William McPherson has a Pulitzer Prize, but little money to his name.
In a candid personal essay published in The Hedgehog Review, the 81-year-old journalist revealed his descent into near poverty. While his trajectory was unexpected, McPherson’s financial state represents a common narrative in America today.
"I started life comfortably middle-class, maybe upper-middle class; now, like a lot of other people walking the streets of America today, I am poor," the acclaimed author wrote. "To put it directly, I have no money."
More than 45 million people, or 14.5 percent of the U.S. population, lived below the poverty line last year, the Census Bureau reported in September. And economists forewarn that elderly Americans are on the brink of experiencing the greatest retirement crisis in "the history of the world."
This demographic is too frail to work, too poor to retire and those with pensions likely won’t receive the amount of money they’ve been counting on.
Relying on The Washington Post’s "miserable pension" -- he worked at the paper for about 25 years -- was a major factor that led to McPherson’s financial demise.
His pension kicked in when he was 65 and is now worth half of what it was, he wrote in his essay.
The octogenarian founded The Washington Post’s "Book World" and won a Pulitzer in 1977 for his literary criticism for that section. He went on to write two "well-received" novels in the '80s and pursued his passion of covering eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall.
After working for the Post intermittently for 25 years, McPherson accepted the company’s deal of taking an early retirement at 53. He accepted the offer because the Post agreed to keep him on its medical plan, which was "very good and very cheap" at the time, and because he thought he could make a decent living continuing to work as a writer.
McPherson earns above $11,670 a year and his Social Security comes to "more than that," he wrote. He’s never applied for welfare, Medicaid or food stamps. The annual income threshold for being counted as living in poverty was $11,490 last year for a person.
But after suffering a major heart attack which led to congestive heart failure, McPherson’s medical bills have taken a major toll on his limited income.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizes his rent and a District office helps out with his medical insurance payments.
The writer’s medical woes represent yet another common concerning financial issue.
Across the U.S., 43 percent of households are one financial crisis away from falling below the poverty line, according to a report released by advocacy group Corporation for Enterprise Development.
But the celebrated author admits that his poor financial planning and frivolous spending also contributed to his current financial state.
McPherson said being poor and having to turn to friends and family for help has been "humiliating." But he’s also grateful for the firsthand education he’s received in what it means to struggle in America and how varied those experiences can be.
"Compared with most poor people, I am fortunate," he wrote. "If you’ve got to be poor, finding yourself at the upper edge of poverty with a roof over your head and a wardrobe that doesn’t look as if it came from the Salvation Army is as good as it gets. It also helps to be white."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that William McPherson earns $11,670. He makes more than $11,670.