Exploding the MythBy
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!”
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.