Do you still feel a cold shiver of dread go down your spine every time your phone lights up with an incoming call from an unidentified number, despite paying all your loans off years ago? Or do you find yourself mentally tallying the total cost of the Stacy’s Pita Chips and romaine in your grocery cart despite knowing that you have more than enough to pay for whatever random snack you splurged on? If so, you might have what Very Smart Brothas founder and editor-in-chief Damon Young dubs “post-brokeness stress disorder.”
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Young describes how, after 35 or so years of being “broke or broke-adjacent,” the five years of financial stability that followed hasn’t been enough to stop his blood pressure from spiking at the sound of a truck backing up on the street. “My fight-or-flight response kicks in because I’m terrified that the beeping belongs to a tow truck that will snatch my car—a cruel and bloodless sentinel, sent by an auto-financing company to seek, destroy and repossess,” he writes. The hypervigilance he describes will be familiar to anyone who’s transitioned away from the everyday mental financial calculus required to stay solvent when you’re broke. Young makes clear, though, that his money angst isn’t some form of humble bragging, nor does it stem from a sense of imposter syndrome. It’s just that the survival tactics and attendant all-consuming anxiety of poverty linger long after a car note is paid off. “I’m so used to mundane financial setbacks—an overdraft fee here, a cellphone temporarily disconnected there—that my new status is too surreal for my brain to accept,” he writes.
The concept of “post-brokeness stress disorder” speaks to the tenuous reality of upward mobility, and the stubborn shame that America attaches to poverty, something which doesn’t wash off with a newly fortified bank account. But instead of being a vexing holdover, for black Americans, that lingering shame can be a survival tactic. Not only does it, as Young writes, tether you to reality and “force you to remain cognizant of how delicate success can be,” but it wards against the very real danger of sliding back into poverty that black millennials, in particular, face.
According to a 2015 Atlantic article, unlike white children, black children born into middle-class families have no guarantee that their parents’ success will influence their own. In fact, “seven out of 10 black children who are born to families with income that falls in the middle quintile of the income spectrum will find themselves with income that’s one to two quintiles below their parents’ during their own adulthood.” And according to a 2014 study from the Federal Reserve of Chicago cited in the same article, that higher probability of downward mobility applies across income groups. According to economist Bhashkar Mazumder, the author of the Fed study, if future generations’ level of intergenerational mobility remains the same as millennials, “we should expect to see that blacks on average would not make any relative progress.”
Take into account the fact that nearly half of all Americans are either one medical emergency or a missed paycheck away from financial disaster, and the idea of post-brokeness stress disorder sounds less like an annoying vestige of harder times and more like an internal warning system, a reminder of what could be lost all too easily. And although Young writes that he’s “had enough reminders already,” it seems that they’ll continue until middle class stability in America becomes a little less precarious.