There seems to be an active and vocal group of people on the political left who have a lot of negative feelings about wealthy Americans. Every time I read a comment on a blog post that asserts some version of “Screw the rich. They are selfish, pampered, clueless elitists who don’t give a damn about me,” I wonder why I am almost always put off by the sentiment.
It’s certainly not because of my own life of privilege and abundant resources. I was born with many or most of the strikes against a baby one can have in this country. Female. Working class family of factory workers, postal carriers, bus drivers and secretaries. Mixed race but perceived as “colored.” Child in the midst of raging alcoholism.
As a little girl one of my most favorite treats was to take a drive with my grandfather at the wheel and ogle the stately mansions lined up along the northern shores of Lake Michigan, near Chicago. I would strain to see into the windows as we drove by, trying to understand what kind of people could live in such lavish digs. I would ask just about every time we took the drive, but the answer never changed.
“Those are rich white people, Punkin.”
“Where do the rich colored people live?” I only asked that once, though. The laughter that ensued after the first time made me understand it was a silly question to have asked.
I had only recently discovered that I was somehow different than my friend Harrianne, who lived across the street. She was the one who told me I was colored and she was white. And although she actually appeared to me to be rather pink, which is a color too, I ran home and asked what she was talking about.
That was about the only difference there was between our two families. Our houses were almost identical side-by-side duplexes and the furnishings inside were very similar. The kitchen smells were different though. Harrianne was Polish and my Czech great-grandmother, who did all the cooking on weekdays, didn’t like Polish cuisine. I went to a private Catholic school, while Harrianne went to a private Lutheran school.
At the dinner table, when my grandfather was coherent enough to have a discussion about the daily news, he often used words like plutocrat and Mrs. Gotrocks. His disdainful tone was used when he talked about his bosses at work or some other person in authority. My grandmother talked a lot about Mrs. Astor, especially when I behaved in a demanding kind of way.
I, for whatever reason, didn’t learn to resent the wealth of The Others. I dreamed about becoming one of them, but at the same time I chose professional aspirations that equated, in my own mind, to helping people. I knew from early on that those professions – teacher, nurse, social worker, etc. – were not the kinds of jobs that lead to what I perceived to be wealth.
And what about that? Perception.
In my neighborhood, rich was being able to get a new car every three years and to own your own home. As absurd as it was looking back on it, a lot of my friends thought my family was rich because my sister and I always wore nice clothes. Little did they know how much my mother mismanaged her modest earnings to make that so.
“Being rich does not mean you have lots of money. We are rich with love. We are rich with faith and good morals. We are rich with the tools we need to survive, like the ability to read and write. Besides, being rich creates problems of its own. Rich men are always worrying about counting their money or having somebody steal their money. We don’t have to worry about any of that!” That Grandpa had it all figured out.
We each join our families as an accident of birth. Some are born into wealthy families, some into very poor families. and others fall somewhere in between. None of us got a vote. What we all do is learn to function within the family the accident of birth gives us.
So, no, I don’t begrudge anybody their big houses, fleets of cars, airplanes and yachts. Those things are nice, but after becoming an adult I have learned just how much work owning all that stuff requires. Rich families have just as many personal problems as poor families. Their children still lose their ways sometimes. Their husbands and wives still argue and fight, have extramarital affairs, suffer mental illnesses and botch the child raising. And yes, they have money problems, too; just not at the same level as the rest of us.
It is not the individual wealthy person who creates our country’s social problems. It is the merging of wealthy people into corporations and conglomerates and monopolies. When they collectively lose their focus about the well-being of their workers as they pursue ever-increasing profits, that’s where the problems lie.
I don’t get all bent out of shape because Ann Romney can indulge in her expensive thoroughbred hobby. It’s her money. I don’t really care how much she spends on a tee-shirt or a pair of shoes. But I do care about what her husband does in his businesses to disregard the needs of the people on whose backs he created the ability to pay for his wife’s indulgences. I do care if the desire to enrich stockholders takes precedence over paying workers a livable wage.
It makes no sense to me to be jealous of someone who has more money and possessions than I have. Now that I have been reduced to a kind of subsistence existence, owning nothing but my clothes, furniture and automobile, there are many times I think the rich should be jealous of me. I have abandoned dreams of acquisition. I have learned to appreciate the multitudinous sources of joy and well-being that surround me daily and cost nothing.
My own hard work in the very corporations that recently took this country for a wild economic ride paid off with a small monthly pension and pretty good health insurance. My basic needs are meetable.
Some might accuse me of the Sweet Lemons idiom (the opposite of Sour Grapes.) The truth is, though, I have never been happier. When I was far better off financially, I was driven, stressed out, and exhausted from trying to maintain that status.
Sadly, all things are relative. There are too many people reading this post who are struggling daily just to put food on the table. If I use my Grandpa’s line of reasoning, I am rich and therefore have no reason to hate, resent or envy anyone.