Recently a liberal friend (I’ll call her Jane) raised some concerns about the premise of my book “The Simplicity Primer” in which I argue that a simple life can be achieved merely by making good choices. Jane suggested that the book only applies to the middle and upper classes, but not the poor.
“The poor can’t follow that advice,” she told me, “because they don’t have the background or history of witnessing good choices in action.” She reminded me about the things middle-class people take for granted but the poor don’t have, such as a secure family life, safe neighborhoods and decent schools.
First I need to make one thing very clear: There are millions of formerly middle-class people in this country who have slid into poverty in the last three years and are coming to grips with such horrors as unemployment, bankruptcy and even homelessness. There are also many people laid low by illness, disability or other physical hardships. These are not the poor of whom Jane spoke. Jane knows that quite often people who become poor due to job loss or medical bills are not likely to stay poor, given the opportunity to change their circumstances.
Rather, Jane was referring to the generational poor in this country. She joins the majority of progressives who view “the poor” as a disadvantaged group uniformly helpless and unable to do anything to change their circumstances.
This belief has a basis in history. Historically, poor people were often unable to escape poverty no matter what. They were helpless victims subject to the whims of tyrannical overlords who sometimes held the power of life and death over them.
Thankfully this is America, the land of opportunity where countless millions of immigrants have swarmed so they could break free from the shackles of tyranny and poverty and make something of themselves.
As an example, let me introduce you to the Khans, my Taiwanese sister-in-law’s parents. Theirs is a familiar story. With the equivalent of a sixth-grade education, they came to this country with their young daughters. They came with little more than the shirts on their backs and a couple of small suitcases. They spoke no English. They crowded into a cramped one-bedroom apartment for many years. They started a humble business catering to other Taiwanese immigrants. The children, young as they were, worked alongside their parents. Some years later they sponsored their elderly grandparents to immigrate, making their apartment even more crowded.
They saved every penny and eventually bought a home in a blue-collar neighborhood. The girls attended questionable public schools, but the parents stood over them like sentinels to make sure they knew their lessons and received high grades on their exams. The children wouldn’t dream of shaming the family by getting into trouble. Now, 25 years later, the Khans are firmly in the middle class.
Why? Because they made the right choices. There is no other magical ingredient than that.
So if people like the Khans can crawl out of brutal poverty by making the right choices in life, why can’t American-born poor do the same?
When someone claims poor people can’t make good choices because of their environment, what they’re really saying is “the poor” are either too stupid or too lazy to make those changes, but that’s OK because we have social programs to (cough) “help” them by enabling their current lifestyle.
But where progressives see a class of oppressed victims in need of eternal public funding, conservatives see hope, potential and opportunity. Endless numbers of poor people have decided to change their lives by making the right choices. They decided they would no longer tolerate being victims of their circumstances. They decided not to have kids out of wedlock, or do drugs, or rob convenience stores, or drop out of school, or make other life-altering bad decisions.
The left would like to excuse “the poor” from making sound, intelligent choices because deep down, progressives think they can’t make good decisions. They view the poor as helpless children, forever in need of parenting from the wise elite (themselves).
To presume poor people cannot ever change their circumstances is to condescendingly assume they’re stupid … which, of course, they patently are not. It also dismisses as unimportant the brutal hard work every successful immigrant to this country has ever gone through to rise out of poverty, thus proving it can be done.
When the progressives excuse the bad choices that keep people in poverty, they are unable to explain why is it that immigrants who arrive in this country with a single suitcase soon become business owners, home owners, and send their children to college.
The answer is simple: The poor who succeed in life have made the right choices. This is what it takes to succeed in America. With few exceptions, everyone can do the same.
The poor are not stupid. They are simply the victims of misplaced progressive compassion. They have not been allowed to experience the repercussions of bad choices and thereby learn from their mistakes. The progressives are the ones patting “the poor” on their heads and telling them to toddle along, that they don’t need to make good choices because we’ll always be here to wipe their bottoms and fill their sippy cups.
As our economy gets worse and more formerly middle-class people slide into poverty, it becomes more critical than ever to keep your decisions smart. Being poor is no excuse to be stupid. You don’t need a Harvard education to know that having babies out of wedlock will lock you into poverty. You don’t need to come from a secure family background to understand that robbing liquor stores is unlikely to make you more employable. You don’t need a degree in economics to know spending more than you have leads to disaster. (Are you listening, Washington?)
In this economy, I’m not saying making better choices will necessarily change your financial circumstances for the better (though it might). What I’m saying is your life won’t get worse.
It’s your life, folks, and your choices. But remember this: The day will come when society’s cushions will no longer be there to catch you.
The nice thing is it’s never too late to change. Try being smart. It’s your choice.