Starting this very long, somewhat rambling post with a disclaimer: I do not pretend to be completely knowledgeable about the history and social dynamics of any country other than the United States. Most of my direct experience in life has been from a somewhat privileged vantage point of the child of two college graduates (both had master’s degrees by the time I was in high school), predominately northwest-European heritage, Standard American English-speaking (and beyond that, speaking academic language in the home), and for most of my childhood (until I was a teenager) a solidly middle-income household, with most of my at-home teen years in a household where (somehow, miraculously and due to sacrifice on the part of our parents) we never lacked the essentials but didn’t generally have “discretionary income” any more. My parents identify as “white” and worked very hard to fit the middle-class fantasy seen in shows like “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” We were never at risk for being singled out for negative treatment based on external signals or superficial appearances. When I left home for college my family was just re-entering middle class income after several years of financial struggle, and a year later I was on my own — in other words: I had to decide between eating or having a place to stay. I know how people treated me and thought of me when I was a cashier in a store… and how different that was from being the pampered child of a military officer.
The myth of exceptionalism underscores so much of “American” life. The ideas that somehow a person is inherently better by virtue of one’s birthplace – or that only those who excel are worthy – or that certain occupations have more importance or status – or that people “deserve” a certain life or even specific events in their lives (whether good or bad). We spend so much of our energy and resources trying to prove that we are indeed exceptional. In this way, we miss so many perfectly imperfect (but good enough) moments along the way, as well as missing the acquaintance of people whose “station” in life is different from our own.
No person “deserves” a life of complete ease, no more than any person deserves a life of pain or struggle!
Some people seem luckier in general than others, but if we are honest we acknowledge that we all have unfortunate moments (or years), disappointments, and losses. Some people seem to lack so much in terms of resources but have a great deal of peace and love in their lives. Certainly most movies and television shows depict low-income people having hard lives and being the outlier and wealthy people having (generally) easy lives as well as being normative – and so our children and young adults aspire to a standard of living that is not, strictly speaking, normal; a standard that would be unsustainable if everyone on earth attained it as well as not necessarily a significant contributor to actual happiness. (see footnote 1)
So why then, is it considered in poor taste to acknowledge one’s difficulties? In some cultures one doesn’t mention what is going well (boasting being in poor taste); in the U.S. it seems that we are expected to seem to be doing well even when we aren’t. Perhaps we are afraid that if others know we aren’t “blessed” it makes us bad people?
This would be a holdover from some ancient “heresies” (beliefs that run contrary to conventional/mainstream religious teachings) that re-emerge in western Christianity periodically. One such belief is the idea that when one believes correctly, or worships correctly, or acts correctly that life on earth becomes easy (the idea of wealth being a sign of righteousness), leading to the idea that somehow a person who is well off (financially, or in health, or …) is more worthy than a person who barely scrapes by. The obverse of that particular coin is that the poor somehow do not think/pray/act appropriately and thereby bring on their own misery. This belief has been used for at least a thousand years to justify policies that favor the wealthy and gradually take more and more away from the (undeserving) poor. One could, if one wished to counter that belief: simply mention the story of the widow’s mite… or Job… or any of a number of other tales from the Tanakh and the Christian Bible.
There is also, almost diametrically opposed (but still favoring the wealthy) a message that insists that the poor are not necessarily less worthy, but that that poor who are “always with us” will somehow reap their reward in heaven; that their assigned lot here on earth is precisely to bear their burden, to suffer in silence… etc. Therefore, poverty is not directly stigmatized, but neither are those with more assets held to the expectation that they should do anything about helping those who are less-fortunate. A shopkeeper, factory owner, or other member of the well-heeled classes can rest easy knowing it’s just the way the world works, and not be too disturbed by knowing that employees’ children go to bed hungry… And, this way of thought has also been used to keep people in their place by reminding them that good servants (or slaves) obey their masters and thus earn points for better rewards in the hereafter. It is reflected in stories and bucolic paintings with farm workers/serfs/slaves smiling or singing while they work or dancing in a carefree manner in the evenings; an expectation, and sometimes a command.
There are a number of errors (fallacies?) embedded in such thinking. One is that the poor are content with “their lot.” They aren’t. Although people in the middle of crisis, like a drowning person, are focused on surviving the moment at hand and are not as able to problem-solve and find ways out and up… they do know they are struggling, and they do look for opportunities to make the situation better. Eventually, people living in poverty and less privilege generally do begin to actively work together to improve the situation. This does not generally bode well for those who are in the “upper” echelons of the society.
Another error is that only people with “disposable incomes” should count in political-economic calculations. In fact, people who have lower incomes might count for considerably more in the long run. Here’s why: at a certain point, people who are “well off” no longer actually spend more. They stop purchasing on a regular or predictable basis — at least the staple commodities that are most often needed; and therefore the commodities that form the foundation of economies small and large. However people who are not well off – including those even at 300% above the U.S. “poverty line” (which in many areas is laughably low and in no way resembles the point at which people go hungry…) – those people always have something they will purchase immediately when they have “extra.” And those are items that bolster economies: food, clothing, household items, materials for work, materials for children, materials for LIFE.
To push that point a little more: if, without an additional income or sudden windfall, a person or family is prioritizing food or rent or healthcare or medications… or similar items and immediately uses “extra” funds for those necessities, then the money wasn’t really extra. The family wasn’t really doing okay.
It can be a very big problem, and history provides abundant examples of mistreatment of people who are perceived as less powerful and less valuable (although the existence of these people — specifically their labor — is necessary for the excesses and luxuries of the ruling classes). Too often, religious platitudes (and “conservative values”) are used to extract sacrifice from those who have the least – those for whom a single dollar represents great sacrifice but who nevertheless are required to pay poll taxes or other fees as if they had money to burn. And at the same time there are numerous deductions and exemptions that provide some relief in taxes for those for whom a missing thousand dollars isn’t even noticed. The poor, who truly have always been with us, have not always actually been so dramatically less well-off. There is a noticeable shift within my lifetime (although I suspect it started well before I was born) for owners and bosses to retain more and more of the profit that comes from other peoples’ labor – with not even the medieval expectation that in time of illness, war or famine the lord of the manor will provide relief. And therein lies this modern problem, for me at least.
While our family has usually been comfortable, we rarely indulge in conspicuous consumption. But even though for our income and educational levels we are not “flashy” (nor do we live beyond our means by borrowing…) we are nevertheless very much better off than most. Still, it is only very recently that we (as a couple) have significant income and can both afford to purchase what we need and also set aside a bit for a rainy day – a luxury for us, but hardly still what modern “experts” recommend for both immediate savings or retirement. Note that until the last 100 years most people – at least working-class people – didn’t ever actually retire, though some may have lived past their ability to work. My great-greatgrandfather (born 1880) was the first generation to qualify for social security… The idea of a time of relatively good health and leisure before one’s death is new and unusual!
In part, the lack of conspicuouse consumption is due to my health issues (I don’t enjoy being in crowds or unfamiliar places due to allergic reactions), but also because we haven’t had a lot of discretionary income most years. We also don’t generally purchase one-use items, whether clothing, furniture, or cars – we try to purchase well-made/durable items whenever possible even though they are more expensive initially. (That, in and of itself speaks to our privilege – we can choose to buy longer-lasting items!) Note that we regularly contribute to a number of charitable organizations now that we have that extra money, but not to the point that it significantly reduces our own comfort… which again is a privilege: we are not giving up very much when we help others. We are still setting aside a little bit for the future, in case we need a emergency fund.
I can justify it all day long, but I finish many days wondering if I could and should be more generous to those who have less: What if we purchased less-expensive (less well-made) items and treated them more gently? Or didn’t purchase as many items? What if I always purchased two of each item: one for us, and one to give to people who need it? What if, instead of a new outfit for myself for a special occasion I instead purchased a new outfit for a person who actually needs one?
And given the time we live in, with climate change a very real concern, there is always the overlying problem of using resources (not just the raw materials, but the energy required to obtain and transport raw and finished goods). People in my part of the world, and in the stratum of society I have generally “always” lived in, are sheltered from a great deal of the already-disastrous effects of climate change. Every item I purchase, whether “high tech” or “sustainable” or “cruelty free” or “fair trade” — EVERY item carries with it costs that are not generally reflected in the price I pay. Could I, should I, calculate those costs myself and “tax” my purchases by contributing to carbon offsets or worker aid, or medical clinics…
One way or another, we need to rethink how much is “enough.” In terms of income, in terms of acquiring property, and in terms of taking care of others and our world. Can we be “okay” with a comfortable (but not opulent) chair in the evenings, a satisfying if not gourmet meal, and a warm, dry place to lay our heads in the evening?
What will it take for us to value others’ needs above our own desires and comfort?
- Footnote 1 link to search in google scholar for research since 2017 for “income + happiness + correlation” : https://scholar.google.com/scholar?as_ylo=2017&q=income+and+happiness+study&hl=en&as_sdt=0,48
Originally started in Feb or March 2021.