I was recently reading, in some publication or other, responses to a letter to the editor regarding the ongoing debate around the culpability of low-income individuals in their own reduced circumstances. The basic premise of a few of the writers seemed to be that their fellow citizens who find themselves coming up a bit short toward the end of every month are essentially slackers, and should: a. have gone to college; b. made better life choices; c. worked harder, and the always unspoken, d. be more like me.
I really had to laugh.
The flaws in this kind of thinking, and there are a few, can essentially be boiled down to: d. “They should be more like me.” How’s that for some arrogance?
Is it possible one could be more blatantly myopic to the realities of life in America circa the late teens? For that matter, clueless and lacking a historical perspective of the past 100-plus years of this country’s labor struggles and economic evolution as well? I guess “financially challenged” is the last group it’s still OK to thumb our noses at — at least publicly.
So let’s just set the record straight: If you work a full-time job – any full-time job – you should be able to earn enough to at least provide yourself with food, shelter and clothing. This is known as a “Living Wage”. Interestingly, that covers only three of the eight basic needs as described in Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Now, I presume the comments were sincere and made in earnest, which only further reinforces my long-held belief that we humans seem to actually need social stratification in order to define ourselves and those around us. Why, after all we have shared together as a nation, do we persist in looking down our noses at our fellow citizens and see their lives as subordinate to our own?
If you’re living well, that’s great. But keep in mind the famous opening line of the old TV show “Naked City” from the late 40s and early 50s: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city.” We should never lose our human connection with others whose stories are different, and whose lives may be on different trajectories than our own. Otherness is not a bad thing, and it‘s certainly no excuse for seeing another human being as inferior or lacking drive and the ambition to succeed.
We are all different, every last one of us; we all come from different beginnings. Some of us had a leg up thanks to family money or social position: College, as a “legacy,” was paid for. Perhaps a little trust fund ensured we would not want for the better things. Some of us rose above quite humble beginnings and by sheer determination followed a path of education and work, which ultimately led to the successful and comfortable lives we now enjoy. And then there are those folks who, perhaps even with a degree, made their livings in business and the trades; obviously not due to lack of drive or ambition – most have worked quite hard, and some have done very well – they’ve raised children, sent them to college, seen them marry and now enjoy a comfortable retirement. Others of these fine folks have had a harder time, whether due to business reversals or family issues, they struggle. But, as long as their health holds they continue to work and pay the bills. They may have some set aside for retirement, but they’re just one major illness or run of bad luck away from hard times.
And hard times don’t discriminate, as many unemployed, well-educated people in the business and financial world have learned to their chagrin. You can make all the right moves, go to the right schools and still, through no fault of your own, your world can come crashing down around your ears overnight. You’re simply a victim of the marketplace.
Then you’ve got those folks who, with little education beyond a high school diploma, attempt to cobble together their version of the American Dream. They didn’t attend college for a variety of reasons: poor grades, no money for tuition, clueless about a career path so they decided not to waste time and money. Some feel they can make it simply on innate intelligence, some talent, the strength of their backs or the amazing ideas in their heads. In their youthful exuberance and inexperience, they don’t realize we can’t all be Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, the high school grad and the college dropout who so famously went on to create Apple and Microsoft.
If things don’t go as planned, unless they are able to acquire work training and skills, most will unfortunately be stuck in a series of dead-end, entry-level and part-time jobs for years to come.
The same holds true for all the youngsters with dreams of sports superstardom.
They work hard, they follow the rules and they dream of successful futures. Most never get a chance at a college scholarship, and those who do either don’t complete their degrees or won’t be picked up in the pro draft. They can’t all be Stephen Curry or O’Dell Beckham Jr.
All have one thing in common: they will do what they can and whatever they have to. Just as the previous generation and the generations before them did; as we all have done.
They will get out there and take their knocks, they will pick themselves up, and they will keep on going. Some will do well, some will just get by, and some will become casualties along the way.
Regardless of their situation; what they did or did not do to contribute to their current circumstances; no matter what socio-political flavor you are, there is one thing we can all do to help them, and our society: We can let go of the naïve thinking which causes us to see others different from us as somehow flawed, as authors of their own suffering, and then, finally, move our country in a more enlightened direction.
Van Elburg has been a resident of Williamsburg, James City County for more than 30 years. He is semi-retired from a multi-faceted business career and currently teaches classes on blues music for the Christoper Wren Association. He is a musician, writer and on-air personality and programming director for the mobile radio station, TheBluesAlley.com.