The rags to riches myth

And that myth would be: “In America, you can raise yourself from rags to riches.”

The myth did not begin with Horatio Alger, Jr. but he did a lot to spread it. The 19th century American author wrote dozens of rags to riches books that proved financially rewarding for Alger. However, Alger himself was not a rags to riches story. He was the son of a Unitarian minister. He was home schooled for his first ten years and eventually was sent to the Gates Academy and thence to Harvard University. He had a brief career following in his father’s footsteps. For about two years, he was a pastor at a Unitarian assembly on Cape Cod, and then abruptly resigned. Many years later, it was revealed that he molested two teenage boys in his congregation, the circumstances of which were hushed up at the time. Perhaps a tendency toward pedophilia drew him to New York City and into the world of young and often homeless boys who sold newspapers and shined shoes. In real life, none of these boys that we know about made their way from rags to riches. Even in Alger’s stories, the boys typically succeed because are usually befriended by a kinder, older and moneyed man who sees potential and a good heart in the boy. In short, even in fiction, these boys succeed because of the largess of a benefactor.

Yet it is curious how many Americans truly believe in this myth. Republicans in particular seem to swallow it hook, line and sinker. Perhaps the closest place the myth comes to being actualized is in Hollywood. Many a famous actor can recount stories of bussing tables or working retail while they waited for that big break. Yet, few of these actors grew up in a ghetto or were the product of migrant laborers. Most came from normal middle class households and were often supported by their families. They often achieved some small measure of regional fame before going to Hollywood. In any event they had some talent: usually looks and acting ability and some good fortune, usually one or more inside contacts that helped launch their career. Not many casting directors are actually looking for talent behind the counters of Hollywood Starbucks.

What happens to most people happened to my wife. She was a product of a single-parent household in Flint, Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s. They could kindly be called lower middle class. In fact, they lived just above and sometimes below the poverty line. Almost every year they moved from one rental house to the next. However, she was smart. Her mind was and still is a sponge and picks up everything that goes into it. This plus the mediocrity of Flint public schools allowed her to easily get As without studying. She won a scholarship to Purdue University. There within a year or so she flunked out. The other students turned out to be way smarter than she was and had acquired study habits that she lacked. They also had this amazing support network called Mom and Dad, as well as various close friends and mentors they had acquired over the years. For the most part, they graduated from Purdue. She did not.

Not surprisingly, when sociologists measure the factors that are likely to mean you attain success (as in a good paying career and a relatively high standard of living) it helps if you come from a family where your parents also have good paying careers. Because they earn more money than their peers, they tend to live in pricier neighborhoods. Moreover, because they make more money than most, they spend more time petitioning their school boards to make sure the schools are top notch. They place their children in communities where their kids will be around people like them, with similar expectations in life. Moreover, their parents invest in their children. They put away money for their college education. They get their teeth fixed. They shepherd them to ballet and little league games. They attend their plays, pay for their tutors and guide them through the college admissions process.

Whereas if you grow up like my wife, your father is a distant memory of your early childhood, you are a latchkey kid, your mother almost never attends a school performance unless it is in the evening and because she tends to work late your diet tends to consist of a lot of greasy fast food. Yet, in many ways my wife was fortunate. She was fortunate to be born white. At the time there were decent paying blue collar jobs in Michigan, although her mother didn’t qualify for them. With the help of a government subsidy, her mother was able to buy into a local Levittown and for half a dozen years or so had a fixed address in a decent neighborhood.

If you are born Black or Hispanic then chances are your road to prosperity, if it happens at all, will be a much steeper climb. Because you are more likely living in poorer neighborhoods, your schools are more likely to be worse and your neighborhoods harsher. You likely have gangs, drugs and juvenile delinquency to deal with. You are almost guaranteed to be living in a single parent household. There is a good chance that your mother (who almost always gets custody because the father mysteriously disappears) will be trying to survive on two or three constantly changing dead end jobs, which means you will grow up not seeing much of her. The odds of you picking yourself up by your own bootstraps and living that richer and larger life are almost non-existent. They are unless you want to be a thug and perhaps through many acts of violence control the local drug market. You can also hope for unlikely fame shooting hoops or carrying a football.

In short, success in America, like is true anywhere else, depends primarily on how and where you entered this world, and the degree of caring and support you get from family, friends and community. It may also depend, in part, on how tall you are, your body mass index and how beautiful you are. Your race also predicts your success. While no one is guaranteed to be a success, the odds increase dramatically in your favor if you have some or all of the above.

By the way, my wife is now an American success story. Her success is due, in part, to marrying me, because I was a product of a middle class family that was nurturing and valued education. In the 1990s, her employer funded her tuition to night school. Over six years, she earned her bachelor’s degree that allowed her to move from secretary to I.T. support person. Even so, since she was cruelly downsized in the early 2000s, much of her present standard of living is thanks to my salary. When she managed to find work she found it suddenly paid about half what she used to make. My family certainly encouraged her to persevere, and I took up the parenting duties while she attended classes and studied during her nights and weekends. Which proves my point: no one lifts themselves up by their own bootstraps. It takes a certain amount of talent, a lot of perseverance, enormous amounts of good education, connections, a ton of money and especially a caring and supportive community to succeed.

If we truly want Americans to prosper, we need to foster this is the sort of caring and nurturing environment for all Americans.

One response to “The rags to riches myth”

  1. In short, choose your parents wisely. Every success story also invariably involves a massive luck-out. The luck-out is being in the right place at the right time, usually. For example, for each celeb actor, there are hundreds or even thousands of waitors who do acting. With the pro athlete, there’s the DNA Lottery to win.

    Social mobility in America can be described as trying to climb a rope ladder on a high-gravity planet. Moving up is incredibly hard, but falling is the default.


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