On One Hand

March 26, 2009

Poor People Work Just as Hard as Bankers

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 1:29 am

Obama’s message of “change” has swept America – Wall Street traders are now society’s welfare collectors, and for the first time in our lives it’s “uncool” to be a member of the investing class. Fivethirtyeight.com creator Nate Silver posted a defense of bankers describing a personal friend of his who worked on Wall Street, but used a pseudonym to save his friend embarrassment.

People used to be ashamed of working at 7-11 or Walgreens, but now its the AIG executives who blush to mention what they do. I admit I get a twisted pleasure out of the role reversal.

It’s not that rich people or their character offends me. I, like most Americans, grew up expecting that someday I’d be in the upper ten percent of earners. I’ve encouraged friends and family to seek better-paying jobs when they got the chance. I admire skyscrapers, symbols of accumulated power and corporatism. I don’t hold anything against successful people, say Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates, for creating things of value and profiting from that.

What embitters me – this is my biggest beef with the upper-classes and economic conservatives – lies in the presumptions their world makes about the rest of us. Or rather, the presumptions that all of us make about the stratification of society. The cultural mythology is that upper middle class and rich people got to where they are because they worked harder than everyone else, or that poor people are poor because they did not work as hard.

It’s more than a presumption – it’s a lie, because I know most people secretly know better.

I’ve had friends who are business majors, marketing majors, business-engineers and law school aspirants. As an undergraduate I had many, many peers who grew up wealthier than I could imagine being. I’ve lived with some as roommates, known some as boyfriends, met many as acquaintances and known others as close friends.

There’s a wink-wink nod-nod paradigm in upper-class youth culture, one that its members never even made secret – that the world is theirs if they want it. They know, and brag, about the power their parents have, and how they’re virtually guaranteed to get a good job unless they’re grossly incompetent. I’ve heard business majors talk about their internships, how they made $25 an hour in a position they didn’t even have to interview for, and all they have to do is type numbers into a spreadsheet a few hours a day and still be paid for full days when they left three hours early. They brag about how much they make for so little work or how easy their lives are. All because their dads knew somebody. All because of their trust funds. All because they grew up with private tutors who cultivated them for Ivy League graduate schools and taught them the language of power.

I know there are moneyed people who do work hard – who spend 14 hours a day in the office, who push themselves to the limit to get the promotion, who use cocaine or adderall just to stay awake and alert enough to get farther ahead in that world. But the fact is that it’s quite motivating to know that every extra mile you run is almost guaranteed to pay off with a truckload of money.

For a low-income person, taking the extra second job often means going from $300 a week to $450 a week in earnings. And when you can either make the lower sum, struggle and eventually have to collect welfare or declare bankruptcy, or alternately, work harder making $450, struggle and still be seen as a “low-class” person all your life, I’m sure you often find yourself wondering why bother avoiding food stamps or bankruptcy.

Lets be honest: you and I who are middle class and above – not even rich, just middle class – we didn’t go to college in the “spirit of hard work.” We went to college to work less hard in life, to ensure that we’ll get a moderate, comfortable salary someday for a moderate, comfortable amount of effort. After that, the only direction we have to go is up. Having a degree guarantees us that we’re worth $25 an hour instead of $9.

Most of us who went to “good colleges” (myself included) got a lot of help from our parents. We knew we could get same degree from a less-expensive college but went to the one we did because, though the only main difference is that it costs more money, it is more reputable so will ultimately put is in a place of privilege. We knew our parents cover what we couldn’t pay for, help with groceries from time to time, buy our books, or if we couldn’t make rent, they’d float us a loan so we don’t have to pawn our stereos.

My parents were slightly stricter about what they’d help with than most at their income level. Their deal was, if you work part time, and get good grades at school, we’ll cover the rest. I worked an average of fifteen hours a week through college. I lived cheap – I always found the lowest rent in town and there were days I ate nothing but a jar of peanut butter – but I never needed any kind of loan. And I never feared eviction or needed the government’s help, because of my parents.

People of the middle class knew, from the time we were children, that all we had to do was make a decent effort to complete the schoolwork put in front of us, and we’d get into a respected school and coast comfortably into white-collar jobs that pay at least the same as what our parents made. We can even comfortably coast a higher income if we choose the right profession. We’ll rarely spend more than 8 hours a day at school or work. We’ll have weekends off. We can still get drunk on Friday and sleep in on Sunday. We’ll never be up till 4am working the night shift – unless that’s our choice. If we save wisely, we’ll live comfortably and have enough money to retire comfortably.

But we’ll still entertain the myth that we “worked hard” to be middle class.

The hardest work I’ve ever done in my life was canvassing door to door with the Service Employees Union, alongside low-income people who said it was the easiest job they’d ever had. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I was personally invested in being a part of history, and winning the election, but beyond that, it was thankless; people aren’t wowed by you saying you were a canvasser, it doesn’t set you up for a solid career, it’s temporary, and people I saw in the field cussed at me and slammed doors in my face.

The easiest work I’ve ever done was writing for a local newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 – a job I could be proud of. The internship was unpaid, and I spent a lot of hours and plowed through a lot of beginner’s anxiety, true. But it was easy because I knew that every word I typed was going to be read by thousands of people. Knowing your work is meaningful is a huge motivator. I didn’t have to apply for the internship – my school made a phone call and scooted me in just because I was a Journalism major there.

Flipping burgers at McDonals, being in doubt that you’ll ever move beyond that, is not so rewarding. I’ve worked in fast food before. It’s a lot harder to stay on task, and it’s a lot harder to live on such a meager wage. Your aspiration: become manager? Maybe, but there are seven people at your level and only one can get that job. You dread going to work each day, and never feel proud to be there. I can only imagine still doing that at the age of 23 – working 40 hours a week with no benefits and irregular shifts that absolutely suck, thinking, if I were more wealthy I’d be binge drinking on weekends – where did my youth go? Other people get to enjoy their 20s. The young white teenager who works at Wendys knows he’s moving on, but the unspoken knowledge is that his coworkers still working there at age 40 aren’t going anywhere.

I know that many low-income people work hard. Mearly showing up to work under such depressing circumstances is hard. The education system fails them – it’s all aimed at the college-bound student, but doesn’t always teach you simple things like the necessity of savings accounts and how to write a resume. It doesn’t teach you the language of power. It doesn’t feed you anti-depression pills when you get discouraged the way the rich kids get those things. It doesn’t teach you hope and the art of self-promotion.

In other ways poor people fail simply because they aren’t part of the networking chummy I-worked-with-your-father culture that lands you good jobs. We know there’s a such thing as class prejudice, we assume upper-class people are genetically more intelligent, we assume having money says good things about you (why do we expect people to wear nice clothes to an interview?) and knowing somebody comes from a wealthy background means they have to do just a little less to prove themselves.

That’s my beef with the “Country Club Republican,” full of people who genuinely believe their big homes or fancy cars are true status symbols; an attitude that is even harder for me to cope with than those of socially-conservative Evangelicals. I truly honor the capitalistic idea that if you have something people want, and they’re willing to pay it, you’re entitled to your earnings. And I’m open to pragmatic arguments about the impact of the corporate tax rates, or working the tax code so that the carrots and sticks are in the right place to make it run smoothly. Hell, I’m even open to corporate bailouts if they’re necessary to avoid major economic collapse.

But do I beleive the upper class is a bastion of brilliant talent? Are they born with outrageous IQs or gifts indispensible to our world? Do they glow like rising suns, successful because of outstanding character, sweat and tears? Do they really back up the sense of superiority and giftedness I sense coming from that direction?

Not in your life.



  1. Excellent post, sir.

    Comment by kishenehn — March 26, 2009 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  2. In case you missed this one:


    Comment by 477150n — March 26, 2009 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

    • I don’t have too long to comment (I have to get to my job early because it’s fun and I want to do it, heh), but Muder’s description of the “professional class” is more along the lines of how I see the world than your description of the “upper class.” My family is similarly upwardly mobile to his, given that he’s in my parents’ generation. I never grew up expecting (or even wanting) to be in the top ten percent of earners or to work as little as possible for as many weekends and days off as possible. I went to college to find a calling, a vocation. But I definitely have a parental safety net.

      Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thoughts and I thought I’d throw the idea of the “professional class” in the mix.

      Comment by 477150n — March 26, 2009 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

      • I don’t think we’re considering different perceptions of the same thing so much as talking about slightly different sub-categories of people. I imagine someone growing up UU would be taught slightly different ideas of wealth and power than someone growing up in a gated community. I see UUs as culturally falling into an “academic class,” people with advanced degrees and decent incomes but money is not what they’re in it for, and even when they do get rich they’re embarrased if you call them that. My parents, too, though not UU, have a different values system; my mom is as economically liberal as they come, and my dad, a sort of libertarianish environmentalist moderate, didn’t see himself as wealthy (my mom saw herself as being poor growing up, which she was). Probably neither of us are connected to the investor class.

        Comment by ononehand — March 26, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

      • Er, I didn’t do a very good job of saying it, but I was basically thinking of three categories as well.

        Comment by 477150n — March 30, 2009 @ 12:25 am


    I sympathsized with much of your post and agreed mostly with your comments on the middle class – “get a moderate, comfortable salary someday for a moderate, comfortable amount of effort”, etc.

    One thing that struck me was your comment:

    “The cultural mythology is that upper middle class and rich people got to where they are because they worked harder than everyone else, or that poor people are poor because they did not work as hard.”

    I think this is half true. Certain comments or situations certainly would support this. I’m sure you could also survey the right income brackets and get exactly that sort of response.

    But, at the same time, I think the upper middle class, somewhat contradictarily, also clearly recognizes that blue collar work is often very hard – physically (construction, etc) or psychologically numbing (like the McDonalds example you mentioned). I think also that many of them reasonably say that this means that many blue collar workers work very hard. They’re doing precisely the kind of work that they couldn’t imagine themselves doing.

    I’m not entirely disagreeing with your point. I just think it’s a little one-sided. Any group (socio-economic, ethnic, etc) usually has some set of “distinguishing” values/beliefs that seek to justify the worth – frequently the superiority – of that group. It just happens to be the case that if many of the very wealthy take their material and professional achievements are their symbols of their “better-ness”. Evangelicals cite their morality. Blue collar workers have their own set of group norms that they might cite.

    Another comment you made above got me thinking about signaling. “We know there’s a such thing as class prejudice, we assume upper-class people are genetically more intelligent, we assume having money…”

    (I mean signaling in the economic sense, anything indirectly taken as an indicator).

    Now, whenever signaling goes against someone, there are cries of injustice. And, there are very legitimate cases where the consequences of taking a superficial sign incorrectly really changes people’s lives. That’s hard to deal with. It certainly twists one’s conscious.

    For me, I usually feel a bit torn. On the one hand, signaling – taking one’s clothes as measure of a person’s worth or productivity – has its downsides. Yet, it exists for a reason – people casually observe correlations. They meet wealthy people and see that they usually have a higher level of education. They see that people with higher levels of education have different types of productivity.

    The use of a signal is that it cuts costs. It isn’t perfect and obviously people do abuse the prejudices that guide what types of signals society looks for (white collar crime is a great example of this).

    My guess is that most signals – even some that may be ethically questionable in specific situations – are a net gain for society. I’m not entirely sure about this statement.

    Comment by sleepyreaderz — March 27, 2009 @ 5:19 am | Reply

    • Re: Comments.

      The contridiction in upper-class views on the lower income brackets is exactly what this is about. They entertain the cultural mythology that they worked harder (which they gleeflully bring up every time you mention taxes) but at the same time the wealthy people I’ve lived and worked around know that they have it easier. They know that the story of wealth-through-merit is a myth.

      So while they justify themselves, politically, with a myth, they have a separate personal narrative to explain why they are what they are and have what they have in non-political discussions that don’t involve taxes. I think each person does this in a different way, but from what I’ve seen it tends to fall on the concept of IQ; it’s fair for them to have better opportunities for high earnings than blue-collar people because they are more intelligent. They have a higher “potential” for success. My ex, who grew up in college prep schools, frequently spoke of IQ and “potential” in this way. I think there are a lot of socially moderate, fiscally-conservative Republicans who absolutely adore the idea of having “gifted” children, putting them in accelerated education programs, and if they do well in life, they rationalize it as genetic rather than an imbalance in opportunity (how many urban black kids get a chance to enroll in gifted programs?).

      As far as signaling class through wearing expensive clothing as an interview – I wasn’t saying that this is the cause of injustice in society, or that the inability to wear an expensive suit to the interview is the main obstacle tearing down the urban poor. It was merely intended to represent a symptom of a cultural attitude – employers like people who grew up with money. We expect them to do better, and subconsciously beleive the wealthy are entitled to more.

      I’ve actually seen this attitude in action when we talk about white-collar criminals. Specifically Bernie Madoff. The feds are going after his last remaining bits of property – which are not watches and lamps, mind you, they’re mansions. And people, including myself, have mulled – it’s unfair for him to lose his 2 million dollar home. Take away all his savings but not his home, where his wife lives. We feel pangs of sympathy.

      But really, why? If they take his home, his wife is left to live in a middle-income residence instead, or maybe even an apartment or nursing home – but it’s exactly the conditions that the vast majority of senior citizens in the country live in. Is that really “cruel,” to bring them down to regular middle-class Americans? My great aunt (died 2 summers ago at the age of 100) spent her last years in a tiny house, then a 1-bedroom apartment, then finally a nursing home and hospice. I didn’t say “poor her” for not having riches, and neither did she; she was the daughter of immigrants and had always been poor.

      Comment by ononehand — March 27, 2009 @ 7:18 am | Reply

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