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Friday, September 11, 2009

"I Deserve what I have because I work hard": Some Thoughts

Every now and then, there is a discussion in some blog or other about the correlation between hard work and (financial) success. Usually, the blogger declares that successful people work hard; the general assumption is that because "I worked hard, I am successful. And because I am successful, I deserve what I have." Then there is a flurry of objections by readers.

I myself think that the hardest working people are the working poor. I meet many of these people at Goodwill. Often, these women are wearing the badges of their place of employ: "First Name Only" followed by "Aide." I am lucky to have met these people; they are not shopping at Goodwill for sport as I am; and they remind me of the many gifts I have been given. Yes, I have worked hard, but--I venture to say--not as hard as they do.

So here is an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal. Not exactly a liberal rag, the WSJ presents a picture of a member of the working--now non-working--poor. She is 3 years younger than I am.

As the economy has shed jobs, many working poor who in better times used plentiful jobs and overtime to raise their living standards are falling back into poverty. The increase in poverty last year—2.6 million people—was concentrated among working-age families, with the poverty rate among people between 18 and 64 growing to 11.7% from 10.9% a year ago. Among the hardest hit were children: The child poverty rate was 19% last year, up from 18%. Poverty is defined, for example, as earnings under $22,000 for a family of four.

Colette Banks, 52 years old, this month exhausted her unemployment benefits after losing her $10-an-hour job as a hospital housekeeper in 2007. She has applied to several jobs but had no luck; recently Ms. Banks applied for four positions at the Prudential Center arena in Newark, N.J.—security, housekeeping, ushering and kitchen help—but hasn't heard back.

With a full work week and occasional overtime, Ms. Banks made about $21,000 a year when she had her job—just above the poverty line. She recently applied for food stamps, rental assistance and Medicaid to support herself and her 15-year-old granddaughter. Free television has become the lone form of entertainment in their household, and dinner often consists of rice and beans. "You have to pay a little bit here pay a bit there, just to stay above water," she says.


Duchesse said...

Chapeau, Frugal!

The hardest hit in this recession, the working poor have had minimal attention. See Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent article, or go to her blog,,
"Too Poor to Make the News".

"Deserve" is one of those covert words of judgment like "appropriate" that reveal what someone thinks he or she "should" have or do. Most of us get pretty good at finding ways to justify getting what we want, and downplay the factors of luck and timing in the trajectory of our lives.

Funny about Money said...

Well said! Hard work doesn't guarantee affluence.

By and large, poverty or near-poverty tends to guarantee hard work. The less educated you are and the fewer opportunities you have, the more likely it is that you'll have to make your living with low-paid, hard physical work.

On the other hand, I think most affluence results from someone's hard work. Just because you're sitting in front of a computer 8 or 10 hours a day doesn't mean you're not working. And getting to the job that allows you to sit in front of a computer all day (or earn a living in some interesting or even fun way) generally entails many years of challenging education and preparation. The decently paid work the person is doing right now may not be taxing, but it represents the culmination of many years of effort.

Some people inherit money...from someone else who worked hard (one way or another) for it.

In some respects, the levels of affluence seem to represent the cumulation of work over a lifetime or even over several lifetimes.

My father, who was a working class sort of fellow, used to say "work is work--it doesn't matter what kind of work it is: it's all work." He said that in arguing that there was no distinction between "women's work" and "men's work," but IMHO it applies to just about any of the ways we classify work.

We might claim that people who work at educating or training themselves are working "smarter" (because they were lucky enough to recognize that some kinds of work pay better than others and to have access to ways to prepare for well-paying work) than those who start from high school at $10/hour jobs: but they're still working.

Over the Cubicle Wall said...

I was born a white male in North America and was raised by two hard working parents in a stable home. That accounts for about 99% of me having what I have. I definitely won the birth lottery.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse, Funny, Cubicle--We are all kindred spirits, I guess. Other blogs have been promulgating the "I deserve it" credo, which, to me, is the flip side of the Wall Streeters' credo of 2008.

thecouchpotatoblog said...

While we the moan our loss of pay and reduced living circumstances due to the recession, there are hard-working people out there who are living on next-to-nothing. After reading this article, I am counting my blessings.
The Couch Potato