The Main Difference Between
the Rich and the Poor (a VISTA's perspective)
By Joe Muldoon
"I worked for everything I got," he said. A retired businessman spending his sunset years in the Sunshine State, reflecting on his accomplishments and expounding on what he believed to be the essential message in his life.
As both family motto and philosophy of life, this bold proclamation is echoed by millions of Americans. Nothing Benjamin Franklin or Yogi Berra ever said is so frequently quoted with such feeling.
While some use it to stake their claim of moral superiority over the lazy poor who, they feel, have had so much given to them, it is not the exclusive property of the boastful and arrogant. I think of a friend's kind and generous immigrant father who started a restaurant and who, as was his nature, "Worked for everything he got."
This simple sentence claims for the speaker, concisely and effectively, three major pillars of the mythic American character: hard work, individualism, and success. I worked, I got.
The one thing it does not convey, however, is
gratitude, a realization of how differently things might have turned out despite the hard work. This is worthy of consideration on Thanksgiving Day.
In the late '60s, when I started as a VISTA volunteer in the South, the first thing that struck me about the poor is how hard they work. At that
time, a single black mother raising three kids in Florida would find it quite difficult to land a job as a waitress. "Come on, man, you can always get a job waiting tables."
Not if you were black. You could vacuum the rugs in hotel rooms, scrub the bathroom tile and change the beds, but the far more lucrative positions of waiting tables went first to whites. This mom could also labor alongside the migrant workers in the orchards or in the local tomato processing plant, places where the average middle-class worker couldn't last a day.
To those who worked for everything they got, congratulations. I admire and respect that. I also place myself among
your number. Raised by a hard-working, underpaid, widowed public health nurse, I worked through high school and earned my own scholarships. But I know now
that when I went to get my first job at a supermarket -- with no one pulling strings for me -- there wasn't a chance in a hundred that a black kid as hard-working and qualified as myself would have been hired there. Sure, I did it on my own, but my potential was considered, my hard work was appreciated, my hours at the store sufficiently, albeit meagerly, rewarded.
Why do former VISTA volunteers report that they are, more frequently and in greater degree than the general population, sympathetic with the poor and committed to social justice?
If you're thinking it's because we were all a bunch of radicals to begin with, you're unfamiliar with the callow, untested youth of middle-class privilege and values who gravitated to VISTA when it first started. It is not the timber of the recruits that accounts for the lifelong change in attitudes. It is simply that the experience of knowing and working with the poor is so startling.
We learned that there is a difference between the haves and have-nots, but it is one that the winners do not often dwell upon. The difference, sisters and brothers of the middle class, between us and untold millions around this globe is not that we worked for what we got, but that
we got what we worked for.
Joe Muldoon is a writer, psychologist, and web developer living in Minneapolis.