Someone once told me, during one the many Facebook arguments I used to have: “I’d rather be poor and free than rich and a slave.” Now, I’m willing to bet a lot of you are smart enough to recognize the logical fallacy there without me naming it (false dichotomy/false dilemma, for those who don’t know). However, the person who told me that either didn’t realize what he was telling me was full of holes or he did it on purpose.
Here’s why there is no such thing as being poor and free:
1.) Most comparisons of the concept of poor are radically biased. The old “the poorest person in America is still richer than the poorest person in third world countries” argument is a non-starter. They can’t be compared. Why? Because America isn’t a third-world country. The United States of America is literally one of the ten richest countries on EARTH. There is no way to compare a superpower to a place like Ethiopia, Burundi, or South Sudan. These places are almost like other planets. So, simply by the way math works, the poorest person in a rich country will be in better financial shape than the poorest person in a country where people are living under the rule of warlords.
2.) When you are poor you are completely at the mercy of your environment. At the time of this writing minimum wage is $7.50 per hour. That comes out to around $14,400 a year BEFORE TAXES. Now, that’s for a full-time position at 40 hours per week. Many positions are part-time, or just enough time to qualify as full-time while still paying short of those 40 hours per week. $14,400 is about $1200 per week. Try affording a mortgage on that. Auto loan? Utilities? Food? Insurance? Rent? Necessities?
Minimum wage is a subsistence wage, which means, if you’re lucky, you’ll make enough to barely survive. You will be lucky if you can make it from paycheck to paycheck (a great many Americans can’t, as 10 million Americans used payday loans in 2016). Pop a tire? That’s about $200. Suddenly wake up one night and can’t urinate? Even with insurance you’re facing thousands in medical bills. Little Billy’s shoes just fell the fuck apart in gym class? $70 (unless you buy the $20 Walmart ones, which could mean you just blew a week’s gasoline budget). Car suddenly doesn’t start in the parking lot at work? That could mean hundreds or even thousands.
Every. Single. Day. Is a gamble. You are a slave to the ebb and flow of the universe. You have no savings. There isn’t enough. According to this story (a little old but still applicable) about 44% of Americans are one good unforeseen financial circumstance away from total ruin. Now, I imagine there is a certain sense of freedom in losing everything and being financially ruined. You lose every single thing you’ve ever worked for. The Buddhists and Yogis would probably tell you that shedding material possessions is a good thing.
Except, in America, we tie our self-worth to what we do and how much we own. It’s a very sick and vicious cycle. We shouldn’t but we do.
3.) You are a slave to the cycle of poverty. Americans love their myths. Chief among them is the Great Man Myth. Financial lore is replete with the story of the poor kid made good; the person who started out sleeping on dirt floors, who saved every single nickel and worked 400 hours a week to become super successful. All it takes is hard work.
By and large, people who live in poverty spend so long locked in day-to-day survival mode (think “generations”) that learning to recognize and capitalize on opportunities which would result in future wealth are as alien as Martian hieroglyphics. The cycle of poverty has a complete hold on their functionality. When no one teaches you what opportunity looks like and how to prepare for opportunity to arise, you will never know what to watch for.
Thus, the great man is all but a freak occurrence; a statistical anomaly. For the most part, people who work hard continue to grind until the grind gets the best of them; surviving the struggle until the day they finally shuffle off the mortal coil.
3.) Google, YouTube, and the gurus would have you believe that all the Poors need to do is change the way they think and they’ll strike it rich. If it worked this way, there’d be no such thing as obesity in America. There’d be no mental health issues. Everyone could just perceive themselves out of everything!
Except that’s not exactly how it works. Sure, changing the way one perceives the world could help disrupt the cycle of poverty that dictates how people living in poverty function. However, perception alone is not enough to break a cycle. Perception of a problem is worthless without a method of breaking the unhealthy cycle, then having an action plan with attainable goals and objectives by which one can extricate himself from the environment.
People die every year because they get lost in the wilderness; know they are lost; but lack a viable plan by which to affect rescue. Poverty is that exact scenario. Millions of Americans are lost in a generational cycle, a great many of which are cognizant of their predicament, yet lack the skills or assistance to affect rescue. A person does not accidentally escape being lost in a rainforest and a person does not accidentally become successful just because he puts in 80 hours per week (ask the coal miners who were present for the Harlan County Union fights).
4.) I’d rather be poor and free, than rich and a slave is a pitiful sleight of hand that ignores the fact that there is an entire middle class section of America who is not “rich” by the metrics, but who own homes, have savings, and professional careers. A whole section of people who used government assistance to go to college or tech school and use those credentials to escape the cycle that, otherwise, would surely have ensnared them into the same struggle for survival as previous generations.
This basic bitch rationale (a word I can only loosely apply here) completely disregards that a well-funded, well aimed social safety net can (and has in Denmark) shrink wealth gaps and foster an environment in which poverty cycles can be broken, by providing ample and effective assistance to those who are cognizant of their situation, have a plan with attainable goals, but lack the ability to capitalize on opportunities.
Poor and free? Nah, bro. No such thing.