They were called “rags to riches” stories, and they’ve been popular since the second half of the 19th century. Horatio Alger wrote many of them, and the Gilded Age industrialist Andrew Carnegie was a living example. They were uniformly stories of someone who began life in poverty then work their way up to at least a middle-class existence by hard work, a frugal lifestyle, and impeccable morals. It’s still an ideal today, a key part of the American Dream.
An important factor in all these stories that doesn’t get discussed is the hero usually gets a big break at some point in time, where he (or she) is able to distinguish himself, get the attention of influential people, and make the connections that will help him prosper. It could be said that being at the right place at the right time makes more of a difference than anything else. Schwab’s pharmacy in Hollywood, California was a legendary place where aspiring actors would hang out looking for their big break. Of course after the Big Break, it’s easy to credit the long hours of hard work even though many people working just as hard at the same time with the same talents and gifts hardly got by because they didn’t get the Big Break.
The “rags to riches” story is a myth that happens just enough in real life to make it seem like a general principle. Upward mobility is a characteristic of productive societies and absent in stagnant ones. It feeds nicely into the Puritan work ethic, and the classic quote from Poor Richard’s Almanac: “the Lord helps those who help themselves.” It’s easy in those rare cases to imagine things are going well because someone has moved up, without looking hard at the reasons why someone made it and whether others are really getting the same chance. We like to say yes, rage to riches stories are always possible: we don’t want to admit our system is sick or flawed, and heaven help us if we have to make a fundamental change short of a catastrophe. We like to point at those rare signs of hope when hope is largely absent.
The Bishops of Eritrea recently released a Pastoral Letter condemning the government of their country for creating a climate where young people feel they have to enter Europe as undocumented in order to have a chance at a reasonable life. The issue is more then a kleptocracy denying motivated people a chance to get ahead. The issue is a World Economic system that feeds on the myth of “rags to riches” in order to exploit ordinary people. The Eritrean Bishops’ letter could’ve come as easily from the Bishops of Mexico, Central America, Eastern Europe, or Asia. In many ways, it could’ve come from the US Bishops.
Hard work should be rewarded: I do not dispute that. I dispute a common assertion the reason many people’s standard of living is declining is they are not working hard enough and are not frugal enough. When many corporate cultures seem to be geared toward reliance on the cheapest labor possible, hard work becomes self-defeating except as an exercise in personal integrity. Rags to riches also becomes a pretext for keeping poor people poor since they have a theoretical chance to work themselves out of it, pull them up by their own bootstraps. The game gets fixed when there are no real bootstraps, no riches within an ordinary person’s reach.
There are many legends in our culture that happen in real life often enough they are perpetuated, shared and idolized as ideals. It’s only when we get beneath the surface we see the systemic disorders, and the false standards which allow a predatory system to operate unopposed. Whatever our favorite social ill is, looking at the people doing it rarely leads us to a solution. It’s only when we can identify the people who profit from a social ill and alter that story we have a chance to improve ourselves as a society, and provide an equal playing field so that “rags to riches” stories can be more than a rarity.