Art by Jonan Everett
Jillian R., a 35-year-old administrative assistant, joined an Underearners Anonymous (UA) group in the New York City neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights five years ago because she had been unemployed for an extended period of time after being the victim of downsizing.
“I felt defeated by the process of job hunting,” Jillian says. “I could not bring myself to go on another job interview, and I was facing eviction. But then I started working the steps and tools of UA. I felt more hopeful and less exhausted.”
Today, she regularly books temp jobs through an agency that also provides benefits. “I’m getting paid more per hour than I ever did as a full-time employee, which is a miracle in this job market,” she says.
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The Stats on Underpaid Workers
Jillian is among the 51 percent of Americans who have felt that they are underpaid for the work they do, according to a Gallup poll.
“Over the past 30 years, I have treated hundreds of underearners,” says Dr. Michael D. McGee, the author of The Joy of Recovery: A Comprehensive Guide to Healing from Addiction. He is also the chief medical officer at the Haven at Pismo, an addiction treatment center in Arroyo Grande, California. “In almost all cases, this is part of a more general lack of feeling whole and good, which is usually rooted in trauma and neglect,” he continues.
Only 38 percent of people making $75,000 or more a year say they are underpaid. Meanwhile, 62 percent of those making less than $75,000 feel that they aren't paid enough. Somewhat surprisingly, the difference between men and women on this measure is much smaller: 47 percent of men and 55 percent of women saying they are underpaid.
Similarly, 59 percent of Democrats say they aren't paid enough, compared with 49 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans.
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What Is Underearners Anonymous?
Originally founded in 2005, UA is an offshoot of Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program that helps consumers stop taking out debt.
“Debtors Anonymous helped me to operate on a cash basis without credit cards, but it didn’t help me earn more money when I had shortfalls of cash flow,” says Alvin D., who has been a member of UA for 10 years. “I joined UA because it helped me earn the extra money I was no longer incurring on credit cards.”
Since the first UA meeting in Manhattan in 2005, the fellowship has grown and expanded to Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Iran, Israel, and all 50 of the United States.
For those dealing with debt in addition to a low income, trustworthy companies like LendingClub might be able to help you consolidate or refinance your loans.
Helping People Get on Their Feet
“One patient was homeless and living under a bridge when he came to me,” says McGee, who is not affiliated with the UA program and treats clients independently in private therapy. “Now he is an attorney, a jujitsu master, a landlord, and married!”
If the 12-step modality works for alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous, underpaid workers could also benefit from a 12-step program that helps people earn more money.
“Another patient who flailed about for 10 years just graduated from college and has his first job as a technology help-desk technician,” McGee says. “Patients need hope. We need to be hopeful for them. We need to believe in them.”
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The steps and tools that Jillian refers to are posted on the UA website, along with an explanation of what exactly underearning is:
“While the most visible consequence is the inability to provide for one’s needs, including future needs, underearning is also about the inability to fully acknowledge and express our capabilities and competencies. It is about underachieving, or under-being, no matter how much money we make.”
McGee says that, “The best benefit of any 12-step program is unconditional support and affirmation, along with the reduction of shame for having an addiction or other problem. The 12-step methodology is a proven method for character transformation as well as personal and spiritual growth, so anyone undertaking this exercise with full intent will gain from it.”
How Underearners Anonymous Meetings Work
At a Saturday morning UA meeting at the Realization Center in Manhattan’s Union Square last weekend, some 20 people sat in chairs arranged in a circle listening to a 30-something African-American rapper and comedian who shared his struggles with working at low-paying jobs, despite a master’s degree in film from an Ivy League university.
“I’ve passed out flyers on the street and endured insults from strangers,” he said. “I’ve gone from working as a production assistant to directing projects.”
Fellow members nodded their heads in agreement.
“I work with a sponsor, and I have a monthly earning-plan action meeting,” he continued. An earning-plan action meeting takes place outside the organized group meeting, and a sponsor is a person who acts in a similar fashion to a life coach or a mentor.
After the featured speaker, a basket was passed around the room to collect donations to pay the cost of renting the room from the Realization Center, an addiction rehab facility. Then members took turns sharing about their employment woes or successes for four minutes each.
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The Downsides of Underearners Anonymous
Despite all of UA's features, McGee cautions that there are downsides to any 12-step group, which is open to the general public. “The risk of getting a sponsor who is unskillful in their mentoring can cause harm to the sponsee,” McGee says.
“Perhaps the greatest drawback is that most underearners have probably suffered some sort of trauma or neglect, leading to difficulties with self-esteem, self-worth, and regulating frustration or negative emotions; vulnerability to depression; and self-destructive ways of soothing themselves, such as with substance abuse,” McGee adds.
McGee advises combining 12-step programs with one-on-one private therapy. “As 12-step practitioners borrow from their higher power, or loving force, that helps them to act in more loving ways toward themselves, which in general enables underearners or underachievers to give their value to the world and in return assert themselves for fair compensation,” he says.
Cathy’s Success Story
Cathy P. is an award-winning actress who felt she wasn’t paid what she deserved for the independent films she was cast in. She acted as the timekeeper in the UA meeting on Saturday, ensuring that the attendees didn’t speak longer than their four minutes.
“I was earning less, not more, as time progressed, which didn’t make sense,” Cathy says after the meeting. “Everyone always says I am such a good actress. I even won an award at a film festival, but I am not earning at my skill level.”
The 28-year-old Minneapolis transplant followed the UA program for two years. Now she auditions regularly, books acting jobs, and earns the bulk of her money as a substitute teacher. “It’s a wonderful solution that I would not have even considered had it not been for an earning-plan action meeting and my sponsor,” she says.
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Support for Friends and Family
Cathy’s 37-year old husband, Bobby, attends Underearners-Anon (UA-Anon) meetings, a sister fellowship for friends and family members of underearners that is fashioned after Al-Anon.
“It’s extremely frustrating when a loved one cannot or will not carry their own financial weight,” says Bobby, who uses UA-Anon meetings to curb the frustration he experiences concerning Cathy’s unreliable paycheck.
Founded in 2013, UA-Anon says on its website that, “Underearning is many things, not all of which are about money. While the most visible consequence is the inability to provide for one’s needs, including future needs, underearning is also about the inability to fully acknowledge and express our capabilities and competencies. It is about underachieving, or under-being, no matter how much money we make.”
UA-Anon cofounder Audrey O. claims that left unchecked over time, the underearning syndrome can lead those who suffer from it to cheat the high earners around them. “All my friends were underearners,” Audrey says. “I got tired of paying their way to movies, theaters, and restaurants, but I could not walk away even when I discovered that one of my friends was secretly pilfering money from my wallet.”
Attending UA-Anon meetings has reportedly provided Audrey with the support she needs to let go of low earners whom she says were living off of her good graces while unemployed or underemployed. She now surrounds herself with other high earners and no longer feels guilty about enjoying her financial success and leaving underearners behind.
“I don’t have any underearners in my life right now, and it is a relief,” Audrey says. “They are not my problem anymore.”