Three Cheers for a Frugal Brooklyn Legal Secretary

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The world at large knew virtually nada about Sylvia Bloom for 96 years. Then she died in 2016. Now Sylvia Bloom is enjoying her belated — and richly deserved — 15 minutes of worldwide fame.

The New York Times has just published a heart-warming story of the caring, upright life Sylvia Bloom lived and the remarkable — and hidden — fortune that Bloom quietly accumulated over the course of her 67-year career as a Manhattan legal secretary.

That fortune totaled over $9 million, and the bulk of that wealth, the Times account reveals, is going — per Bloom’s wishes — to help students from poor families advance their educations.

None of Bloom’s surviving relatives or law firm colleagues or fellow volunteers at the Henry Street Settlement, the social services agency set to get $6.24 million from her bequest, had any idea that their unassuming loved one and friend had saved anything remotely close to multiple millions.

Bloom lived frugally all her life in Brooklyn and commuted, by subway, to her job. The “high life” never interested her in the least. She led a simple existence. She counted her pennies. In the end, she put them all to good use.

Stories like Bloom’s have been popping up regularly over recent years. 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 our society’s richest — and their cheerleaders — find enormously convenient.

You don’t have to be money-hungry or commit vile acts or have remarkable talents to become wealthy, all these stories of hidden millions suggest. You just have to be frugal. Almost anybody, in other words, can become rich.

And if you don’t happen to become rich, the media coverage of these stories not so subtly hints, just look in the mirror for the reason why. You, too, could have resisted temptation and counted your pennies. You, too, could have built a huge personal fortune. Shame on you. You chose not to.

A couple decades ago, two academic researchers — Thomas Stanley and William Danko — made themselves not insignificant personal fortunes by wrapping up that same theme in reams of statistics. Their 1996 book, The Millionaire Next Door, has so far sold over 4 million copies.

That thrifty fellow down the block with a six-year-old Ford, The Millionaire Next Door related, could well be worth millions. And those millions, the book stressed, all begin with frugality.

Conservative pundits have always loved this basic frugality-pays thesis. Stanley and Danko, the argument goes, have served up the ultimate secret to getting rich. “Hardly any” of the self-made rich the pair profiled in The Millionaire Next Door, as one commentator noted a few years ago, “had expensive tastes.” Instead, these millionaires avoided “new homes and expensive clothes” and “often invested 15 to 20 percent of their net income.”

Any of us could follow that lead, this analyst would add, so long as we understand “that building wealth takes discipline, sacrifice, and hard work.”

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? Why is the “millionaire next door” — especially for our millennial generation — becoming a vanishing species?

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, a firefighter and later teacher, lived in a rent-controlled apartment. She commuted, for just a few dimes per day, on the world’s most extensive public transit system.

Sylvia Bloom’s young adult counterparts today? They confront a totally different reality. The sky-high costs of attending college have turned 21st-century young adults into life-long debtors. To find an affordable place to live, they squeeze into tiny apartments close to their jobs or plop themselves in distant exurbs, fighting traffic jams all the way to work — if not paying big bucks daily for scarce transit options.

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 at every turn and whittled away public services at every opportunity.

If Sylvia Bloom had been born a millennial, she’d be pinching pennies today to pay off her college debts. She’d be looking forward to years of hard work and sacrifice, with no hope of ever saving up enough to become a significant investor.

In her actual life, 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.

Sylvia Bloom’s life does indeed offer up inspiration. Let’s not let our rich turn that life into a rationalization for their riches.


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Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

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