How do we explain the inability of poor Americans to earn a degree, find themselves a high-paying job, buy a fine house, and send their children to the best schools?
Were we to bother to study sociology and the economic realities of social class mobility (see Beyond Bootstraps: Why Poverty is So Hard to Escape), we’d see the problems are slightly more complex than a defect in poor people that better-off people simply don’t have. That is, we’d understand it’s not merely a lack of willpower, effort, ambition, common sense, or wisdom. This is not to say poverty doesn’t cause some people to lose hope, fall into depression, and give up, but this is an effect of social conditions, quite different from an alleged flaw in certain people that is somehow innate.
Yet, to many right-leaning Americans, those special defects are the sole cause of our poor neighbors’ plights. While this is a position largely rooted in a lack of knowledge and an ideology full of individualistic dogma, it is interesting to consider where such logic ends up if followed to its conclusion.
Note for a moment the obvious: Under conservative logic, even if 50% of jobs in the U.S. pay under $34,000 (some $24,000 after taxes) and if the cost of living is skyrocketing, and therefore 48% of Americans live in poverty or earn low-income, it still must be said that about half of Americans are lazy. Those are the current economic conditions in the U.S. (see The 56% of Americans With Under $1,000 in Savings: Poor Savers or Just Poor?), and if we are so eager to select an unwillingness to work hard as the root cause of unfavorable living conditions, there is no reason we couldn’t say half of Americans have some special defect. This would, of course, include many conservatives, likely many who engage in “blaming the victim.”
But there is no need to stop there. If one insists that a lower class person hasn’t made it to the middle class yet due to lack of effort, why would one not say the same of a middle class person who has yet to make it to the upper class? America has some economic mobility, but not enough to escape the conclusion that the vast majority of us are entirely lazy. Consider an excerpt from “Beyond Bootstraps” that discusses income levels (there are five, the “quintiles”):
A 2007 study found that a minority, 34% of Americans, manage to reach a higher quintile (for example, moving from the lowest to the second quintile). Yet “children of middle-income parents have a near-equal likelihood of ending up in any other quintile, presenting equal promise and peril for those born to middle-class parents.” 42% of people born into the lowest quintile die there, and the vast majority of those who escape the lowest quintile die in the second lowest. The very poorest and the very richest are those least likely to leave the social class in which they were born.
This is not a temporary problem. In 2014, economists found children have about the same chances of economic advancement that children had 50 years ago.
The majority of Americans will die in the social class in which they are born, because in many interesting ways social class perpetuates itself. If the mark of laziness is the inability to better one’s social condition to a substantial degree, it appears only 34% of Americans are without this innate defect. 66% of us, according to conservative logic, are not working hard enough — we are not rising to new income levels. (True, those in the top quintile can’t “escape” or rise into a higher quintile, so perhaps we can say the percentage of lazy Americans is a bit lower, but you understand what I’m getting at.)
If the majority of Americans do not advance to a higher social class, and the root cause of an inability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is lack of effort, the only sensible conclusion is that the majority of Americans lack willpower and ambition. It couldn’t be that our neighbors in the lower class, the middle class, and the upper class work equally hard to better their lives in whatever ways are available to them, whether it’s taking a second job at a fast food joint or figuring out the best marketing strategy for your global corporation’s products.
This demonization of the poor as lazy and flawed is not only a poor substitute for explanations that consider economic realities, it logically must include both better-off people and countless conservatives who perpetuate this sort of nonsense.