We have a long history of admiring people who make their own fortunes, who "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." But what of those who don't have what it takes to do that? What does it take to do that? From what I've observed, it seems to be a combination of an idea or some talent, energy, opportunity, and luck.
Now, that is what it takes to go from poor to wealthy. What about to go from poor to middle class?
Our society seems to be of a split mind. On the one hand, people advise, "Go to college, get a degree. That's how you'll get a good job." On the other hand, there simply aren't enough good jobs for everyone who wants a job. There are a lot of low-paying jobs that somebody has to do. When you go to a restaurant, the food doesn't cook itself. Unless we start paying restaurant cooks the same as speech therapists (an occupation with an average salary close to the national average), there will continue to be poor people. And of course we won't do that, because if we did, most people couldn't afford to eat in restaurants. Our economy only works because we pay people poverty wages. In other words, could you afford to buy a shirt if all the people who spun the thread, wove the fabric and sewed the shirt were paid the same wage you make? You would have very few shirts. Shirts are only affordable because the people making them are paid slave wages.
I'm old enough now that I've seen our society go through great changes in my lifetime. People pay lots of attention to all the new technology, but the change that really matters is much more insidious: the political shift. One year before I was born, President Lyndon Johnson declared The War on Poverty. Though Johnson wasn't perfect (I think the Vietnam War was a pretty bad idea), he was responsible for the Civil Rights Bill, Medicare, Medicaid, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other programs as well. Though he was out of office before I was old enough to really be cognizant, they were part of the social fabric as I became aware. I remember hearing the words, "The War on Poverty." There seemed to be an understanding that poor people needed help if they were to be expected to climb out of poverty. I don't believe they were considered bad people. They were just normal people who were in a hard situation. They needed help to get out. Perhaps I was naive, but that was what it seemed like to me at the time.
I wasn't really old enough to be conscious of who was president until Richard Nixon was in the White House. Today, of course, he is most remembered for the Watergate scandal and resigning in disgrace after it looked like he would be impeached. However, though he was a Republican some of his acts would be considered liberal by today's standards. He created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance. He supported indexing Social Security to inflation. He supported religious freedom and tribal preservation for Native Americans.
Unfortunately, he also disliked the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) intensely. The OEO had established many community action programs which gave poor people a voice in how things were run. The idea of giving poor people power and skills to advocate for themselves was dangerous. So once he was in office, Nixon appointed Donald Rumsfeld to head the OEO and told him to sabotage it. Rumsfeld hired Dick Cheney, and they did just that, with the help of Christine Todd Whitman.
Gerald Ford's presidency was plagued by a major recession -- a falling Gross National Product, high unemployment, and high inflation. There was no doubt this hit poor people hard. But it also hit the middle class. Because so many people were unemployed, I think people had the sense to realize you couldn't just tell a poor person to "get a job!" There were no jobs to be had.
Inflation continued into Jimmy Carter's presidency, as well as high unemployment. Though he was able to accomplish much with his foreign policy (the Camp David Accords, for example), he didn't have the same success at home. I believe he truly does want to help poor people; since he left office he has spent countless hours with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build houses for people who could otherwise not afford them. He has said, "The greatest discrimination in the world now is a discrimination against poor people." I'm not sure why he wasn't able to do something about poverty while he was in office.
At least Carter's heart was in the right place. I wasn't even convinced Ronald Reagan had a heart. Once he was in office, it was clear that everything he did was intended to benefit only the very rich. It seemed that he wanted to return us to the feudal system -- a world where a lucky few owned nearly everything and lived in luxury while the rest, the vast majority, worked hard just to keep from starving. Under Reagan's "supply-side economics" policies, which came to be known as Reaganomics, huge numbers of jobs were lost. It's true that a larger number of jobs replaced the lost ones, but the new jobs were poor-paying. They didn't pay a living wage.
The poverty rate rose and rose, especially among minorities. Many people, including children, became homeless. This was while the wealthier became wealthier than ever, of course. He had no sympathy for the poor.
The first George Bush didn't seem to have any domestic policy. He seemed more memorable for the Persian Gulf War and throwing up on the Japanese Prime Minister than anything else.
I had really high hopes for Bill Clinton. I had been voting since I turned 18 in 1983; for the first time in my life, my choice for President actually won! I thought things were going to be different now. He said we would have universal health care. Finally, I thought, we could be like other developed countries. It was embarrassing the way the U.S. seems to aspire to be a third world country.
Nothing changed. Still no universal health care. Bill...you let me down.
And that was just the beginning. Reagan had turned the country sharply to the right, but he was a Republican, so while extreme, it wasn't that surprising. Clinton was a Democrat...wasn't he? Sometimes he sounded more like a Republican. His policies were tailored to let multi-millionaires and corporations do whatever they wanted to do to get even wealthier, to keep the minimum wage well below poverty-level, and "to end welfare as we know it" -- even if a mother had no childcare available, she would have to accept the first job offered to her, even if it only paid minimum wage.
Under Clinton's rule, the number of prisons mushroomed. The prison population grew like never before, as more drug offenses become federal crimes with mandatory sentences, and money for rehabilitation was cut. First time offenders, nearly always poor, young black or Hispanic men, found themselves behind bars. Corporate criminals, i.e., very wealthy white men for the most part, who were responsible for many horrible deaths, injuries, or bilking people out of their life savings, virtually never went to prison. The second President George Bush is also a friend to the ultra-wealthy, the rest be damned, and there are many more poor people since he's been president.
What does it mean?
So. The lesson must be that it's a crime to be poor, no? Or... Well, that's tricky. We confuse race and class in this country. A lot of people don't like to admit that class actually exists for some reason, though obviously it does, so nearly everybody, regardless of income, thinks of himself or herself as middle class.
Some people try to substitute race for class or force one onto the other. But that doesn't really work. Not all blacks and Hispanics are poor (though they do have lower average incomes than whites). Some whites are poor. But people have their stereotypes. A lot of middle and upper class blacks seem to have stories to tell of being mistaken for a poor person simply because of their skin color.
So do people discriminate against race or against class? Well, both, in varying degrees, and in different circumstances, it seems. Money seems to make a person respectable in our society -- or at least above the law. Lack of money means lack of respect -- or lack of ability to afford a good lawyer.
On the other hand, when police in a predominately white suburb of Detroit stop five young men on bicycles for no apparent reason, and detain the four black ones in the back of the police car while letting the other one go, this is clearly racist.
I think the truth is minorities are often discriminated against, regardless of how much money they have, but that if they have enough money, they can buy respect in most circumstances. There will always be some bigots, of course.
Some people discriminate against the poor and some people don't. Trying to figure out why, I searched and found an article by Chris Coryn that offered an explanation that made a lot of sense to me: some people think the world is a just place (people get what they deserve. If something happened to somebody, they did something to deserve it) while others think it's unjust (sometimes life just isn't fair).
When I read this, I immediately thought of my friend's ex-husband. I'll call them Amy and Steve, though those aren't their real names. Steve has been hired for every job he has ever applied for. Amy has applied for dozens of jobs and never even gotten an interview, and gone on many interviews and not gotten the job. But Steve just applies for a job, gets called for an interview, and they hire him. Every time. He applied to the University of Michigan Business School to get an MBA, and was accepted. He just assumed he would be. He's now making over $100,000 a year. Whenever Amy has pointed out to him how lucky he has been, he has insisted luck has nothing to do with it. He's just hardworking. She points out that she's hardworking too, but she can't get ahead. She's still stuck in the same job. She's doing all the right things. She's been on several second interviews. She's been someone's second choice many times. But she just isn't lucky the way he is. But he doesn't see it that way. He's not lucky at all, just hardworking.
I mentioned to Amy that I was working on this article and that I had read this article that reminded me of Steve. We talked about poverty, and she said the subject had come up when they had been married. As predicted, Steve thought if someone was poor, it was their own fault. He said they should just get an MBA like him. She remembered pointing out the numerous flaws in this "solution:" if everyone got an MBA, they'd be worth no more than high school diplomas; not everyone can afford an MBA; not everyone wants an MBA; not everyone needs an MBA; not everyone is going to be accepted into an MBA program...
At the beginning of this article I said it seemed to take an idea or some talent, energy, opportunity, and luck to rise from poor to wealthy. I think in actuality it takes that to rise from any level to any higher level.
Some people who are very lucky will be the first to admit that they have been lucky. Others, like Steve, deny that luck had anything to do with it. I think it has to do with ego. Someone who has had a charmed life wants to believe that he has worked hard to earn what he has. He won't feel so good about himself if he admits it all came to him easily. So he can't admit that those who have little or nothing have worked much harder than he has; if they have that little, they must be lazy.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is clear that most of the victims were poor and black. A year earlier, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin explained that there was no way to evacuate people who didn't have cars (despite a fleet of city buses and school buses that could be commandeered in an emergency). What's especially troubling is that this is not an isolated case. Most communities do have evacuation plans, and none of them seem to have any clear plan for evacuating people who do not have cars.
Nearly 11 million households in the US do not own a motor vehicle. The reasons vary. Some people choose to be carfree, cycling, walking or taking public transportation instead of driving. Some people are unable to drive a car for health reasons. Some people can no longer drive because their driver's license has been revoked. But a great many people want a car and simply cannot afford one.
I sometimes wonder if this is why many people display hostility toward cyclists and pedestrians. Do they think anyone not driving a car is poor, and anyone poor did something bad to deserve their fate? I doubt their thinking is as simple and straightforward as this, but I suspect if you broke it down to its core elements, many just-world thinking motorists probably do think along these lines.
It's already clear that the government and many citizens view the poor, and especially poor minorities, as criminals. It is a crime to be poor. But now a dark, ugly question looms. Does the government want poor people to die? I don't think any government officials would ever admit to this. But their actions reveal painful truths.
There is President Bush's repeatedly cutting the funding for New Orleans' hurricane and flood control projects. There is the aforementioned lack of planning for those without cars in evacuation plans -- are those without cars supposed to just stay behind and die?
One wants to be charitable and think, "Oh, no, of course not. Motorists are simply stuck in their car paradigm. They forget other people exist. Inexcusable when ten percent of households have no car, but they're just being stupid, not malicious." Certainly some of them. But all of them? No.
Several hundred people, having no other way to get out of town, tried to leave New Orleans on foot. Some of them had money and had chartered some buses, but they never arrived, having been commandeered by the military when they reached the city. Others were on crutches, using walkers or wheelchairs, or pushing babies in strollers. When they reached a bridge out of town, armed sheriffs blocked their way and fired weapons over their heads. Yet they were allowing motor traffic to cross the bridge. Why the disparity?
When a few people dared to ask why they couldn't cross, the answer was essentially that they weren't wanted in the next town. In other words, if you're so poor that you don't even have a car, you're an untouchable. You'll just have to go back and die, and if you try to leave town, we'll shoot you.
Some of the now dispersed group set up a camp in the highway median between two exits, figuring it was safe enough, and they could watch for the buses that still might come. Besides, there was nowhere else to go. The only two shelters in the city were full and unsanitary, and they weren't allowed to cross the bridge; where were they supposed to go? Someone brought them some water, and an army truck lost some C-rations not too far down the road, so they were set for food and water for a while.
A few days later, authorities were apparently upset that these people had the audacity to still be alive. So the sheriff showed up screaming and pointing a gun in everyone's face, raided and destroyed their camp, and stole all their food and water.
Maia Duerr, Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, wrote, "Genocide. Ethnic Cleansing. Economic Cleansing. What else to call it when thousands of poor, Black people are allowed to die in front of our eyes?" I think she's absolutely right. If many government officials valued the lives of poor people and of minorities, decision after decision after decision would be made differently. But looking at the decisions that are made, and the gut-wrenching consequences, it is very difficult not to conclude that many government officials want poor black people to die. Our culture is very ill.