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I just spent a few days with one of my siblings.  This person shows up whenever I need them to.  They take great care of me, they are generous and thoughtful.

And they piss me off.  A Lot!

When we spend time together we can’t seem to avoid ideology.  There are a few things this person believes that I find offensive, but the one that bothers me the most is “we worked hard, we shouldn’t have to ‘support’ others”.  No matter how hard I try to avoid our conversations veering in this direction, I fail.  Inevitably I hear, several times a day, “we work hard.  We paid full tuition for our kids’ college.  We shouldn’t have to support others”.

Implicit in this statement is the claim that they have worked harder than those they have to “support”.  The few times I’ve broached this I’ve been met with denials – that is not what they are saying.  They are saying that because they did not buy a big television they are more responsible.  It was their sacrifices that enabled them to pay for their children’s college.  It was their sacrifices that led them to decent careers. In fact,  their sacrifices led to an income that now requires them to  “foot the bill” for “them” – those who failed to sacrifice.

There is one huge problem with this accusation:  they did not sacrifice any more than anyone else I know.  While they didn’t buy a big screen tv, they did buy new cars and vacations.  While they didn’t partake in massages, days at the spa and other such luxuries, their children were never deprived.  They were never deprived.

This eats away at me.  This attitude, that somehow they are more worthy of a good life than someone else – well it gnaws in my gut.

One of my siblings is more successful than all of us.  This person does not hesitate to say “I am here because of luck.  I was in the right place at the right time, sitting next to the right person in the bar, and that is the only reason I have what I have”.

I know both families very well, and I feel certain that the one who claims sucess was based on luck works much harder than the one who “worked hard and shouldn’t have to pay for others”.  In addition, the one who acknowledges the part luck plays, has never once insinuated that their sucess should absolve them of responsibility for others.  Never once has this person complained that their hard work put them into a higher tax bracket, that their ability to pay college tuition was “used” to pay others tuition; i.e. the tuition of those who work less hard.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about advantages in his book The Outliers.  This book put into words, and facts, what I have long felt – people work hard.  People are programmed to work hard.  People want to be successful, and they will work their ass off to get there.  Often, the difference between “sucess” and “failure” is luck.

Gladwell cites case after case in which the “successful” actually had an advantage over the “unsuccessful”.  Some of his examples have been disproved, but the point inherent to all his arguments is “not so fast…..are you sure you accomplished that on your own?”.

When I was 17 I lived in Florida, pumping gas at a car wash.  I lived week to week.  Each paycheck was gone in a day.  I was suriviving, I had a roof over my head, I had food in my belly and each week I had enough left over to buy something extra, like underwear.  On some level I understood that I was one problem away from disaster.  One medical bill, one extra charge for rent, one unanticipated expense was all that stood between me living a manageable life and me being on food stamps.

As I approached age 18 I realized that I had a resource I had not utilized.  I had parents who would pay for me to go to college.  If I played by their rules I’d graduate with a BA degree and no debt.  In fact, I graduated with savings.  That didn’t happen because I worked harder than my peers.  In fact, many of them worked much harder than I did.  It happened because my tuition, room and board, books & spending money were given me by my parents.

This is a personal issue for me.  If it is true that those who “work hard” get ahead, than I must not have worked hard, right?  Except that isn’t true.  I was the one working full time while raising 3 children.  I was the one dealing with day care, and commuting, and a lack of family to help.  Not my other family member.  Yet here I am, undeniably in terrible financial shape in comparison.  What did I do wrong?  Am I lacking in character?  Am I unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to “make it”?  Am I less committed?   The answer, plain and simple, is NO.  I worked hard, I sacrificed, I had good moral character and I was always 100% committed to whatever I/my family was doing.

What made the difference?  There were several factors.  I married a psychopath.  I became chronically ill.  I was taken advantage of by a spouse more interested in affairs than the family.

While I do take this personally, I find it equally offensive on a larger scale.  The idea that our world offers a level playing field, that all that is required for sucess is “hard work”, is one of the most ludicrous assertions I’ve ever heard.  How condescending for the “haves” towards the “have nots”.  How dare those who are successful suggest that poor people have “chosen” that lifestyle.  How offensive it is for anyone in my family, a white, upper middle class family, to compare themselves to someone raised in the projects in the city.  How outrageous it is for them to utter words like “they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did”, when in fact, no one in my family has ever had to “pull themselves up” in any way.  How disgusting it is for the haves to complain that the have nots’ get their nails done instead of doing the “right thing”.  How dare those with everything look down on those with nothing.  How many of those “haves” would be where they were had they not been handed a college education?

I’ve come to despise this thought process for two reasons.

  1. I know people, service people, who work 2, sometimes 3 jobs to “make ends meet”, yet ends don’t meet.  Working for $7.50/hour with no benefits will never make a “have not” into a have.  It is simply math.
  2.  Every “have”  I know had one huge advantage:  Hope.  I worked with the underprivileged for 5 years and I learned an important lesson:  most have watched cousins, siblings, and neighbors die by age 22.   How does a child interpret this?  How would you interpret this?  What would you do today if you believed you’d be dead before the years’ end?  I know what I would do,  and it wouldn’t include working 3 part time jobs at minimum wage.  I would get my nails done.  I’d buy a big screen tv and lease a new car.

My ex came from a blue collar family, and they valued things I found ridiculous.  Car leases.  Who does that?  Why would you lease a car (unless you are rich) knowing that you will never be without a car payment, that you will have nothing when the lease is up, and you’ll have to pony up more money for your next car lease?  Unless you are rich there is no logic in leasing cars.  Unless you have nothing else to look forward to.

What if you know that you will never be able to retire?  You will never earn enough money to buy a second home, retire in a comfortable environment, play golf and bingo every day.  What if you know this is 100% out of your reach?  How do you live?

And before you argue that everyone can save money let’s look at math.  Every family has the same basic expenses.  Shelter, food, health care, clothing, and perhaps recreation.  Suppose your family makes $40,000 a year.  How much is left over for saving?  Suppose your family makes $140,000 a year?  How much is left now?  We all have the same basic expenses and, for most of us, a $10,000 increase in annual income can make the difference between a comfortable retirement and a steady diet of cat food.

Let’s suppose that you are on the lower income level.  You know you will never play golf or bingo every day, you won’t retire in a nice community, you won’t live a life of leisure, even if you save every spare penny.  What is your next move?  I’m willing to bet it’s getting a new car every 2 years.  Why would you deny yourself a new car every other year when you know it will never get much better?  You wouldn’t.

I used to think that every person should have to be a server in a busy restaurant for at least 6 months.  I believe this is a humbling experience and would go a long way towards developing empathy for others.  I now believe everyone should have to live a year in poverty.  We should each experience working 3 jobs for minimum wage and no health insurance.

Each of us should walk in another’s shoes.  Maybe if we did, we would be able to compromise, be kind and cut down on the hostility in our country.