America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse Five”, 1969.
This quote could have been published yesterday and it would still be just as true, though it would probably apply to more countries than just the United States now as Capitalist ideals have become more prevalent in other cultures.
No one wants to admit that they’re poor, even if they are, in the United States because there is still an assumption that poverty and unworthiness go hand in hand. If you’re poor, you must be stupid, as Vonnegut wrote, or lazy, or ridden with vices. I wonder how much of this idea is genuinely out there circulating among average people these days.
It seems like more people are starting to understand that you can work hard every day and still have nothing to show for it at the end of the month. That’s how the system is set up, and with increasing wealth disparities and higher prices for even necessary goods, let alone “luxury” items like basic entertainment, almost everyone is starting to feel the pinch. Even the faltering middle-class.
I don’t think the American poor hate themselves, though. I think the American poor hate being poor. I think the problem is just that people tend to think they need to be wealthy before they can be happy. It’s definitely easier to be happy when you can pay all of your bills and live comfortably, but I think we need something more than just material comfort for happiness. It would be incorrect to say that the poorest people in the country need assistance to reach a basic level of security, but I also think there has to be a change in mindset in terms of what we see as worthwhile ways to live.
Think of the people we idolize on television. Think of the Kardashians. They’re wealthy, but are they really role models? Are they what people should aspire to be? Are they worth glorifying? Are they better just because they’re wealthy? I don’t think so. There’s nothing necessarily good about being wealthy and there’s nothing necessarily bad about being poor. The goodness and badness of a person is based on more than that and value in life comes from more than the thickness of a person’s wallet.
I particularly enjoy the bit Vonnegut added about the tiny, poorly put together American flag attached to the register. I see it as symbolizing an idea that continually contributing to the current economic system is essential patriotism, even when you’re barely hanging on. There’s really no reason for our country to be this shabby when the country as a whole has so much wealth to go around. I’m not saying we should be wholly socialist, but I am saying we should have caps on wealth generation that force company executives to fairly distribute company earnings to all employees, say by limiting top earners to a percentage of what the bottom earners receive, including both real wages and stock options, bonuses, etc.
People who start businesses often come to the table with wealth in their pockets. They have ideas, but the employees who help them realize their vision are an essential part of the process. It’s absurd that people working at some of the most successful companies on Earth receive government subsidies because they’re paid poverty wages.
Money is definitely hard to come by and easy to spend. Depending one your circumstances in life, where you were born and what family you were born into particularly, you may never become wealthy, but that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, or not worthwhile. And fuck feeling grateful for being paid minimum wage. It’s called the minimum wage because it’s supposed to be the bare minimum a person should earn to be able to live. It’s not a requirement. It’s a choice. And employers should choose to reward employees who work hard to keep them rich.
The cherry on this quote from Vonnegut, though, is the comment about a pub owner being poor. If Vonnegut thought a small business owner was poor, then what would he think of the rest of us?