The other day I ran across a blog post entitled “Everyone is Born a Millionaire … and then they Just Waste it Away.” While I hate to give the post any more attention, it’s important to recognize the arrogance, elitism, and privilege (and maybe youthful naivety?) that form the basis of the argument. Here is the author’s main point: “Everyone is born a millionaire…they just need to make the choice early in life.” Really? Not only is the statement wildly inaccurate, it’s representative of a snobby elitism that places blame on individuals – individuals who are dealt different cards in the game of life. It’s the old Horatio Alger myth recycled for modern times. It’s time to crush the myth.
The Horatio Alger Myth
Horatio Alger, Jr. was a mid-1800s writer of young adult novels that carried the same theme: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty and performs some heroic deed, which brings his plight to the attention of a wealthy older gentleman, who helps him turn his luck around. His “rags to riches” writings, in which impoverished boys reach financial security through a combination of hard work, determination, courage, and honesty, had a formative effect on popular culture. The message was clear – if you couldn’t rise from poverty, it was your own damn fault.
We all love a “rags to riches” story. And there are plenty of them. Tara Westover’s bestselling Educated is a recent example of someone who succeeded, despite great odds. It’s a great story – partly because it’s the rare person who can overcome so many disadvantages. We want to believe that we can all achieve greatness, despite our circumstances. The truth is, we do not start from an equal playing field. Where you end up in life often has nothing to do with what you’ve done. It may have everything to do with what you’ve been given.
The Birth Lottery is the Best Predictor of Wealth
We live in an age in which opinions are treated as facts. As a social scientist, I can tell you that there is a tremendous difference. Facts are based on rigorous scientific methods that recognize sample bias and involve critical analysis. Here are some facts to think about.
- Chetty and Hendren (2017) studied more than 7 million families who moved across commuting zones and counties in the United States. They found that the neighborhoods in which children grow up shape their earnings, college attendance rates, fertility, and marriage patterns.
- Chetty et al. (2014) found that the three most important indicators of where you end up on the wealth scale is (1) your parents’ wealth, (2) your parents marriage/living arrangement, and (3) where you live.
- Reeves and Sawhill (2014) found that wealthy kids without fiscal responsibility are likely to stay wealthy at about the same rate as poor kids who work hard are likely to stay poor. In other words, the rich are likely to stay rich and the poor are likely to stay poor.
Though mobility hasn’t worsened, inequality has. Winning the birth lottery matters more than ever.”David Wessel
The author of the Everyone is Born a Millionaire article cited above writes that “no matter where a person lives or how advanced (or not) they are in their education, as long as they put their mind toward future success, they should be able to earn at minimum $30,000 a year … and save (and invest) at least half of it toward retirement.” So if you can live off of $15,000 from ages 0 to 70, you’d be worth $12 million. And it doesn’t matter where in the world you live, this math will work for you too! Of course, you can’t have any kids and you may have to leach off of generous parents, but you can do it!
Wow! Where do I even begin? Take a look at these statistics and tell me that we are all born millionaires.
- According to the Census Bureau, in the USA, nearly one in every five persons has a disability. More than half report their disability as severe. Adults age 21 to 64 with disabilities had median monthly earnings of $1,961 compared with $2,724 for those with no disability.
- One child in five lives in poverty in the United States – that’s 15.5 million impoverished children.
- In the United States, wealth can be easily destroyed by health care expenses. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy.
- Trauma from sexual assault, violence, disasters, and accidents can result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which impacts every aspect of life, including the ability to earn a good income.
For people who are young, healthy, and raised with advantages, it may be reassuring to think that that your wealth is well-deserved – a result of a meritocracy. And it’s comforting to blame others for their own poverty. But here’s the thing – wealth and poverty is not a characteristic trait. Lose your job during a recession, suffer a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, or get swindled by a Madoff scheme, and your money can be gone too.
It Gets Personal
I’ve tried to disguise my irritation and frustration by citing facts. How’d I do? Now it’s time to get a little personal. Here’s what truly slays me about elitism and the assumption that everyone can be rich if they want. It dehumanizes the human experience. We are vulnerable human beings and most of us are messed up in one way or another. Often through no fault of our own.
The first photo is an old photo of my family farmhouse. The farm was established in 1856 and this is the house where I was raised. The second photo is of the school that was attached to an orphanage in Ukraine. It’s where I found my child. Equal opportunities? I don’t think so.
I was raised by two hard-working parents (and grandparents). While we weren’t wealthy by any means, we had everything we needed. I never went to bed hungry, we were encouraged to do well in school, and I had a happy childhood. My child’s experience was the opposite – a childhood of neglect, violence, and malnutrition. My child was almost 7 when we found each other in that Ukrainian orphanage. Equal playing fields? Not on your life! Why on earth would expectations be identical?
Okay, I’m off my soapbox! What do you think about the birth lottery and social mobility?