In America, we are not very good at being poor.
We are quite good at not staying poor; that is one of the core concepts of our national mythos. Steinbeck is reported to have said:
Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
The attribution and exactness of the quote is disputed; but that it has been repeated often enough to be (possibly) misquoted is merely evidence in its support.
To be American—that is, to aim for the values that Americans hold dear, to not merely be “a good American” but good at being an American, to exemplify American-ness, is to seek to be wealthy.
Once we’re wealthy, to our credit, we do OK. Americans are very generous, and even our most wealthy tend to overindulge in proletariat pleasures (houses and vacations) rather than make attempts at immortality through patronage. “American art collector” is something of an oxymoron, or at least a New York thing.
We’re not perfect, and essays can and have been written on the havoc that can be wrought by our generosity and egalitarian aspirations, but this really is one of our strengths. Progressive over-charity is bad; but it’s at least a virtue distorted rather than an uncomplicated evil like open, vicious pride of wealth.
So. We’re good at getting rich, and we’re good at being rich.
Are we good at being poor?
I don’t think so, and I think this is both obvious when thought about, and highly troubling afterwards.
Consider the phrase: “I am but a simple man, sir, but honest and true.” Is that an American utterance? Doesn’t it sound like it belongs more to a medieval romance, or a German fairytale?
If you’re American and poor, virtue consists of honesty, hard work, thrift…in other words, of trying not to be poor.
Shouldn’t it be enough to simply be virtuous?
America is about a lot of things, but two big ones are money and God. While we’re not so big on God anymore (though relative to most of Western Europe, we at least say the words), we’re definitely still about money!
What does our consolation for the poor look like?
First, we’re charitable. Which is of course good.
Second, we do in fact try to help the poor escape poverty. How to do this is a matter of much disagreement, but at least no one is making the argument that we shouldn’t try.
Third, we teach that there is honor in non-material things. Oh, wait, we don’t.
Maybe we say the words. But for American culture as a whole—including much of Christian culture, which by default will be American culture without correction—wealth and respect are tied. I have trouble coming up with an exception. Perhaps the Amish?
This is actually not that bad when everyone is rich. A social pattern I’ve noticed in myself goes something like this:
Speaker 1: I am awesome because of x, y, and z.
Speaker 2: Oh, hi, I’m not really that awesome.
Speaker 1: YES YOU ARE. Do you do a?
Speaker 2: No.
Speaker 1: Do you do b?
Speaker 2: Well, yeah.
Speaker 1: B is awesome. Therefore, you are awesome. We are both awesome.
On the face of it, this is really quite an innocent interaction. Speaker 1’s intentions are good.
The pattern fails, however, when there is nothing particularly noteworthy about Speaker 2. Worse, should Speaker 1‘s fortunes take a dark turn, despair is not merely imminent, but logical. Hold your head high by merit, drop it in shame by merit.
This is basically the American pattern. It is, to our credit, responsible for a lot of material wealth. But it is also why people are dying of opiate addiction in small towns and why the marriage age is rising even in chaste men and women.
Here’s how the conversation ought to go:
Speaker 1: Hi.
Speaker 2: Hi. I’m not really that awesome.
Speaker 1: Who cares? God will provide. Come over for a barbecue.
Regarding small towns and opioids: does society have a model for the honorable poor? I don’t think we do. The RighteousⒸ thing to do is leave.
Regarding the marriage age: attraction lives and dies based on the man’s self-confidence. Among the chaste, he certainly won’t be getting that from his sexual conquests. What other traits has he been taught to respect in men? So often he gets it from his ability as a provider. Which, for young men, is going to be predictably…subpar. And par is what matters, because how do you measure material wealth if not relative to others? Thus the rich marry and poor don’t.
A useful exercise: What does “successful poor” look like?