"The large, muscular man was nearly in tears," she said.
In a talk this past Sunday at the Wild Goose Festival, Catholic activist Sister Simone Campbell described a man she met in Indiana. He was always taught that if you work hard enough you will be successful. After all, that's what his parents did and their parents before them. He was indeed working hard and doing everything he could, but he was just barely making ends meet for his family. In a moment of emotional truth, the shame and disappointment he felt in himself came out.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is George Monbiot: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in African would be a millionaire."
People are not poor because they don't work hard enough. In fact, many of them work harder than the wealthy--they have to, because their very survival depends on it. Vacations and "down time" are a luxury that the poor simply can not afford. Let's look at Africa: Poverty is extreme, but there is no shortage of brilliant entrepreneurs doing amazing things to keep their families alive. Still, it's not enough. The full weight of a system that works against them is often too much. Millions and millions of people are just barely surviving, despite their best efforts.
Why can't people "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" like their parents did? It's not because people don't work hard enough or develop innovative ideas to cope with their struggles. It's just that the struggles today are so overwhelming.
My father graduated from high school in the late 1950s. He worked a job or two before getting hired in a factory of a major automotive producer. Still in his teens, he made enough money to support a family on one income. He could reasonably expect all the trappings of a middle class lifestyle: Health care, retirement after 30 years, a lifetime pension after retirement, time off for vacations and enough money to own a home, automobiles and send kids off to college. It was grungy, dirty work, but it was reliable work. He retired in his early 50s.
Nowadays, those jobs are extremely rare, if not altogether nonexistent. Individuals today are often working more than one job to make ends meet. Both spouses have jobs in order to try to achieve the same standard of living that was once easily accessible with one income. Young adults struggle to find adequate work and continue to live with their parents or with other friends in shared living arrangements. Pensions are a distant memory (the system where after you retire your company continues to pay you for the rest of your life), and young people will wonder if they actually existed or were just a figment of someone's imagination. Even people in the skilled trades or others who have spent years earning full college and masters degrees often cannot achieve the same standard of living that entry level workers once enjoyed. Whatever the economic reasons for this, one truth is abundantly clear: Wealth is NOT directly related to one's willingness to work hard!
We love the stories about people who overcome every obstacle and still come out on top. Those are admirable people who inspire us all. Whether through luck or skill, their stories should be celebrated. The problem is when we make that a basic expectation for all people and blame them when they struggle rather than the system that made their success unlikely.
Do people really believe they aren't working hard enough? Like the man described at the beginning of this post, a lot of people probably do take it personally. They see their struggles as a reflection on their own shortcomings. They have been falsely led to blame themselves, when the real culprit is a system that puts too many obstacles in front of hard-working people.
There are plenty of statistics to back this up, but we need only look around us: A family with multiple income-earners, with advanced degrees, working more hours, struggles to achieve what a single breadwinner could earn in previous generation with (and often without) a high school education. Let's quit blaming each other and rework the system so that the system works for--and not against--us!