Why are the poor not rich? Why are the rich not poor? Why do we ask questions like this which imply an overly simplistic rigid duality that shouldn’t and often doesn’t exist? That last question is actually a really good question, but it’s outside of the scope of this blog.
I’d really like to examine why people are poor, because where I live in the U.S. being poor is seen as inherently a problem. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you probably think poverty is a problem to some degree. And let’s face it, it can be difficult to not see poverty as a problem in a culture in which wealth is highly prized and even the poor often have more assets and opportunities than the middle class of other nations. There’s an incredible amount of wealth concentrated in my country and I’d have to be as blind as an ideologue to not see that. Personally, I don’t see being poor by itself as a huge problem. I’ve lived below the poverty line, and it certainly does have its struggles, but it also prompted me to grow in discipline and the simplicity of it has a certain amount of appeal to me given my affinity for ascetic practices. Even when I climbed barely above the poverty line, I still lived without many things. I didn’t have television service or internet or phone service at my apartment. When my laptop overheated and died, I couldn’t afford to get a new one, so I didn’t. (That explains why I didn’t post much for a long time. I hope you understand it wasn’t personal.) I didn’t buy music. I almost never went to see a movie, and the movies I do have on DVD were purchased quite a while ago. I slept on the floor rather than buy a new bed. I rationed my meals and watched my diet closely. I used my existing workout equipment in new ways rather than buying new equipment. If something broke on my car that was non-critical or superficial, I didn’t pay to fix it. I only bought video games once they were out of date and cheap, and never bought more than a few. And now, I don’t play video games at all. I use that time to work out or do schoolwork instead. I cook more and eat out less. I reuse water bottles instead of buying a new case of water. Even now when I’m living above the poverty line, I still use the lessons I learned from poverty because I never know when I’ll be poor again, and having some money set back for a rainy day is not a bad idea.
So why are people poor? The typical conservative might point out that a lot of poor folks make bad choices or are too lazy to work when the opportunity presents itself. The typical liberal might point out that a lot of poor folks are the victims of bad luck or tough economic times. And they would both be right to a certain extent. I’ve known people who spent their money on marijuana and video games and then complained that they didn’t have enough money for groceries. I’ve known people who turned down good honest jobs because it would be too hard, even though they were quite capable of preforming the job with some effort and diligence. I’ve also known people who worked hard, strove to excel at their job, and still got exactly nowhere because the executives of their company were making bonuses for promoting efficiency in part by keeping wages and hours low. I’ve know people who were more industrious, more talented, and more qualified to be rejected for a higher position because they weren’t one of the boss’s favorites. So I don’t buy the lie that if you work hard and do the right things you’ll magically get ahead, but I also don’t buy the lie that every poor person is a victim of pure circumstance. Life simply isn’t that simple.
So how can people become less poor (or more wealthy, depending on your perspective)? How do people succeed?
One of the best things to do is to pick good parents. I was very fortunate to have honest, hardworking parents who sacrificed a great deal to ensure that I would have the tools to succeed. They made sure I had the opportunity for a decent education, worked hard around the house, and read a lot. They weren’t perfect parents by any means and will fully admit to that, but I’m very thankful for the boost they gave me in life. Were I born to parents who set a moral example of buying recreational drugs rather than good food, I’d probably be a very different person in terms of my character in very different circumstances right about now. Also, your parents contribute heavily to your genetic profile, which has a lot to do with your level of ability with athletic or academic endeavors. And if you can start with lots of talent and no major health problems, that really helps. Starting with very wealthy parents can also help you succeed.
The next thing is to make the most out of whatever educational opportunities you have. Don’t let a good learning experience pass you by, regardless of whether it’s on the farm, on the street, or in a classroom. And even if you’re not getting anything out of a class, do something productive with that time. If you have free time, don’t sit around doing nothing unless you’re at least willing to put some effort into it and call it meditation. Use that time to work out, or do puzzles to keep your mind nimble, or clean up around your place. Conduct yourself virtuously and offer to help others when you can. It often turns out that they can help you in some way later when you need it. Accept setbacks and injustice with as equanimity as possible and get back to work as quickly as possible. Build strong relationships and honor them. They will be a good source of peace when times are tough and will often help you carry on.
And keep in mind that reduced wealth can help you reconnect with the truly important things in life, so don’t be afraid to enjoy the fortune of the poor.