“Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” (James Truslow Adams)
I was seventeen, and a junior in high school, when my father died. My mother became a widow at 52 years old, but still had a full-house to support. There were eight mouths to feed. Nine if you included mom. Do the math. We weren’t rolling in dough. Life was hard.
When I think about it, I realize, it’s a very shameful thing to be poor in America.
The American Dream is predicated on the belief that as Americans we ALL have the same opportunity for success, prosperity, and upward mobility. That may in part be true. There are many tremendous opportunities that exist here if you have the strength, stamina, persistence, connections, and drive to work hard and earn your spot at the top.
However, sometimes even hard work and persistence aren’t enough — such as when you belong to a marginalized group and certain doors are closed to you through centuries of institutionalized racism, bigotry, or sexism. And sometimes, even when you do work hard and have everything laid out, life can throw you an unexpected curveball, sending you tumbling down the ladder, back to the bottom.
Those born into money and a higher social class have likely known wide-open doors their entire lives. I call them the ‘Ivankas’. These people work hard and achieve a big piece of the pie while equating this success with their own personal work ethic, grit, determination, and special gifts. They believe we all start on a level playing field and they merely made their own opportunities. And of course, Ivankas like to brag about how they work harder than everyone else.
Those born at the other end of the spectrum know this ‘level playing field’ is pure fantasy. The level playing field exists only in the minds of those with so much privilege they aren’t even aware of the ways in which the field is slanted towards those at the top. Meanwhile, the rest of us can work our butts off, yet still, slide back towards the bottom.
This week we saw another attack on the poor when Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) suggested people should ‘invest in their own health care’ rather than the newest iPhone. The ignorance in this statement is one that has already been pulled apart by others (Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post pointed out that a year’s worth of health care would equal the cost of 23 iPhone 7 Pluses), proving once again that those in power (like Chaffetz with his own health care subsidized by taxpayers) have a hard time empathizing with the poor.
Make no mistake, this is a shameless assault on the poor. We blame poor people for being lazy. We blame poor people for not trying harder. We blame poor people for not taking advantage of the opportunities that are so clearly available to ALL of us if we just want it enough. We blame poor people for draining the system. We blame poor people for their misfortunes, never imagining for a moment, what it really means to be poor in America.
Forget the iPhone for a moment. Sometimes being poor means having to choose between buying toilet paper or buying food to feed your children. Health care, in those cases, IS THE LUXURY, not the iPhone.
Truth is — it is a lot harder to climb the ladder of success when you start at or near the bottom — than it is when you are born already at the top.
The above statement may seem obvious, and yet, as a country, we still promote the fantasy that those born at the bottom have exactly the same opportunities as those born in gilded palaces.
Perhaps this makes those at the top feel like they’ve earned the right to look down on those who haven’t achieved prosperity. It also lets them off the hook empathy-wise. Why give a hand up to people who clearly aren’t smart enough or worthy of being successful? If they wanted it bad enough, wouldn’t they just work harder?
I think a lot about these issues of poverty and the American Dream of late. We elected a president who proclaimed himself a ‘self-made man’ despite being a billionaire businessman (and shameless self-promoter) born into wealth. It didn’t seem to matter to millions of Trump voters that this narrative was, like most things Trump says, a blatant lie.
Trump succeeded in life for many reasons, but you can’t ignore the fact that his family’s wealth afforded him an education at top-level universities, which also provided a draft deferment during Vietnam. When he did go into business, he didn’t start at the bottom, like so many other self-made men and women. Instead, he was launched with a teeny-tiny loan of one million dollars from his father. He was surrounded by cushions all his life, even when he defaulted on loans, went bankrupt, and refused to pay the hard-working contractors under his employ. The man bragged about not paying taxes for years and working the system for all it was worth.
Strangely, many of the working poor and middle class who voted for Trump bought his tale about being a ‘man of the people’ despite little evidence that he’s ever stood up for the poor or working-class people. For whatever reason, Americans, rich and poor, are suckers for the American Dream story. To them, if Donald Trump could rise, so could they. Even though their circumstances of birth and opportunities couldn’t be more disparate.
Current congressional Republicans seem to be especially skilled at shaming and scapegoating the poor. With their obsession with cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, they ceaselessly attack all government programs aimed at providing aid to the poor (many of whom are elderly or children or women). Without assistance (like access to affordable daycare or birth control or Social Security or Medicaid or Medicare) we are pretty much guaranteeing that the poorest of the poor will remain forever locked in an unending cycle of poverty. Doors aren’t just being shut for the poor, then, they are being barricaded.
The GOP often frames their arguments for “fiscal conservatism” in an effort to balance the national budget. They despise tax-funded social services. And so they claim they are protecting all taxpayers. Yet, right now, American taxpayers are bearing the cost of First Lady Melania Trump’s desire to stay in her NYC luxury penthouse while her husband flies back and forth from the White House to his Mar-a-Lago resort. None of the fiscally-responsible Republicans have raised any concern about these budget items. The Trumps, like Wall Street bankers, are free of shame or blame when it comes to accepting their extravagant government handouts.
Entitlement, it seems, is a privilege reserved for those already born with silver spoons.
I’ve never walked in the gold-encrusted shoes of the Trumps, and frankly, I wouldn’t know what to do with having so much money I became obsessed with hiding it and denying it. Still, financial-wise, I can’t complain. At this moment in time, I have more than just financial security. I enjoy certain luxuries (like my iPhones and laptops) and I don’t have to worry about the things people worry about when they are working poor, or just getting by, or living paycheck to paycheck.
Yet, deep down, I’m still the same girl I was growing up. Those of us who grew up where money was a struggle, never actually take money for granted. We know how easy safety and security can be ripped away.
I was only seven years old when my father suffered a massive stroke. He survived for ten years, but he was disabled and unable to return to his job as an engineer. My dad had excellent health insurance through his work. He was in and out of the hospital so many times over the years, that without that good insurance we probably would have lost everything.
My family was one of the lucky ones. My father received disability from work and then collected Social Security disability. We also had property we were able to sell in order to pay off the mortgage on our house. We struggled — just like a lot of working families are struggling throughout America right now, but we held onto our home.
We were not uniquely poor, except that we lived in a white working-class neighborhood that was part of an affluent county in New Jersey (with trains to NYC) and thus had an excellent educational system, and access to public transportation. We were afforded more access than poor people in rural or isolated areas of the country might enjoy. With access to education, we were able to grab our little pieces of the American Dream and blend in as if we had never been poor in the first place. But not everyone who is born poor or made poor through life’s circumstances can escape poverty or advance quite as easily.
I will be forever grateful that we had the safety net of Social Security — what some people deride as ‘government handouts’ — that allowed us to stay afloat. This assistance didn’t make us lazy. Nobody can survive — let alone thrive — on government assistance.
We watched our mother go back to work after having taken many years off to raise her kids and saw what true determination and grit and hard work looks like. Our mom could magically stretch a budget in a way that didn’t seem possible. Meanwhile, we got odd jobs after school (often paying much much less than minimum wage) and studied hard so we could earn merit scholarships and financial aid. And we took out loans and went into debt all so we could go to college. These were debts we carried well into adulthood and didn’t have the luxury of defaulting on.
The American Dream, after all, isn’t free or even interest-free.
I guess some people are lucky. They are born financially secure and life never throws them a curveball. However, a great many people are living in poverty in this country, many of them working as hard as they can to make ends meet, and still, their children go to bed hungry. These people have to make hard choices every day about how to spread their resources far enough to make it through another day, another month, and another year.
When you are living day-to-day you don’t have the luxury or energy or time or resources to open the extravagant doors of opportunities that we are told are our American birthright.
And anyone who tells you differently never ever went hungry at night. And they sure don’t know anything about the poor.