The American Myth That Hard Work Is A Cure-All For Poverty

Despite all evidence to the contrary, all talks of privilege, all facts and statistics, many Americans still believe that if someone is struggling economically, they are morally suspect and should somehow work harder.

Whether citizens of the United States will admit it or not, we are in the midst of a great delusion about class and income inequality in the 21st century. This delusion is that hard work alone is a cure-all for poverty and month-to-month financial struggles. Middle class people who struggle to make ends meet post memes on Facebook like this one. I am always tempted to post stuff like this in response. Demographics repeatedly show that 80 to 90 percent of all government assistance goes to the elderly, disabled, or working households. But facts don’t seem to matter.

While there are many economic causes to the current income inequality in the United States, one of its underpinnings is society’s myth surrounding “hard work.” Social media discussions become heated when any mention of anything but personal morality and individual vigor are called out as reasons for success. If someone is having a difficult time, “they” must deserve it. “They” didn’t work hard enough. “They” should have been smarter, thriftier. “They” should have, somehow, been better.

But what exactly is “hard work,” this ideal we worship as Americans? Let’s use my father as an example.

My father dropped out of school in eighth grade and received his GED in the Army. Up until his retirement (where he lived on his Social Security and $300 a month pension), he worked at a factory. During the summer, the part of the building where my father worked could easily reach 105 degrees. He stood on hard cement for hours doing tough manual labor. Toward the end, he had tendinitis in his elbows, arthritis in both of his hands, as well as constant, chronic back pain. When all seven of us children were still at home, he worked two jobs in the summer—the factory work Monday through Friday and then construction work on the weekends and during the factory’s shut down. At home, my father kept the cars running and the yard mowed. Our old home always needed repair and my dad was constantly donning an electrician, plumber, or carpentry hat. No one who ever met my father would ever dare say he did not work hard.

Now, do I have a “better” life than my father? Yes, I absolutely do. Is my better life because of my father’s hard work? Yes, in part. But here is the tricky thing. I could have never, ever afforded to go to college without Pell grants (which are close to non-existent now), work-study (also dwindling), merit and need-based scholarships (so much more competitive now) and federal-government supported loans. Did I “work hard” in college? I like to think so. I graduated with a 3.19. I worked 20 hours a week during the school year and 40+ over the summers. My parents gave me a $20 here and there, my dad continued to fix my 1978 AMC Pacer (if he is not in heaven for this fact alone, there is no justice) and my parents let me raid the cupboards for tuna and soup and pasta whenever I came home. My older siblings contributed to my gas money and first month’s rent/security deposits for apartments at different times. It took a cooperative effort of my hard work, my family’s resources, and federal aid to get me the four-year degree, skills, and work experience which then led to my next opportunities. (And I still graduated with credit card debt and $7,000 in student loans.)

This myth of individual achievement, this striving and overcoming adversity, this rags to riches mentality, goes back to our westward pioneers (who cooperated in the Granger movement for federal and local support) and Horatio Alger (whose cousin put him through college) and perhaps even further. We don’t even care if it’s true, it’s become ingrained in the American psyche to such an extent that all evidence to the contrary, all talks of privilege, all facts and statistics, still cause some people to believe that if someone is struggling economically, they are morally suspect and should somehow work harder.

If you were to work 80 hours a week at two minimum-wage jobs, with no time off for illness, your child’s illness, or any type of vacation, you would make just over $30,000 a year before taxes. I’m not sure when you would do laundry, grocery shop, spend time with your family and friends, clean your apartment/house, take a shower or sleep, but you would be grossing 30k. I think we can all agree that someone who is working 80 hours a week at two minimum wage jobs is working hard?

This is the part where someone will say, “’They’ should get a better job. One that pays more.” But they may need to go have some sort of education or training to do that. Or they may not have time to look for a new job because they can’t take a day off work or they won’t be able to pay their rent. And God forbid “they” might have a chronic illness, a mental illness, a learning disability, or two or three children depending on them. This idea that Americans can somehow control all the variables in their lives is baffling. How can you control if your parents can pay for college or if your child gets cancer and you have to leave your job to care for them? (The number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States is unforeseen medical bills.)

I am obviously not arguing against work. I love working (most days). Good work gives us not only money but purpose, meaning, structure, and hopefully positive relationships as well—I’ve met some great friends at all my different jobs.

But work isn’t the only answer to income inequality. With hard work and federal, local, public, and private opportunities for students and workers, we can create a reality where people of many different backgrounds can succeed.

The huge economic gap in our country is not a result of Americans not working hard, but, at the highest levels, decisions based purely on how to maximize profits (or what I like to call greed). A person who says that Donald Trump or the Waltons work harder or are more deserving of good economic things happening to them than any person working full-time in a factory or teaching in a classroom or working in food service, is choosing American myth over American reality.

Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and an assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She runs a film review blog Catch Up Films with fellow Role Reboot contributor Chelsea Cristene. Eriksen lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, her teenage son, her teenage daughter (who comes home occasionally to get groceries and do laundry), a Sheltie, a pit bull, and a cynical former barn cat.

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