The Myth of Just Deserts
Attacks on the social safety net, workers’ rights, raising the minimum wage and basically anything aimed at eradicating or ameliorating the enormous economic, political and social inequality in this country tend to rest largely on one tenet – blame the victim. It is possible for anyone to get ahead in this society. If you fail to do so, it is your own fault for either not trying or not working hard enough to succeed. Those who have accumulated wealth deserve to keep it because they have earned it and should not be taxed to make up for the shortcomings of others. People get what they work for and deserve their fate.
Nobody deserves to be rich or poor. No one should starve, or be homeless or without care when they are ill or injured. The above attitude does not take into account many factors which affect the ability of people to succeed here in this day and age. Not everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed economically in this country. Obviously, some are born into family situations more advantageous than others. In way too many respects, money has become the be all and end all of too much of life in this country and world. Money enables parents to get better health care, food, shelter and education for their children than those living in poverty can afford. People are able to advance within our society, but it is far more difficult for most than the defenders of the status quo are willing to admit.
Saying that one needs to apply oneself, work hard, further their education and improve their skills in order to get a better job and earn more money neglects the hard realities faced by many in our nation who grow up in an economy much changed from what it was thirty or 40 years ago. Wages for the vast majority of workers have stagnated with respect to the cost of living. Better paying jobs are harder to find, having been replaced by new technology or outsourced to workers in other countries. Low paying fast-food, retail and other service sector jobs.have replaced more lucrative manufacturing jobs. Labor unions which served to protect workers and help insure their fair treatment in employment have been ravaged by legislation and become far weaker than they were in previous generations.
Telling a single mother working part-time at one or more minimum wage jobs with few or no benefits to improve their education while trying to put food on the table for their kids and pay the rent is not very helpful or practical, especially if you are trying to take away food stamps and other federal benefits that could help to make that possible.The fact is, one of the fastest growing sectors of this economy is in low paying temporary and part-time jobs. Many people are forced to work multiple jobs, each with too few hours to qualify for any benefits. Forget paid time off if you or a family member is sick. Forget health insurance. Forget paid vacation or holidays. They do not exist for these jobs. Do not, as many on the right claim, blame this on Obamacare. This trend began years ago, long before anyone had heard of Barack Obama. It’s now a convenient excuse for employers to use to cut employment costs and deny their workers deserved benefits…
Reducing things like food stamps, head start, housing subsidies, daycare, etc., make it more difficult for those in poverty to improve their situation, as well as affecting the development and education of their children, placing them even further behind their counterparts at the other end of the economic spectrum. The defenders of the status quo like to point out the rare exceptions that make huge fortunes after starting out dirt poor, but they are few and far between. Rather than increase wages and benefits for workers so they can provide more healthy demand for goods and services in a growing economy, they are content to let people languish in poverty so they can own second homes in the Hamptons and avoid taxes in havens in the Caribbean, Switzerland and elsewhere. How does a corporate CEO rate a multimillion dollar compensation package for running a company into the ground and taking away the livelihoods of hundreds or thousands of hard working employees?
The new economy has made gainful employment in living wage occupations far rarer than it was in the past. When I grew up, my family was able to survive well on one income, as were those of most of my friends. That is impossible for most today. Getting a college degree has become more difficult for people from low income families, as costs have increased dramatically while financial aid sources have dwindled, requiring a higher debt burden to be placed on students to obtain that cherished degree. Supposedly, corporations benefit from a more highly educated workforce, but they do everything in their power to avoid paying for one. Job availability upon graduation is far from guaranteed. Going into debt to get an education is not felt by all, however. The well-to-do can pay for their children’s educations easily.
With the level of wealth and income inequality in this country approaching all-time highs, pretending that there is a level playing field for all in this society to excel is a sham. People with the wealth realize this, which is why they fight so hard to make sure that they maintain their wealth and thus increase the probability of a better life for their children. You do not earn a silver spoon, it is given to you in the form of inherited wealth and increased opportunity throughout your early life by the mere fact that your family possesses wealth. Pretending that some deserve to be paid seven or eight digit incomes while others don’t even deserve to be able to subsist and provide for their families while working fulltime insults the intelligence of all thinking people.
The tax code, over the past three decades or so, has increased the ability of the wealthy to keep more of their wealth, as well as their income. “Investment income”, such as capital gains or interest income, are taxed at a lower rate than regular wages. The theory here is that the money will then be used to make improvements to corporations, provide better jobs, and improve the economy for all. In fact, what it becomes is an investment in the future fortunes of the people “earning” it and those of their heirs. Otherwise, how to explain the fact that the rich get richer and the better jobs promised the rest never materialize? Having a minimum wage as an incentive to work harder and improve skills and education doesn’t work very well if those jobs requiring more skills/education and a better paycheck do not exist.
Changing the way income and wealth are taxed and investing the revenues gained to improve real job opportunities, rather than just promising to do so, would be a step in the right direction. Having adequate food, health care, housing and education for all, regardless of income or wealth, should be a human right, not subject to the vagaries of the socio-economic status of one’s parents. Creating a more level playing field for all from the very beginning of life would help eradicate much of this inequality. Redistribution of wealth is not an entirely bad thing, especially considering the way in which much of it has been accumulated and the price paid by the many to provide for the privileges acquired by the lucky few. Making all occupations pay a living wage is essential to improving the prospects for those who currently live in poverty. Taxing and truly investing the wealth accumulated by the 1% and their corporations in ways that will improve the lives of the many and create a more fair and just society is a goal we must achieve before the disparity between the rich and poor becomes unbearable. Surely, the powers that be must realize something must be done to improve the situation. A pressure cooker can only build up so much pressure before it explodes. People do not have an unending tolerance for exploitation and repression.
Suggested Further Readings: