Exploding the Myth


A teacher once said that the hardest thing for her to deal with was not the child who could do the work but would not apply himself. It was the child who kept trying and kept failing. Unlike Lake Wobegon, in real life every child is not above average.

Life is not fair that way, our conservative friends like reminding us. There are winners and there are losers. Yet in the next breath they assure us that with hard work, in America anyone can overcome their circumstances and succeed. This is not just an American myth. I once read something similar written in iron above the gates at Dachau.

Equally mythological as hard work guaranteeing success is the unwritten subtext. That if you have not triumphed over your circumstances, it is because you are lazy. You just need to work harder.

This is one of “4 Things Politicians Will Never Understand About Poor People,” writes John Cheese in a recent issue of Cracked magazine.

“Politicians can’t get past the idea that the only possible way to fail in America is if you sit back and do nothing. The idea that someone can put out the effort, yet not gain ground is inconceivable to them.”

Cheese reminds readers that 91 percent of government benefits go to the elderly, disabled and working families:

You’re free to speculate that some of those people could try harder or are faking their disability or whatever, but there’s no way the reality lines up with this politician fantasy of the lazy masses who just greedily rub their hands together while leeching their unfathomable riches from the always generous American populace.

In a story about family nutrition on NPR’s Morning Edition this week, Paige Pavlik of Raleigh explained how hard it is these days for working mothers to serve a healthy dinner and help kids with homework after she’s put in a full day at work:

“Once we do everything, there is absolutely no time to go outside and take a walk or get any exercise. It’s simply come in, eat, sit down, do homework, go to bed.”

The relentlessness of it makes her emotional. Pavlik starts to cry as she talked about her family’s daily crunch time. “It’s really hard,” she says. “This isn’t how I thought family life was going to be.”

And Pavlik has a job. Janis Adkins found out how tough it could be without one when the economic crash killed her plant nursery business in Moab, UT. She ended up living in her car in a church parking lot in Santa Barbara, wrote Jeff Tietz in Rolling Stone, and dependent on a social welfare system where “you quickly discover that your society expects you and your children to live malnourished on the streets indefinitely.”

Cheese lambastes the Wall Street Journal for portraying a single parent of two children making $260,000 a year as representating, well, anyone ordinary in the American economy. Well-heeled politicians with no personal experience of poverty are inclined to believe myths about the poor and the land of opportunity,

… because of that one time they heard about a guy on welfare who had an iPhone and a big-screen TV, and one time they read an email forward about a guy who gave money to a beggar only to see that beggar later driving a Cadillac. And dammit, they think, that has to be the way it is, because otherwise it means that well-meaning people can bust their fucking asses every day and still fall through the cracks. And that can’t be possible, can it? “Quick! Find me a picture of a poor person buying lobster with food stamps so I can reassure myself the system works!”

This is the issue Bill Moyers asked economist Richard Wolff about on last week’s Moyers & Company.

Bill Moyers: When study after study has exposed the myth that this is a land of opportunity, how does the myth keep getting perpetuated?

Richard Wolff: Well, my wife is a psychotherapist. And so I ask her that question often. And here’s what she says to me. Often, people cling all the harder to an idea precisely because the reality is so different and becoming more different. In other words, I would answer the myth of equal opportunity is more attractive, more beautiful, more something people want to hold on, the more they know it’s slipping away.

Especially those who see success as confirmation of personal virtue, caste-ing them higher in status than the nameless, faceless, numberless cheats and slackers among the unwashed Irresponsibles.


  1. Andrew Dahm says:

    Great article, Tom, and the use of the word “caste” in the last para is certainly apropos of the Republican Party’s efforts to foreclose opportunity for many citizens of our country.

    Speaking of caste, if we are to put an end to social mobility and freeze socioeconomic class in amber, this would be a bad time to do it. One can make a strong argument that America’s wealth is concentrated in some pretty unremarkable hands right now.

    First, let’s look at Germany’s wealthiest of the wealthy.

    You’ve got Karl Albrecht, who built the Aldi and Trader Joe’s grocery chains. His companies employ tens of thousands of people. He was born in Essen; his Dad worked as a miner. He pays a marginal income tax rate of over 40% to a government that collects about 30% of GDP, but hasn’t started an anti-government television station. I believe he’s into orchids.

    You’ve got Hasso Plattner, who started the software firm SAP. He spends a lot of his time and money helping education – he’s funding a foundation with about $65 million of his own money. SAP employs over 55,000 people.

    There are other rich Germans, with their hands in trucking, building cars, advertising, stuff like that. The top ten net-worth individuals in Germany employ hundreds of thousands of people.

    In terms of class and caste, our wealthy are, by comparison, borderline untouchable.

    There’s Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, Microsoft and Oracle, respectively. Two technological innovators who’ve created a lot of jobs. And, of course, Mr. Gates has been a generous philanthropist, funding projects in Asheville that have made a real difference.

    And there’s Warren Buffett, a great guy I’m sure, but not a job creator in the strict sense.

    But these three are outliers, atypical of a top-ten that’s long on inherited wealth and short on any sense of the duty that comes with such good fortune.

    You’ve got the Koch brothers, whose Daddy bought them a petrochemical empire. They’re very active politically, and seem to have no sense of shame when it comes to lying, character assassination, and other means-to-ends that always comport with their own selfish interests.

    You’ve got members of the Walton family, inheritors of the Wal-Mart fortune, which pile of cash exists in part due to such federal subsidies as Medicaid and food stamps. Wal-Mart’s pay and benefits are so low that every job at their stores is effectively underwritten by the federal government. One would hope to see some class from the Walton family when it comes to defending AFDC, WIC, public schools, etc., but the silence is deafening.

    If we’re going to put an end to social mobility in this country, I say we call a misdeal and start over, in hopes we get a better set of high cards than we’re stuck with right now.

    We do, in fact, have an underclass in this country. It happens to be running things.

  2. Ascend of Asheville says:

    “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
    – George Orwell, Animal Farm