Talking About Poverty (Part Three): The Rags to Riches Myth

Welcome to part three of PLACE’s five-part series, Talking About Poverty. As our guide, we will be using the excellent series, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths from WNYC’s On the Media. We’ll even examine some basic logic. Stick with us.

In our third part, we examine what is perhaps the greatest myth in America, the myth of upward mobility; that everyone has an equal chance to surmount any obstacle and go from rags to riches. This narrative comes from none other than a “founding father,” himself born into poverty, Benjamin Franklin.

Young Franklin apprentices as a printer to his brother before setting out for Philadelphia to open his own printing shop. He begins to manufacture most of the paper in the colonies. In those days, paper was made from rags, and people used to buy and sell rags. Eventually, Franklin gets the license to print paper currency, literally turning rags to riches.

In Franklin's autobiography, he tells the story of his own rise from rags to riches as a model for young men in America. His telling omits any mention of any help he received along the way. Instead, he promotes the notion of the self-made man.

One large oversight from his life story was that of his brilliant sister Jane who remained in poverty while taking care of many of the family’s children and Franklin’s own sick and destitute parents. Jane writes to Ben, “Far too much potential is squandered through an accident of birth.”

None of this is to criticize a brilliant man, but merely to point out that our historical record exists to tell the stories of those who thrived, not those who did not. The sheer number of tales of the lives of self-made men (I use the term ‘men’ deliberately) versus those of people who lived in penury and deprivation gives us a sense that rags to riches is the common American condition. There is an African proverb describing this phenomenon, “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Ben Franklin was the exception, not the rule.

An unitended consequence of our upward mobility myth is that it keeps us from trying to create a level playing field for people, because it implies the field is already level. We all have the same opportunity. All one need do is work hard, and financial success will follow.

That logic leads us to an incorrect conclusion, that if one does not achieve financial success, therefore one did not work very hard (discussed in Talking About Poverty Part Two).

The logical argument goes like this:

If P, then Q

Not Q

Therefore, Not P

This is known in logic as a modus tollens argument, and these types of arguments abound. It is a valid argument as long as the initial statement, the premise, is true.

Now let’s plug in the words of our argument:

If any poor person works hard enough, then they will achieve financial success

Some poor person did not achieve financial success

Therefore, they did not work hard enough

It seems perfectly logical, except that, in this case, it is incorrect, because the premise is false: “If any poor person works very hard, then they will achieve financial success.” Most poor people work very hard and do not achieve financial success. If the premise is untrue, then the conclusion does not follow.

After Franklin, writer Horatio Alger would further refine the narrative. His rags to riches stories suggested that anyone could go from “office girl” (Alger didn’t mention girls) to “captain of industry” on hard work and, also, virtue. The logical problem is now more complicated: “If any poor person works hard enough and is virtuous enough, then they will achieve financial success.” So, we might erroneously conclude that any poor person is either not working hard enough, or is not virtuous enough.

Imagine how complicated the logic becomes if we say, "If any poor person works hard enough, is virtuous enough, is talented enough, is ingenious enough..." Armed with this argument, we could mistakenly rationalize anyone's poverty.

Are you still here after that discussion of logic? Good.

Then, how real is our American Dream? We hear stories of people who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, including every president. Candidate Trump said at a town hall in October, ”My whole life really has been a 'no' and I fought through it. It has not been easy for me, it has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars."

In America, research shows that approximately ninety-five percent of people born into poverty, like Ben Franklin’s sister, Jane, will never reach the top quintile (top twenty percent) of earners. The middle class is not very mobile either. In fact, America’s upward mobility is lower than most European countries. It turns out the American Dream is twice as likely in Canada.

What holds Americans back? Studies show that where you are born makes an enormous difference. It could also be your name. That’s right; your name.

In a famous 2003 study by the NBER, researchers sent resumés in response to “Help Wanted” ads with either traditionally white-sounding names, like “Greg” and traditionally black-sounding names, like “Jamal.” The resumes with the white names received an incredible fifty percent more callbacks. In fact, a “white name” was worth an additional eight years of experience on a black resumé. In a similar study, whites with criminal records received more callbacks than blacks with clean records.

Martin Luther King in 1968 said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps. But it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he must lift himself up by his own bootstraps.”

Of course, hard work, talent and ingenuity matter, but we must realize that they are no guarantee of success. In logic, hard work and talent are necessary, but not sufficient. Hard work is real, but bootstraps and upward mobility are a myth. Unless we as a people decide to construct ladders to help people move up, there is almost no chance of making it out of poverty.

The PLACE organization builds ladders to help people to climb out of poverty. Ours is a comprehensive approach, involving housing, transportation, food, energy, jobs, health, education, and access to the art and creativity that create quality of life and inspiration. Our approach works, providing opportunities for people to rise out of poverty, and even save for their retirements and their children’s education.

Part four of our series, Talking About Poverty, will discuss the myth of the safety net, that our society has safeguards to catch people if they fall. We hope you will continue to send us your thoughts.

To listen to On the Media’s excellent Rags to Riches click here.

Chris Velasco is Co-Founder and Executive Director of PLACE, a charity dedicated to a sustainable, just, and inspiring world.

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