Haves and Have Nots

I received a chain email on “the America that works, and the America that doesn’t.” It quotes a diatribe launched by Bob Lonsberry — a “talk radio personality” — at Obama and the Democrats. It’s a response to the president’s recent speech on income inequality. Well, ‘response’ is misleading. Lonsberry takes the opportunity to rant about how inequality is caused by “inequality of effort,” and that the motivation behind social welfare is “envy” and “greed.” It’s too bad people take Lonsberry seriously, because he’s not only wrong, he’s ignorant. If that last sentence is off-putting, just humor me and keep reading.

The email distinguishes between an “America that contributes, and the America that doesn’t.” Between those that support themselves and those that don’t. Lonsberry says,

The president’s premise – that you reduce income inequality by debasing the successful – seeks to deny the successful the consequences of their choices and spare the unsuccessful the consequences of their choices.

And, if you support welfare you are advocating “a culture of dependence and entitlement, of victim-hood and anger instead of ability and hope.”

Only someone out-of-touch with reality could write that. Because, while there may very well be people who take advantage of the system, there are many more who have made the right choices, but were simply never presented the same opportunities as others. It’s not about working hard versus being lazy, it’s about having the fortune or misfortune of the environment you’re born into.

Lonsberry assumes that everyone has the same set of choices. Wrong. The average inner-city African-American does not have the same opportunities as the middle-class white boy living in the suburbs. Yes, African-Americans are less likely to graduate from high school and college, on average. But, it’s not about a lack of worth ethic. It’s about being born into an environment that makes school a lower priority; an environment that forces you to make choices that the middle-class white boy doesn’t have to face. Many people don’t have the option of earning a higher education, not because they’re lazy, but because their life path shut that door for them.

I’m a middle-class suburban white boy, but I was lucky enough to work a minimum wage job while I attended community college. I would be a fool to call any of my former colleagues lazy, because most of them were anything but. Some of them worked two, even three, jobs — those that could get them —; I guarantee that most of them work harder than Lonsberry does (it might behoove him to work harder to educate himself). My roommate works two jobs and attends school. Some days, he works over 12 hours, comes home and studies, then goes to sleep to start the process against the next day. Yet, he can barely afford the subsidized rent we offer him. He’s not lazy, he’s just unfortunate to have less options than many others do.

Our parents’ standard of living tells us a lot about what kind of standard of living we can expect as adults. In other words, the environment you’re born into is a heavy determinant of your success, all else (e.g. race, work ethic,…) equal. 33 percent of children born to a top 1 percent family will make $100,000 by age 30; comparatively, only four percent of children born into the bottom half of the income distribution will make that income at 30. About 40 percent of people born in the lower income quintiles will remain there. Likewise, about 40 percent of people born in the top income quintile will remain there. Clearly, Lonsberry’s charge that if only the poor were less lazy they would be more successful is false — there are factors that will weigh down on the poor, even if they work harder than anyone else.

Consider, for example, the kind of education the average poor person receives. Assume, to focus on what matters, that the student works at a 100 percent work rate — laziness is not an issue. Schools in poorer neighborhoods perform worse than schools in wealthier neighborhoods. They don’t have access to the same public funding — the taxable income of those neighborhoods’ families are very low. Many of these institutions don’t offer advanced placement (AP) courses, and classes of similar quality. Teachers in poorer schools will be less well educated than teachers in wealthier schools, on average. Schools in less well-off neighborhoods can’t offer their students the same level of support services. The educational options available to the poor are much worse than those available to the rich.

Kids born into poorer families have parents who work more, because they need to work more to make a decent income (income effect — the more you make, the more leisure time you will choose to have, on average). These are parents who simply can’t afford to provide their children with the same kind of learning environment as wealthier parents. Children in these environments will not be pushed to the same degree to read, write, and learn outside of school. Further, because low income parents usually grew up with the same disadvantages as their children, they are likely to be less educated than wealthier parents.

The typical path to a higher income is education. But, the poor, on average, will receive an education that is much worse than the one wealthy children get. They can’t compete on that margin — they don’t have that choice.

Wealthier children have the option to work less as they reach adulthood. Their parents can afford to support them, and send them off to school. The poor oftentimes don’t have that option. They start working when they’re 15 years old — this will impact their education, because it reduces the amount of time they can allocate towards that end. In the worst communities, employment can be hard to find. That’s why some kids turn to the black market, including the drug trade. It’s not always about making bad choices. It’s about making lemonade with the lemons life gave you.

Neither is social welfare about “envy” or “greed.” It’s about compassion. There are many, many well-off people who are cognizant of their luck — the arbitrariness of being born into a well-off family, for example —, and who choose to vote for social welfare. Yes, those that don’t have that same compassion, and aren’t willing to donate to the poor, are forced to pay into the welfare system, as well. But, the political system compensates the well-off: tax write-offs (which are often regressive — the higher your income, the more you benefit), public services, property rights protection (regressive, since poorer individuals will own less property, on average — often zero property, at that), and other forms of compensation.

Lonsberry wants to paint the rich-poor divide as an outcome determined by good and bad choices. This is fantasy. The real world is one where someone can make all the right choices, and still be poor. The real world is one where someone can work twice as hard as another, but still be poorer. We don’t all have the same choices offered to us.There is plenty of data available; many, many smart people have researched the subject and published their findings. This information is widely available. Lonsberry obviously hasn’t read it, which goes to show just how much you should trust his opinion. (To be perfectly clear: you shouldn’t trust his opinion.) Not everyone is “born with a silver spoon in hand,” and no matter how much the poor work, they are still less likely to one day be higher on the income ladder than those already born into wealth.

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