Andrew links approvingly to another frivolous experiment that seeks to show that bootstrapping rhetoric isn’t dead, and that if you are hard-working and smart, you can rise up and overcome, etc. etc., into the Toyota and flat screen television of your choice. The journalist talks about this dude, who has ridden a similar stunt to the talk show circuit. (I’m thinking there’s a future for him in surfing, based on his picture.)
The guy Andrew links to has the usual collection of I-can’t-believe-I’m-reading-this moments, like when he says “In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.” Ah! I see! You mean the kind of skills your privileged background entitled you to? The kind of skills that are enormously difficult for people from destitute, drug-riddle communities to access? Those skills? How about when he says he
was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.
What Ehrenreich might mention, actually, is that paid trainings or not, the average Wal-Mart employee makes $10/hour, according to the company’s CEO. I defy you to tell me that making $10/hour at 45 hours a week, even with no children or dependents, is a livable wage. To be able to afford a tiny studio apartment, food, a weekly bus pass, a clothing budget, trips to the doctor, a phone (whether cell or landline and not, I would suggest, a luxury)…. With no kids and no pursuit of an education, that is still a tall order, and one into which the smallest hiccups can have grave consequences. And if you live in one of the many, many places in the country with no workable public transit, and have to drive to work, you’ve got gas, and repairs, and insurance, and registration fees, and all the rest. It’s tough, tough, tough, and it’s particularly tough for people who aren’t tourists, who are actually stuck in it, rather than appropriating other people’s lives in order to score cheap political points.
And all of this is to say nothing of the fact that it is much, much easier to cut back and save for the better days when you know that this isn’t for ever, when it’s just some political game, and not your life. It’s easy to tell people to delay gratification when its just a delay. It’s much harder when you are someone who has been raised in poverty and have very good reasons to think that you will never be out of it. Yes, I want working class and poor Americans to be smart about money and save more, but it’s easy for me to say, and acting as though being restrained for 6 months or a year or whatever somehow means you know what it is to be restrained for the better part of your life, well…. That’s nuts, and its insulting.
Look: the fact that able, healthy, educated white men who were properly socialized by their families and guardians, who aren’t crippled by alcoholism or drug addiction and who don’t have to worry about supporting families on their minimum wages– the fact that they can survive these experiments does not impress me. It does not impress me. I would dearly love these guys, or Andrew, to step into the body of a single black mother from Hartford with two children, no high school diploma, an alcohol addiction and no background of being properly parented. More importantly, these experiments are the worst kind of anecdotal evidence. If these guys put on their poor costumes and use their good old fashioned elbow grease and gumption and American determination to get ahead, it doesn’t really tell us much about the great sad mass of American poverty, does it? Hell, Platt himself says that he had a lot of competition for the job he got at Wal-Mart. What do you suppose happened to those people who didn’t get that job? Who didn’t have the benefit of his resume and his non-threatening white male persona? Or just look at the numbers, the percentage of Americans in poverty, and ask, how may of them truly are there because they aren’t hard working enough, because they don’t “want it” enough? Are we willing to dismiss so many so unsympathetically?
The standard response from people more inclined to traditional can-do notions is to say that I’m dissing the poor here, that I am somehow relegating them to poverty by telling the plain truth about how difficult it is to get out of. “What about the single black mother!” they might say. “You’re saying she can’t rise above!”
No, she might, but if she does, she will be the exception, and by a wide margin; and if she does, it will be in spite of our government and our society, not because of it. I will never understand the perspective that says it is somehow worse to advocate helping people meet their needs than to tell a pleasant and respectful lie about the numerical odds against them. Yes, some people do rise ahead, and good for them. How, precisely, does it disrespect their achievement to note correctly that chance and circumstance plays a large role in that? And on what planet are vague notions of disrespect more important than the pragmatic reality of whether you can actually access the necessities of life? I don’t suggest that those in poverty are not in control of their own lives in many important ways, but that their financial situations (their facticity, if you prefer) are impacted by a vast array of circumstances that have little or nothing to do with their work ethic. Saying that doesn’t condemn them to a life of poverty. It dismisses the means with which some placate themselves that these people deserve poverty.
I am not stupid enough to believe that work ethic or intelligence are completely unrelated to individual success, but we see again and again how they are small components in the face of the vast reality of crass casualty. And neither work ethic nor intelligence, at the end of the day, are themselves untouched by the whims of chance. I wish I could believe in the American fiction, but I can’t, because life and observation teaches me otherwise. I know that, when said sincerely, in good faith, the people who tell you that boot-strapperism is the truth of life mean well, if they are mistaken. But I don’t think this guy who made a game of relying on Wal-Mart for the basic necessities of life was operating in good faith, and it makes it harder to swallow his false premises, his poor reasoning, or his self-regard.
Update: rortybomb gently points out, in the comments, my tendency to discuss economics only through the prism of the most disadvantaged, those living in American inner city poverty. It’s a really bad habit of mine.