It is easy for many to accept the much beloved maxim that in America there is an equality of opportunity, not of outcomes; that hard work will beget success and prosperity. It is especially easy to accept this notion if it has been the story of your life, and it also becomes exceedingly difficult to see how your success might not be entirely due to self-direction. That's why the recently leaked video of Mitt Romney telling a small group of millionaire donors about his scorn for indolent Americans and their sense of entitlement (to things like health care, housing, and food) is so ironic: If there is one person who has no idea how to overcome financial hardship and "make it" in America, it is the son of a wealthy politician whose life of privilege is the very thing which blinds him from understanding exactly how he got where he is, and why other, resource-poor Americans simply can't do the same.
How do I know these things? I'm ashamed to admit it, but I used to think the same way that Mr. Romney does.
I was not born as wealthy as the Republican presidential candidate but I was born privileged, as I later came to realize. My father was a university professor, and I lived in a nice area surrounded by other upper-middle class folks, attending a private catholic school where most of my classmates were also from upper income backgrounds. Happy two-parent households headed by doctors, lawyers, bankers, and the like surrounded me. And the thought that there were kids my age who went to bed hungry in dangerous neighborhoods just miles down the road? That thought never occurred to me.
The implicit link between merit and affluence permeated my early life. Even at nine or ten years of age, I distinctly recall looking at classmates from less well-off backgrounds and getting a sense that they weren't kids I wanted to play with, though I didn't consciously associate it with monetary reasons at the time. I remember feeling inadequate because of how "poor" my family was compared to several others in my class, urging my parents to move us to a wealthier neighborhood and questioning why my dad didn't have a higher paying job. And while we talked about poverty in school from time to time, we never talked to the poor or those that worked with them in order to understand the roots of privation; we were always safely removed from the realities of economic hardship and never did more than donate to organizations that did work on the issue.
I lived with this mentality throughout my adolescence, walking past the homeless as I offered a condescending glare in their direction and wondered why the hell they didn't get off their asses and find a job. Furthermore I assumed that all poor people were like the few street dwellers I had experienced: inebriated and idly waiting for handouts - be it from passers by or the government - instead of working hard and moving up in the world.
Fortunately as I grew into adulthood I had an urge to question the world instead of blindly accepting it, and as I questioned I began to see just how imperfect and foolish my worldview had been. However it wasn't until I took a job with a non-profit and was exposed, on a daily basis, to the struggles of low-income individuals that I fully realized how much poverty in America is structural, and not due to some unexplained laziness on the part of a giant swath of our citizenry. Many of the poor people I came to know were working - hard - at full time jobs and still unable to afford basic necessities; some were felled by illness and needed medical care to retain their ability to work; some had struggled to learn enough in the failing schools they attended so that and were able to get a high school degree, but still couldn't find work with their limited skill set.
My exposure to and more complete understanding of low-income communities over the past decade leaves me wholly embarrassed of my prior naïve belief in the cloying notion of personal industry and its supposedly innate ability to climb our socioeconomic ladder. While I am mad as hell at individuals who abuse our publicly financed safety net to support a shiftless existence, everything that I have experienced tells me they are the exception and not the rule.
The deck is stacked against the poor of our country, plain and simple. Some can make it out of poverty, as some middle class can make it into the upper class and so on, but not all of them, and certainly not by effort alone. As those in hardship try to become self-sufficient, they will need support in order to access health care, food, housing, education, and employment training. And while it is true that the current financial structure of our entitlements is unsustainable (and here it is Medicare, not Medicaid, which is the biggest worry) and changes need to be made, Romney's malapropos blame is a callous and ignorant attempt to rationalize his desire to glibly decimate programs which low and middle income people need in times of hardship, and in so doing further depress their chances of fulfilling some semblance of the American Dream.
It amazes me how someone can live for sixty-five years and never recognize that by being the son of a wealthy, well known politician, it was already a given that with a little elbow grease he would go to the best schools, find a high paying job, meet lots of powerful people, and become one himself. But I get where it comes from, because I too was guilty of that same offense. I didn't really understand that simply by having two supportive financially sound parents, food on the table, and access to good schools, I was destined to be financially successful by effort alone.
The difference is that at a certain point I recognized that what I believed was an untested assumption and not necessarily a fact. I decided to get out of my bubble, expose myself to different realities of life, test that assumption, and understand the issue more clearly. And when I did question I realized that I didn't know a goddamn thing about poverty or how to escape it; all I knew was how I had maintained my own status quo. Since Mitt Romney has yet to learn this invaluable lesson he has neither sympathy nor solutions for Americans in need.