When Mitt Romney offered a struggling campaign volunteer all of the money he had on him to help her with an electric bill, the moment stood in stark contrast to the man who dismissed those who have the audacity to raise the issue of economic inequality as champions of class warfare fueled by "envy." I know there are plenty of cynics who consider the moment the height of campaign trail performance art-cum-pandering. (After all, the incident likely did more to humanize him than millions of dollars worth of campaign ads.)
Call me a sucker, but I consider the moment sincere yet sad. Not just sad for the woman in need but for Romney himself. See I believe that Romney was sincere in his sympathy for the woman's situation, and in his desire to help her. What's sad is that he's so out of touch that he believes that all Americans in her economic situation have a Mitt Romney they can turn to for help, and that those who don't must be that way through some fault of their own. Furthermore, he's naïve enough to believe that all wealthy people share the commitment to philanthropy and service that his family does, thereby making additional taxes on people in his income bracket unnecessary to help women like his campaign volunteer.
With that in mind I thought that as we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who once said, "The curse of poverty has no justification in our age," today would be a good day to correct some of the misconceptions that Mitt Romney and other wealthy candidates seem to hold about economic inequality in America. (Click here to see a list of the wealthiest presidents and presidential candidates.)
1) If you were born wealthy, you have not earned everything you have through "hard work."
According to a Federal Reserve Study 2 in 5 members of the "1%" inherited money. This is not to say that if you were born into wealth you haven't worked hard and that you may not have earned some of your possessions, property and money. But you didn't earn all of it, and in fact probably not most of it. Think of it this way. You ask an investor to give you the seed money to finance your startup. The company may have your name on it and be based on your idea, but that investor deserves a great deal of the credit and share of the profit if your company makes it big. So if you used your parent's wealth to finance those first real estate successes (Donald Trump) or their connections to land you your first film role (Gwyneth Paltrow), or to ease your first entry into business (Mitt Romney) along with helping to open doors for your foray into politics, (anyone named Kennedy, Bush, and yes Romney), then please don't try to convince the rest of us that you are "self-made." You're not. That's not your fault. Just like it's not my fault that I wasn't born with a silver spoon, fork or any other utensil from Tiffany's in my mouth. But trying to give the rest of us tips on how to make it and how we can become more financially solvent like you, without mentioning the words, "be lucky enough to be born to my parents in your next life!" makes you sound -- for lack of a better term -- like a jackass; an out of touch jackass. The two primary ways someone like me is likely to have the greatest shot at joining Mitt Romney's tax bracket is if I a) win the lottery or B) marry one of Mitt Romney's sons. And from what I've read about the history of blacks in the Mormon faith that's not likely, but brings me to number 2.
2) If you have married into wealth, you have not earned everything you have through "hard work."*
See number 1. That means if this describes you please avoid lecturing anyone on how all of us can be just as successful as you are if we're willing to make responsible choices AND please spare us whining about how you don't like the government trying to take so much of "your" money. After all, your ex probably said the same thing about you during the divorce.
(*I acknowledge there may be some truth to the old saying "those who marry for money end up paying the rest of their lives," but I think we can all agree that despite Kobe Bryant's foibles his wife did not "earn" her riches in the same way that Oprah did.)
3) America is not an "equal playing field."
I know pronouncements like this drive my conservative friends nuts. Sorry. But don't take my word for it, just look at the numbers. Startling new data recently confirmed what many of us already knew: that America is one of the least economically mobile countries in the first world. One recently published study (there are several) found that 62 percent of Americans raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, while 65 percent born in the bottom fifth remained in the bottom two-fifths. The studies also found that parental education is a disturbingly accurate predictor of one's lifetime class status. Translation: If your mom and dad are doctors and lawyers with Ivy league degrees and your grandparents are too, your likelihood of remaining in a similar class bracket is high. The likelihood of those born to grandparents who are sharecroppers remaining in a similar class bracket is even higher.
So a word of advice to conservative candidates and legislators: you'd earn a lot more credibility if you prefaced any brilliant ideas you have for those struggling to make it with, "I know many of you started out without many of the advantages many of us take for granted and I'll never know what it's like to walk in your shoes, BUT..."
4) Besides being born rich, or marrying rich, the only other way to really have a shot at significantly improving your class status in America is to be genetically or intellectually extraordinary... and most of us aren't.
As the studies cited above confirm, hard work is rarely enough to improve upon the financial situation you were born into in America in a truly meaningful way. If you are not born upper middle class, odds are not in your favor that you will end up upper middle class, unless you marry well, win the lottery or hit the genetic lottery. What is the "genetic lottery?" Well if you're born 7 feet tall and are reasonably coordinated, then you may have a shot at significantly improving your class status through the NBA, or if you are a scientific genius you may become a groundbreaking neurosurgeon like Dr. Ben Carson or if you have the charisma and innate interview capabilities of Oprah you may be given your own talk show. But if you are just a nice person, who works hard and plays by the rules, you may not spend your entire life in abject poverty, but you will most likely spend a lifetime being one medical crisis away from asking Mitt Romney for a handout to keep your lights on.
5) If you are wealthy and have called in a favor, or made a "donation" to get your already wealthy son or daughter a job they don't need and didn't earn, or a college admissions slot they didn't earn, congratulations, you have increased the number of poor Americans.
I know this is hard for some wealthy people to believe, but while you may think your son or daughter getting into Princeton, Harvard, Brown, University of Texas, or whatever alma mater you always dreamed that they would attend, is a matter of life or death -- it's not. Because I'm going to go out on a limb here and speculate that Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump probably could have gotten a job working for their father (where they both currently work) whether they attended his alma mater of UPENN or whether they didn't. (No I'm not alleging that Donald Trump bought his children's way into UPENN, but let's not pretend that bearing the name of one of the school's most famous alums didn't greatly improve their admission chances.) But you know for whom college admissions and entry-level jobs can be a matter of life or death? Poor people, that's whom. So the next time an elected official says that it is easy for anyone who wants a job to get one -- I want him or her to know that's true. It is easy to get a job -- when your dad or mom are elected officials, or wealthy and powerful people who have wealthy and powerful friends who are willing to give out jobs to the relatives of their friends.
6) Most poor people are lazy. WRONG.
This is a tough one for people hell-bent on preaching the "In America anything is possible for those willing to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps" mantra to accept, but it's the truth. Yes some poor people are lazy. Just like some rich people are lazy. (Reality TV is filled with them or else there would be no Real Housewives franchise.) But the majority of bankruptcies are caused by medical bills, not by people sitting around buying flat screens and plotting ways to con the government out of benefits. (It's worth noting that Ruth Williams, the campaign volunteer Romney helped was plunged into debt by her son's health problems.)
7) But you are RIGHT about one thing...
Those of us who aren't wealthy are envious. We should be. Most wealthy people who are miles ahead of the rest of us started miles ahead the day they were born. Why shouldn't the rest of us be envious? That doesn't mean we dislike the wealthy. In fact, some of my best friends are wealthy -- and I say that without a trace of sarcasm. But, they are willing to acknowledge that they began their journey miles ahead of most and therefore while some of them may balk at their tax rate, they are extremely generous to those who have less than they do, because they realize, as the saying goes, "But for the grace of God go I."
It would be nice if more of the privileged demonstrated this level of self-awareness -- and not just when a poor person supporting them for president reminds them on the campaign trail that poor people who are doing the right thing, but still struggling to pay their light bills, exist.