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How Life-Affirming Tales of Modest Multi-Millionaires can Reinforce a Troubling Message

Sylvia Bloom died in 2016, an unknown 96-year-old. Now the world knows all about her.

The New York Times recently profiled the remarkable fortune Sylvia Bloom quietly accumulated over the course of her 67-year career as a legal secretary. That fortune totaled over $9 million. And Bloom has now left the bulk of that wealth, the Times reveals, to help children from poor families.

None of Bloom’s surviving relatives or friends had any idea that their unassuming loved one had saved anything remotely close to her multiple millions. Bloom had lived frugally all her life in Brooklyn. She avoided the high life. She counted her pennies. In the end, she put all those pennies to good use.

Stories like Bloom’s have been popping up regularly. Leonard Gigowski, a Wisconsin shopkeeper, died three years ago at age 90 and left a “secret $13 million fortune” that’s currently funding scholarships. Grace Groner passed away in 2010 at age 100. She spent most of her life in a one-bedroom Illinois home, shopped at thrift stores, and left $9 million for her alma mater.

Our popular culture can’t seem to get enough of these life-affirming tales of modest multi-millionaire seniors. These stories make us feel good. They also, unfortunately, reinforce a message that cheerleaders for our society’s richest find enormously convenient.

You don’t have to be money-hungry, commit vile acts, or even have extraordinary talents to become wealthy, all these stories about hidden millions suggest. You just have to be frugal.

And if you don’t happen to become rich, this media coverage not so subtly hints, just look in the mirror. You, too, could have counted your pennies and built a huge fortune. You chose not to.

Conservative pundits have always loved this basic “frugality pays” thesis. If we all only understood “that building wealth takes discipline, sacrifice, and hard work,” as one noted a few years ago, we could all become wealthy.

But if “discipline, sacrifice, and hard work” build wealth, why do so many millions of disciplined, sacrificing, and hard-working Americans today have so little of it?

Sylvia Bloom’s life offers some clues. Yes, Bloom lived frugally, sacrificed, and worked hard. But she also matured in a society — mid-20th century America — that endeavored to help disciplined, sacrificing, and hard-working people.

That help came in many different forms. Sylvia Bloom attended Hunter College, part of a system of free public higher education in New York City. She and her husband lived in a rent-controlled apartment. She commuted, for a few dimes per day, on one of world’s best public transit systems.

Young adults today confront a different reality. Sky-high college costs have turned 21st-century youths into life-long debtors. To find an affordable place to live, they have to squeeze into tiny — and expensive — apartments close to their jobs or plop themselves in distant exurbs, fighting traffic jams all the way to work.

These millennials aren’t living the frugal life. They’re living the austere life — and not by choice. Our elected leaders have thrust this austerity upon them, with decades of public policies that have rewarded the rich with tax cuts and whittled away public services at every opportunity.

Sylvia Bloom had the good fortune to live her early adult years in a society much more caring than ours. She cared back — and chose to devote her own financial good fortune to helping others to the same support that so helped her.

So, yes, Sylvia Bloom’s life does indeed offer up inspiration. But let’s not let greedier people turn that life into a rationalization for their riches.

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Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press). 

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