, it might make sense. Plus, you'll save money and interest. 

That brings me to my next point. With 6+% rates, the allure of “Pay over 30 years and invest the cost difference in payment” diminishes a little bit. If you assume we're going to see 7% average real returns in the market over the next 30 years like we have over the last 30, then we're looking at a slight edge to investing. But very slight, right? It's also possible we will have lower returns moving forward and it would be pretty neck and neck, or worse, your interest accumulates faster than your investments (of course, could always be higher, but we just don't know). So we have to use these interest rates to help us decide. If it were me and I knew, A, that my retirement was 15 years away, B, I had the cash flow every month to comfortably afford the higher payments, and C, I knew that my rate was going to be higher than 6%, I would probably really consider that 15-year—again, if it were me. Of course, you can always change your mind later, like if rates drop or you decide, oh, actually I don't wanna pay this thing off that quickly. You can always refinance and change your mind, but you will have to rerun all the numbers and new totals with that updated timeline.

All right y'all, that is all for this week. I will see you next week, same time, same place, on The Money with Katie Show. Our show is a production of Morning Brew and is produced by Henah Velez and me, Katie Gatti Tassin, with our audio engineering and sound design from the talented Nick Torres. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia, and additional fact checking comes from the lovely Kate Brandt. Sam Cat is our VP of chaos, and Beans is our chief bark officer.