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The Moralization of Wealth

I recently wrote about how we have made moral assertions about the rich and poor in this country: namely that the rich are virtuous and the poor are lazy. The rich MUST have worked hard for what they have and the poor MUST have been lazy to become poor.

I get how someone can think this way. You can look at the differences between behavior of the rich and poor and think that it explains how they got to where they are. I grew up thinking this way. I had no idea how much damage that actually did to me. I might still not grasp how deeply that way of thinking affects me.

Because through that lens, black culture is “poor people culture”. It is the culture of the lazy. Through that lens, CEO’s of corporations that destroy drinking water, ocean habitats, civil liberties, and political processes all while using their wealth to avoid the justice system are “successful”.

However possibly mischaracterizing I just made that, the moralization of rich and poor has dire consequences. Many people I know and love think that poor people deserve to be poor. Therefore, giving them public services is wrong. This completely ignores the causes of poverty and what perpetuates poverty.

Does being born into a family with no father and a mother working 80 hours a week just to provide for you seem conducive to “success”? They might be born into a neighborhood with bad schools, bad infrastructure, and lack of jobs or business. Poverty is a place where a parking ticket could cost you your job. It is a place where working hard means barely scraping by instead of “being successful”.

How come nobody ever blames Africa or Mexico for having so many poor people? Why don’t they just go get jobs?

We know intuitively that those places are messed up and the opportunity to prosper isn’t always there.

So this might come as news to some people, but: in the U.S. the opportunity to prosper isn’t always there. The U.S. is a little messed up too.

Less than 100 years ago, the time-honored conservative American tradition of hanging black people from trees for “looking at you wrong” was still going on. Do you think that black communities aren’t affected by that? Their grandparents were born into an era where being black could get you killed.

Medical care (without insurance) costs astronomical amounts of money. More than any middle or upper middle class earner could afford to pay. People making minimum wage often don’t get health insurance. Their employers are cutting benefits by making you work 38 hours a week instead of 40 so they don’t have to give benefits. Due to the higher likelihood of becoming ill when you are poor, medical needs are increased.

If you are homeless, you probably can’t get a job because no one will hire you.

Add to that the cost of having to buy and frequently replace the cheapest available goods.

There are lots of poor people working very hard who cannot afford basic needs.

People who have never had to live like that criticize them for asking for help. People who think that their hard work is what sets them above the poor are criticizing people who want to help the poor.

Then to say that poor people are greedy because they want help with their extremely difficult situations from which the vast majority never escape?

Societies are judged based on how they treat their people. The bible has very specific things to say about how we treat the poor. Don’t tell me they deserve to be poor and that you are above them because you “worked harder”.


About Josh Poland

Worship Leader, Economist, Musician, Martial Artist


2 thoughts on “The Moralization of Wealth

  1. I’m inclined to believe that if you’d like to understand why our culture believes the poor deserve to be poor, you can use most any ancient religious text. Cultures have long believed that you get what you deserve whether it’s because of hard work, righteous living, or karma. In any case, I suspect that you’re right in that people generally think that poor people in general, lack ambition (witness the food stamp reforms done in Maine for what may demonstrate a self-fulfilling prophecy). Jesus made a very relevant observation on this topic: the poor will be with you always. No matter how many help-ups the government or other institutions offer, there will be poor people. That does not mean we stop those programs, doing so would only make us less virtuous. However, we need to recognize that for whatever reason, some people choose to live in the conditions they are in.

    I think another contributing factor in our society is we look up to people who made something of themselves from basically nothing. We idolize and even worship people who against all odds were successful (however you define success). In comparison to these people, those left behind in poverty are naturally looked down on since they lacked whatever it takes to be successful. And I think this belief hamstrings our understanding as well as our response: humans constantly want to have an explanation for what’s going on. Whatever looks reasonable to our understanding of life is what we’ll accept to be true. For example, the fallacy of if the cause of wealth is working hard then the cause of poverty must be not working. If we can embrace Jesus’ words, that there will always be poor, we can move on to answer questions like what can I do to help alleviate their suffering? And yes, understanding the causes and perpetuation of poverty, and how to redress these, is one way to accomplish that.

    Lastly, in reading your post, I really couldn’t shake the feeling that your observations while often very pointed, were also very generalized and that’s not fair to poor people, to CEOs or whatever social strata you’re in (or to Republicans for that matter – are there really studies showing that they were behind lynchings?). We will always be able to find people who exemplify our prejudiced beliefs about the rich and poor but are there really people who think we should end all public services? I know the bubble I live in is much more sheltered than yours but those generalizations don’t really serve to strengthen your argument.

    Posted by Jim Poland | February 20, 2016, 9:27 am
    • I don’t think it would strengthen my argument to make a caveat for every point I make like: “Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the rich people who don’t behave this way.” Sure, there are guys like Bill Gates in the world. And welfare queens do exist.

      But, it is not unfair to poor people to say that they do not choose to live without basic needs or at the least that they wish their circumstances were different.

      Just like it is not unfair to rich people/CEOs to say that they participate and perpetuate a system that causes death and destruction. If it were not so, big money interests would be working to change the system.

      Jesus made lots of negative generalizations about the rich. When systematic injustices exist on this scale, the priority is exposing and ending them. Jesus called them out without caveat. He spoke of the pharisees as a group and treated them as a group. This isn’t really about individual responsibility or feelings.

      Also, I thought I had taken the Republican reference out. It is accurate in that the conservative party (which was called the Democrat party) supported slavery and used the KKK to target political opponents. But, the parties switched names/platforms, so it’s not quite precise wording.

      Posted by Josh Poland | February 24, 2016, 12:43 am

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