Allan Powell: It's not easy being poor

December 23, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Robert J. Samuelson is an accomplished economist with more than adequate credentials to report on the relative status of social classes and social mobility in America. Given the steady stream of reports showing the widening gap between the wealthy and the lower ranks of society, it is a surprise to witness his over-solicitous concern for the wealthy in his “It’s Not Easy Being Rich” (Washington Post, Oct. 10).

One’s first emotive reaction to pleas for sympathy for the rich is to blurt out, “It’s still a lot better than other options on the table.” To which some might say. “Take a close look around and you’ll see that it’s not easy being in the middle or lower classes, either.” But such a retort gets no mileage and the respondent is characterized as an envious loser. Still, there is merit in raising doubts about Samuelson’s thesis that “It’s not easy being rich.” Those millions who are now experiencing a heart-wrenching slide down from hard-earned middle class and those caught in a bleak trench at the bottom cannot be faulted for posing the question, “Why do you ignore us?”

Samuelson was prompted to tackle this thorny issue by the outburst of demands for higher taxes for the wealthy and the spontaneous appearance of mobs on Wall Street shouting for fair play. These protestors were not pot-smoking hippies — many who were interviewed claimed to have college degrees. What they shared in common was the conviction that our country was going in the wrong direction.

Samuelson gives three points to explain why the rich are in such disfavor after he informs us that there are the “deserving rich” and the “undeserving rich.” Wall Streeters, who are perceived to be in the “undeserving” category, are there because they are rightly charged as the culprits behind the crash. First, is the measurable growth in economic inequality. From 1945 to the 1970s, the richest 10 percent of Americans earned about 33 percent to 35 percent of total income. By 2007, this figure had reached 50 percent.

The second point gives little comfort when they are told that our predicament is part of a global process. Studies show that inequalities have increased in 17 out of 22 countries in two decades. Finally, with even less comfort, selected statistics minimized taxation disparities. For example, they show that in 2007, the richest 10 percent of Americans paid 35 percent of all federal taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Nonetheless, one of the very richest in our nation, Warren Buffett, has repeatedly declared that he has been undertaxed for years.

It is hard to fathom the lack of interest on the part of many — including political figures. These victims of Wall Street’s casino capitalism are angry because they watched in disbelief as huge sums of public money saved their hides from disaster. They then watched as this money went to lobbyists to pressure members of Congress to vote against needed regulatory reform, unemployment insurance and collective bargaining. It is no wonder that they have taken to the streets.

They are also insulted by the defenders of the status quo when their Social Security and other progressive measures are called “entitlements” in a very demeaning way. They have contributed directly to some of these programs throughout their working careers. They are convinced that the rich have many more “entitlements” than they do. No laborer is “too big to fail.” No laborer has as many laws and court decisions to protect their interests. No laborers get a bonus when they fail at their job. Yet, CEO Leo Apothelser (Hewlett-Packard) was awarded $13 million in severance benefits when he was fired.

Samuelson, it is remembered, argued that “It’s not easy being rich.” It is more reasonable to argue that “It’s not easy to be in the middle class.” They are less likely to inherit money, afford colleges of their choice, take exotic vacations or have deep pockets for extended illnesses. Middle-class people can only succeed by judicious saving, thoughtful planning, tireless energy and a lot of good luck. Their struggle is permanent, daily and sometimes, very lonely. They are always “big enough to fail.”

The situation for the poor is much more desperate and they can more truthfully than anybody say, “It’s not easy being poor.” I will wager that Samuelson’s closest contact with the poor is when he drives past them on the way to his office.

Unless he has experienced directly the pain and despair of poverty, it will only be a verbal abstraction. I still remember vividly a rainy day in 1937 when I came home from junior high school to see all of our furniture on the sidewalk. We four boys slept for a week in the Hagerstown Dairy Barn on South Potomac Street. Our main fear was being bitten by rats. We survived and joined the Navy upon reaching the age of 17.

Be assured, Mr. Samuelson, “it’s not easy being poor.”

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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