Do you ever feel that it is wrong to be poor?
Do you sometimes feel that to be poor is a mark of failure?
Several days ago I read an article by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed In America, that challenges the common views in the United States about wealth and poverty.
She demonstrates how poverty evolved from being a condition of someone’s life to a cultural idea. The change in our definition of poverty grew out of a book published the 1960’s and written by Michael Harrington. It was titled: The Other America.
The book asserts that the poor are different from everyone else and interprets poverty to be a result of a flawed character. In other words
- it is wrong not to be wealthy
- it is a fault to live modestly
- if you are not greedy there is something wrong with you
- circumstances do not result in poverty; it is an innate condition coming from poor internal controls and profligate habits.
It is interesting that this book was published at the time that many individuals in economic minorities were entering the economic life of the country. Blacks, hispanics, and women were moving from dependent roles to full economic citizenship just as poverty and wealth were being redefined!
The “wealth is good” mindset served a number of purposes:
- it made an economic safety net the problem of the individual rather than the community. So any safety net was an act of generosity not a matter of responsibility or good citizenship.
- it immediately diminished any individual or groups who were not wealthy.
- each individual had to take care of their own safety net, which creates a hoarding mentality.
- as our population exploded, supply and demand created rising prices. In order to take proper care of yourself, you needed more and more success in order to afford the best care – health care etc.
- individuals became more attached to careers to survive in this climate which reduced their investments in family and community.
- increased attachment to short-term financial concerns reduced loyalty to long-term sustainability concerns – all in the interest of survival.
The “survival of the wealthiest” culture is a culture of stinginess. It rewards those who pay the least and charge the most. It is tailor made for a society with a burgeoning population and few safety nets.
When wealth became “normal” for our culture, it was a way of thinking that supported American exceptionalism and the material demands of our economic machine. All societies create a story that supports its intent, and our current society is no different.
- are we only an economy or are we really a culture?
- is generosity towards our fellow man really more expensive that a destructively consuming society?
- how can the local community create a resource smart society
- is snobbery our highest value? How about health and well-being?
Perhaps the most important question we can ask is how do we create a cultural story that is worthy of our long term attention that honors each individual and the wonderful earth we inhabit?