To the untrained eye, the lives of the wealthy and those of the poor appear light years apart; almost antithetical. Social institutions, like media, do little to suggest otherwise. Arguably, these vantage points are dependent upon the observer, but generally the lives of the wealthy are portrayed as extravagant and sans worry or fret, while those of the poor are portrayed as downtrodden, and wrought with stress. The wealthy are typically characterized as noble people who have earned the fruits of their labor deserving the riches of their harvest leaving many to spend their lives on a quest for this perceived elite status. Enter “Affluenza” stage left. Conversely, the poor are often labeled as lazy, untrustworthy, and solely responsible for their sub par social positions. They are blamed for abominable decisions and the bulk of the world’s crime, despite having “equal” access. Because, for goodness sake, legalized slavery is over, desegregation is law, and we have a Black president!
Within poverty and wealth narratives, the commonalities of the prince and pauper have been consigned to the landscape. Seldom are we presented with core commonalities of poverty and wealth. This article addresses that omission. I argue that wealth and poverty are fundamentally the same; neither better nor worse than the other. Fundamentally.
One extension, however, is that wealth has privilege, thus the power to shape collective consciousness into believing that people who make a life out of poverty are inherently bad. Thanks to incessant sound/visual bites, poverty and wealth have taken on racialized images. When you hear “Wall street banker,” what comes to mind? A White man in a suit? When you hear “welfare queen,” what images come to mind? A Black mother? Thank you, Ronald Reagan.
Let’s look at five similarities across poverty & wealth that may surprise you a bit.
1) Poverty & Wealth are Both Systemic: Be clear. Despite imagery depicting poverty as inherently negative and wealth as inherently positive, poor folk ain’t the only ones ‘sucking from the system.’ System utility, is not monopolized by poor Back people. The wealthy also master their given systems and strategize ways to solidify their stake.
Poverty and wealth are both social structures with a purpose and a function. Whether that purpose is to maintain the existing structure in ways that most benefit you or whether that function is to ensure that the next generation acquires capital. We can view poverty and wealth as means to access basic human rights or dignity. Whether we’re discussing how wealthy people access food and shelter systems or how poor people access education and energy systems.
2) Poverty & Wealth are Both Generational: Be clearer. Poor people also ain’t the only ones who are comfortable, remain in their station, and teach their kids how to suck from the system. Wealthy people, too, hand down strategies on how to maintain their wealth and benefit most from ‘the system.’ So please let’s kill this polarized poverty view of race & class-based system manipulation.
Everyday, some wealthy kid is absorbing information around them on how to maintain their family’s wealth whether explicitly stated or passively acquired. From how to frame a conversation with a loan officer to boost perceived value or overhearing their father’s conversation with his brother on price points. Each day, some poor kid is absorbing information on how to to report income that will allow their family to continue to qualify for Section 8 housing or how to negotiate with a utility provider on paying the least amount to keep the lights on.
Both poverty and wealth are handed down. This is about the skills acquired in both spaces that guarantee survival and continuation of said systems. Fundamentally, a dope boy passing down his business acumen to his son is no different than a Wall Street banker passing down his business acumen to his son. Fundamentally.
3) Poverty & Wealth Are Both Recipients of Welfare: Please don’t let these sound/visual bites fool you. Wealthy folk receive substantial government subsidies. Arguably, more than poor folk. Welfare checks and unemployment compensation pale in comparison to governmental bailouts. But they file UC claims too.
According to Oklahoma U.S. Senator Tom A. Coburn, MD, over $9.5 billion in governmental funds have been paid to millionaires since 2003, including $74 million of unemployment checks and $9 billion in retirement checks. Yep, the same unemployment and retirement checks that have been stereotypically associated with poor Black folk. But, only the poor are sucking the system dry? Miss me with the mythology.
The silence around welfare for the wealthy feeds the racialized view that poverty equals Black. FACT: White Americans make up 42% of the poor, but consume 69% of government benefits. FACT: Black Americans comprise 22% of the poor, but consume 14% of government benefits. Even the term ‘welfare’ is classist and racially charged and has become the catchphrase for Black people (mothers) who receive governmental cash assistance and/or food stamps.
4) Neither Poverty Nor Wealth Are Typically a Result of Meritocracy: Contrary to popular opinion, few acquire wealth simply through hard work. Most were born into it. The power inherent in wealth allows it to write its own story and promote a meritocracy narrative. Similarly, most poor people were born into a social class with little to no acquired social/cultural capital, thus solidifying their social position. Conversely, the absence of inherent power in poverty allows others to write the popular shiftless derelict poverty narrative.
North America operates on a caste system, despite not being formally labeled as such. And as most of us know, you have a greater chance of fitting into your elementary schools jeans than moving up in caste. Given the capitalist process, one is almost guaranteed to die in the same (or lower) caste than born. Yes, I know you know someone who was born in abject poverty and worked really hard, pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, and died rich; maybe even wealthy. And because that person did, we all have equal access and if we all work really hard, we can all die as wealthy as Bill Gates. But remember, exceptionalism does not negate structural inequalities and anecdotal evidence pales in comparison to systematic inequities.
5) Both the Poor and the Wealthy Spend Money on Ish They Don’t Need: Nuff said.