Myths of Work and Wealth
“They didn’t work hard like you and me. They don’t earn what they have like we did.”
This old white man was talking about black kids. He runs a religious center that he believes teaches black kids the values of hard work. Decades of government handouts, he feels, have re-enslaved them and left them unable to fend for themselves.
“Sometimes,” he said, “the urban kids come in there, just grabbing food. And I say - hold on a second. You need to work for that. I give them a broom or some cleaning supplies, and I put them to work.”
I suppose he wouldn’t say he’s a racist. He would just say that the reason so many black people are poor is that they are lazy. They don’t work hard enough, he insists.
It reminds me of the Republican proposals to make poor children work for their free lunches. To teach them the beloved conservative truth, that there’s “no such thing as a free lunch.”
Of course, I remember when I was growing up in Rochester, a rich white suburb of Detroit. I ate free lunches every day. I didn’t lift a finger to earn them.
I also remember government class in 10th grade. Plenty of us imagined that those kids in Detroit were poor because they got too much free stuff, like food.
I saw a meme on Facebook today. A man was going to wear a Bernie Sanders mask for Halloween. He’d take away candy from trick-or-treaters and give it to the kids who are “too lazy” to trick-or-treat.
No one wants to believe they didn’t earn what they have through “hard work.” People want to think they deserve what they’ve “earned.”
For a moment, I will just speak for myself. For years, I have made more money than people working much harder than I do. I possess more money in my savings accounts than people who have struggled much more than I ever have. In the world around me, perhaps with a couple exceptions that prove the rule, I simply do not perceive any link between hard work and wealth, between merit and riches.
I know many rich white men. Almost never can I explain their success by referencing their hard work.
As a child, I was given far more handouts than any child living in poverty. There was my school district, Rochester Community Schools, which provided me with a safe, well-run school I did nothing to earn.
There was the big house in which I grew up. It was filled with books, technology, video games, and toys for which I never paid a dime.
There were all those late-night encounters with the police — encounters I knew would never end in death. Because the police were only there to protect me. They didn’t see a white kid like me as a threat.
Not once do I remember wondering whether I’d be able to eat when I got home. I had constant access to health care, and I never thought about the cost. The study abroad trip I took to Germany one summer? I have no idea how much money it cost my parents.
And I haven’t even gotten into my allowance.
Many people around me did work in high school. They earned money to fund eating out with friends or going to the movies. But they, too, received handouts. The homes they lived in, the safe streets on which they grew up, the books and technology at school, the computers with Internet in their houses, the cars they drove, most food they ate. They didn’t work for any of it.
Every day, someone is attacking poor people for not working hard enough, for getting too much “free stuff.” What about all the free stuff the rest of us got? I never questioned whether it would be there.
Why do some insist that people like me know the value of hard work? That we “deserve” our success more than others?
Many of them come from communities like mine.
We grew up to be just about anything we wanted. We pretend that we earned it all. We make-believe that we deserve everything we have.
But what best explains our results? Our hard work? Or the resources concentrated in the neighborhoods where we grew up?
What about a child growing up in poverty? What explains the fact that most of them stay poor as adults? Their supposed laziness? Or their neighborhoods stripped of resources?
I imagine my life without my handouts. What if I went to a school like many of the ones we build for poor children? What if I had been born and raised in a neighborhood filled with abandoned houses, in a family that could barely afford the rent? What if I didn’t have health insurance when I was a kid, or my parents couldn’t afford the co-pays?
What if I graduated high school reading at a 4th-grade-level? Would my effort and hard work be enough to save me? Personally, I can say that no, it wouldn’t. I would never rise above that challenge. I would stay poor forever.
And what, then, would happen to my children? Would I be able to provide for them? Would I be able to move them into a richer neighborhood? Or would the cycle continue?
Everyone can find an example of somebody who made it. Somebody who escaped the poverty in which they grew up. But these radical exceptions are only inspiring, only well-known, because they defy the general trend.
The truth is that what some call “free handouts” are the foundation of success for children. Health care, food, safety, books, technology, good schools, peace and tranquility - this is the soil in which a successful person is most likely to grow.
Too much of this free stuff is hoarded for children growing up in certain neighborhoods, while children in other neighborhoods are left to rot.
Forcing poor children to worry even more than they already do about whether they are going to eat will not teach them any lessons. Taking away the food they eat in their school cafeteria will not help them succeed in school.
It will just keep them malnourished, unhealthy, uneducated, and poor.