When Piggy and I first talked about starting a finance blog for Millennials, we spent a lot of time talking about how traditional financial advice had failed us. Some advice failed simply for being too old. It relied on outdated growth models, or it ignored a rapidly changing globalized economy, or discounted the possibilities of living in a world transformed by technology.
These failures were innocent. Others were not.
Much advice we’ve encountered conflates the virtues of wisdom, self-control, independence, perseverance, diligence, vision, and thrift with the state of being financially solvent. Whether directly stated or merely implied, people who are poor are poor because they are therefore foolish, indulgent, leeching, lazy, idle, short-sighted, and wasteful.
I do not know of a single misconception that has damaged society more. I have seen so many powerful people wield it like a scepter, a symbol of their divine right to their disproportionate wealth. And even sadder, I have seen many more powerless people use it as a cudgel against one another.
“Poor people are poor because they’re lazy. Rich people are rich because they’re hardworking.”
This statement isn’t true, not remotely. Yet this notion is embedded so deeply in American sensibilities that you couldn’t pry it out with the claw-end of a hammer. The American Dream is defined by it: “through dedication and with a can-do spirit, [anyone can] climb the ladder of success.” You may transcend social and class barriers, get the life you want, own the things you need, ensure your children will want for nothing, and establish a lasting legacy for your family.
If you think I’m about to drop trou’ and take a shit on the American Dream, you’re wrong. The American Dream is a really, really beautiful idea. It represents a great leap forward in the rags-to-riches story that humans have been eagerly gobbling up for millennia.
Do you know what Cinderella did to get ahead? She planted a tree. And watered it daily with her tears. Yeah. Angels had to take pity on her financial inertia and throw dresses of increasing quality down at her until she was eventually made kween.
And you know how Aladdin ended up rich?* He found not one, but TWO imprisoned genies.
TWO. TWO GENIES.
The point is that class mobility has literally been a fairy tale for most of human history. In moments of extreme unrest, you might get the odd up-and-comer—did you know Genghis Khan spent his youth as a homeless beggar?—but these were exceptional figures. Modern life in a capitalist society affords comparatively far more opportunities for people like Oprah Winfrey to spin extreme poverty into extreme prosperity using the spindle of hard work. The American Dream is a lovely thing because it promotes the idea that you have some control over your own destiny; it teaches the dreamer to value hard work, perseverance, risk-taking, and independence. And although following those prescriptions is not a guarantee of automatic success, each of those values are independently worthy, and even in failure can direct your steps toward new and unexpected rewards.
But there is one glaring error in the supposition of the American Dream, and that is this: the world is inherently fair.
*Also, he snuck into Princess Jasmine Badroulbadour’s bedroom and raped her, then told her it was her fault because she was just too pretty to resist.
“Poor people are poor because they’re unlucky. Rich people are rich because they’re lucky.”
This statement is true, though incomplete.
The leading cause of bankruptcy in America isn’t laziness, dumbness, or extravagance: it’s illness. 42% of Americans who filed for bankruptcy did so because they were drowning in medical bills. The ugly and ungenerous part of your heart might say “those irresponsible fools should’ve had insurance.” Welp, 78% of them did.
The second leading cause of bankruptcy is job loss, at 22%. I wonder how much of that 12% minority didn’t have insurance because they’d been laid off and couldn’t afford the massive cost of paying out-of-pocket.
It is true that there are certain things you can do to mitigate your health risks. Eat well, exercise regularly, be kind to your body. But each of these represents a tremendous task for someone living in poverty.
Imagine yourself working a twelve-hour shift at a warehouse for $7.75/hr. You are mentally and physically exhausted. Your body is strained from heavy labor and repetitive motions. You’re starving. You earned $93 that day, and there’s a babysitter at home waiting to take $30 of it. You picked up an extra shift, and it starts in six hours.
What can we realistically expect of you in this situation? Get on the bus that may not run at that time, go to the grocery store that may not exist in your food-desert neighborhood, use the knowledge of human nutrition you may not have ever been taught in school, spend $25 of your hard-earned money on kale and beans or whatever, then schlepp home to spend another hour on your feet in the kitchen? Oh, and should you hit the gym before or after all that?
A $2 hamburger from the McDonald’s across the street begins to seem like a comparatively good decision. The problem, of course, is that a poor diet, little exercise, and manual labor are independently punishing to your health. Together, they’re literally deadly. But bad decisions often make sense for people who work long hours at multiple jobs for low pay.
Let me walk you through my life. I work only seven or eight hours, and only on weekdays. I don’t go in when I’m sick, and I work from home pretty much whenever I like. I drive a sensible car that was a graduation gift from my parents, but I also have access to one of the best public transportation systems in the country. I have lots of downtime at my desk, which I use to do quasi-productive stuff like read financial blogs and find recipes. I know what’s healthy because of the nutrition class I took at my fancy private college. I have no children, because I’ve chosen not to have them and I’ve always been able to afford birth control and gynecological care. I sit all day, which is only hard on my body insomuch as it’s too easy—my office sets up treadmill or standing desks if you request them, but I haven’t, because I’m lazy. My workplace has an on-site gym, but I don’t use it, because I’m lazy. I send my husband that kale and bean recipe, and he makes it for me, because I’m lazy. I could take extra freelancing work on the weekends, but I don’t because I’m lazy.
I am rich. And I am very, very lazy.
My choices are indefensible—but I’m never asked to defend them, because I am not a walking cultural contradiction. Not like a hardworking poor person.
“Poor people are poor because they’re powerless, and they are kept powerless through systemic disenfranchisement. Rich people are rich because they are powerful, and they are kept powerful through systemic privilege.”
Finally we get to the heart of the matter. It’s easy to describe all these advantages as luck, and not untrue—but when luck is so often defined as escaping systemic inequality by virtue of your birth, it’s not really luck, but privilege.
You don’t need a vivid imagination to see how a few generations of poverty can become an inescapable cycle. A parent works hard to support their family at the expense of their own health. When the medical bills inevitably arrive, deeper levels of poverty come with them. The child leaves school to take care of the ailing parent, or takes whatever job they can to keep their family afloat. They may face levels of bias based on who they are that shrink their paycheck, diminish their health, increase their odds of being prosecuted for a crime, underserve them with inadequate educational systems, underrepresent them in government, and isolate them in communities with shitty infrastructures.
I have not consistently been rich. I have lived pockets of my life in poverty. I remember being poor enough that my mother had to ask to borrow money from me. I was twelve, and had about $300 in accrued babysitting money and birthday checks, and my mother was desperate enough to endure the shame of taking it. And most people who are rich have a wallet full of these stories. Maybe you or your family endured a divorce, bankruptcy, business failure, or down market that wounded you financially. But this is hunger—don’t mistake it for starvation. I may have lived through such crises, but I still went to a great school in a well-funded district. My parents never lost my health insurance (or their own). I never lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t safe. I was always surrounded by free and low-cost options for enriching childcare: I was spoiled for choice of public parks, fantastic libraries, and wholesome Midwestern after-school activities like 4-H, Girl Scouts, church programs, and sports teams and the like. Man, our library had a bookmobile that drove to my street corner, parked for an hour every week, and let me rent as many books and VHS tapes as I could carry home with me! That shit was the bomb!
Those are advantages that I didn’t earn, and I wouldn’t call them luck either, because they’re the same advantages my middle-class family has enjoyed for generations. They’re gifts from my family, my class, my race, my country of origin, my religion, my geographic location, and my local government.
“To get (oneself or something) into or out of a situation using existing resources” is the dictionary definition of boostrapping. It’s a noble thing to attempt, and entirely possible for some people in some situations. But assuming that all people have access to the same set of “existing resources” is a destructive and small-minded folly.
It is my personal experience that one of the great virtues of Millennials is their esteem for the virtue of empathy. It can be both easy and gratifying to pass judgement on those who rely on public assistance, food banks, disability, and other such “handouts.” Mock them, otherize them, vilify them, and push their faces down into the mess they’ve made of their lives—it’s one way to feel good about yourself. But it’s pretty savage, and you will find yourself no richer afterwards, monetarily or spiritually.
When a fabulously wealthy person walks down the street, it’s pretty common to see cameras following them to obsessively document the minutia of their lives. When a destitute person walks down the street, it’s pretty common for people to pretend they do not see anyone at all. I think people do this because wealth is so aspirational. Subconsciously (or consciously) we think “I could be in that rich guy’s shoes one day.” So we study him, admire him, make him famous. We even vote with his interests in mind—that’s how deeply we want to become like him.
And girl, can I just tell you? You won’t. The same thought, applied to the other guy, is so much nearer to the average person’s realm of possibility: “I could be in that poor guy’s shoes one day.” So many Americans live exactly one bad turn away from financial ruin. And really, what does a fabulously wealthy person gain from your respect?
Come to think of it: what does a poor person?
When I was still a student, I got a freelancing gig creating a marketing video for a hunger prevention nonprofit. I had several interviews to choose from, and the contents of one of them has stayed with me for the past ten years. It will stay with me the rest of my life. This is what she said:
“Sometimes there’s not enough food for me and the kids, so I’d let the kids eat. Sometimes I’d get so hungry I couldn’t fall asleep. When you’re that hungry, your body just wants to stay awake so it can go out and look for food. But I had to work the next day. So I’d set a bag of flour by my bed and eat spoonfuls of flour, to try to quiet the hunger enough to get to sleep at night.”
This woman had made terrible sacrifices to provide for her children what she could not provide for herself. Parents are quick to attest their willingness to take bullets for their children, which reflects a sort of impulsive, Gryffindory bravery that’s easy to promise and statistically impossible to collect. But this woman… this woman had gotten into bed every night and lain in the darkness with a gnawing hunger that left her physically and mentally exhausted. In the morning, she’d pulled herself up and gone to work, where she’d have to wonder if she’d make enough to feed herself this time.
If that woman sounds lazy—or selfish, or parasitical, or profligate, or any of the other ugly judgmental words we use to describe the poor—then I have lost all understanding of what those words mean.