I can”t pretend to know, in a clearly defined sense, where my obsession stems from. I know that I have been affected, at least indirectly, by poverty. My family was poor and my parents both escaped extremely desperate economic situations and realized the American Dream. Though I was born after economic stability had been achieved, I have seen the lingering effects of poverty on both my parents and on my extended family.
My mother is hesitant to throw away old pots, even after the handles have fallen off and the non-stick has long since peeled away. We have the same set of plates that I remember eating off of as a child even unlucky spoons that find their way into the garbage disposal get cleaned off and reused, twisted metal and dangerously sharp filings included. The basement remains as it was when my friends and I played dodge ball years ago, the wooden paneling loose and ready to fall off. Virtually all of the new clothes in my parents closets were gifts from my sister and me my father was convinced until fairly recently that his 1970s ties were still the latest thing.
They are not poor, nor are they cheap. They are simply products of circumstances impoverished circumstances. With a healthy work ethic, and more than a heaping portion of good luck, they made it out of those circumstances. I have seen with my own two eyes the inability of their siblings to do the same. Why?
In an abstract sense, this is where my obsession comes from. I”m an economics major, but I have no real interest in economic models, at least for their own sake (or, in a more selfish vein, for how they will further my career opportunities). I am interested in the accumulation of wealth, and the resulting accumulation of opportunity, in the hands of the few. I am interested in inequality: Of income, of wealth, of education, of opportunity.
There is little doubt that inequality between countries has grown. “The North,” a generic term for the United States, Canada and much of Europe, has become absolutely wealthier than “the South,” a generic term for everyone else. But inequality within countries is far more interesting.
Within nations, the stratification of wealth and status is a fascinating, albeit shocking, fact.
The common conservative complaint is that people in poverty simply lack the work ethic needed to escape. “This is the land of opportunity!” they claim, often forgetting (or failing entirely) to take into consideration the long-lasting impacts of poverty. When a child is raised in a society where he is constantly inundated with messages of failure and defeat, it is inevitable that those values will become an integral part of his personality.
The effects of poverty are lingering, a fact which I have witnessed my entire life. Certainly the lack of new silverware in my home doesn”t compare to the inability to find a good job. But the underlying theme is the same growing up poor leaves a lasting mark.
But then, the question for society at large is this: What do we do about the poor?
Unfortunately, the presence of a stratified society, the “haves” and the “have nots,” is a symptom of capitalism, which is, for better or for worse, the economic system that drives this world. Though I can”t claim to not be a closet socialist, I have to grudgingly admit that capitalism is the system best suited for the competitive nature of human beings.
In that sense, social classes themselves are not inherently wrong, although absolute, degenerate poverty is something that any government with a conscience should fight against. There will always be “haves” and there will always be “have nots.” But, within the framework of capitalism, the only fair way of dealing with poverty is to ensure that every single person is guaranteed access to institutions that allow them to move up in social class. Every child in the world should be guaranteed health, education and job opportunity.
Unfortunately, the programs that claim to “level the playing field” in this nation, such as welfare and affirmative action, serve to placate the masses while at the same time cementing the status quo. Welfare gives people a basic means of subsistence one that is in fact atrocious in a society as rich as ours. But people will not be willing to risk their lives to secure their rights unless they have nothing to lose, and welfare programs ensure that people have a very basic standard of living that they will not be willing to lose. On the other side of the spectrum, affirmative action secures a spot in jobs and academia for minorities, and we are all spoon-fed the belief that racial diversity is somehow solving the upward mobility dilemma in this nation. Unfortunately, all it does is guarantee that already well-off minorities get a leg up, at the expense of the poor, who continue to stagnate in abject poverty.
In the end, it is (and should be) hard work that is the arbiter of success. My parents are an example of this their work ethic is astounding, and the drive that they had to escape their lifestyle secured them a better social position. Thanks to their success, I don”t have to work nearly as hard as they did in order to get places. In a sense, this is the very basic problem with the system as it is today.
Is it fair that I, thanks to the random cosmic chance of being born upper middle-class, don”t have to apply myself at the same level as someone who had the misfortune of being born poor? The easy answer is that it”s only natural that I shouldn”t have to work as hard to find opportunities. But the fair answer is that the generational bias in this world shouldn”t be tolerated, and that success should not hinge so heavily on social class.
My parents were hard workers, of course, but they were also very lucky. In the realm of wealth and poverty, luck shouldn”t have anything to do with one”s success.
Manish Raiji”s column runs every other Tuesday. Give him feedback at www.michigandaily.com/forum or via e-mail at email@example.com.