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From One American to Another:"What did you do to get so poor? Must have been something..."

Sample of Paper 3 by K. Nelson - Fall 2010

Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions - it only guarantees equality of opportunity. Irving Kristol

The unequal distribution of wealth in the United States is a condition that remains unchallenged by many, if not the majority, of citizens. The existence of "haves" and "have nots" has become an accepted reality and, going beyond economics, is often used as a way to judge the moral fiber of a person. We live in a relatively young country that boasts of unlimited opportunity for the individual to fill any role that they desire. Our society grants respect to individuals who manage to to amass material wealth, recognizing wealth as a reward for hard work. How does this affect the beliefs and behavior of the people affected by this system and continue to reinforce the gap between rich and poor Americans?

People across the United States and in many cultures have internalized the concept of wealth reflecting worth and now use material wealth as a method to prove self-value to those around them. Sociologist Thorstein Veblen described the "eagerness to show off wealth by the elaborate consumption of goods" with the term "conspicuous consumption" (Henslin). The very ability to display wealth has been made easier with the existence of excess material items. As humans develop more efficient methods of production, we are able to manufacture more items which can be displayed and consumed. The ability to make things cheaply also allows for higher quality items to be mimicked. An example of this would be fashionable handbags made by designers and intended for the elite. Many people who are not able to afford a higher quality, designer item opt to buy a cheaper imitation, creating the illusion of being wealthy enough to buy the original item. Additionally, Americans have become accustomed to living beyond their means by accruing a certain level of "acceptable" debt. If it is possible to display wealth that you don't actually have through buying imitations or using a credit card, the basis for judging a person's abilities or character based on apparent wealth becomes quite subjective.

In order to address the issue of equal opportunity, let us assume that people are only displaying the wealth that they actually have. If wealth is treated as an authentic indication of hard work, one must buy into the rhetoric that our nation is one of equal opportunity. "...Americans know that anyone who really tries can get ahead. In fact, they believe that most Americans, including minorities and the working poor, have a better-than-average chance of getting ahead--obviously a statistical impossibility" (Henslin). We are under the impression that our systems allows ample opportunity for success and upward mobility. However, due to social gender bias, classism, racism, and many other social constructs, the conditions under which we compete to "get ahead" are clearly not the same for every individual.

An inequality that shows up across racial, geographic and class lines that can easily be identified and as well as quantified, is the difference in pay based on gender. Salary disparities between men and women have been recognized for decades. In the past, this could be attributed to women working fewer hours outside of the home or being less likely to enter a "masculine" field, such as law or dentistry, which tend to be higher paying. However, as the distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" fields is broken down as a result of younger people opting into careers that might not seem to align with their gender, there are other explanations required. In an article "Even Female Law Partners Suffer Wage Disparities," the highest ranking female attorneys are shown to earn $66,000 less than male counterparts, a discrepancy that started out as a $2,000 difference during time spent as entry level associates (Ellison). Paying women less than men indicates a belief that work done by women is less valuable, and because our culture places huge significance of personal worth on the ability to generate wealth, one might draw the conclusion that women are less valued by society.

The gender pay gap is a product of our culture, not solely created and re-enforced by men. Several recent studies have shown that when asked to women give a salary range they should be entitled to, they gave lower figures than the men, essentially expecting to be paid a smaller salary (Hogue) . This trend is not confined to the United States, British professor, Marilyn Davidson, of "Why XX must thing like XY to earn more K" examines both the pay expectations of men and woman as well as the differences in negotiating starting salaries or raises. She finds that women envision a smaller salary and are less likely to negotiate salary than men, who feel entitled to a salary 25% greater than the amount offered up by the women (Davidson). This difference in entitlement may play a role in supporting the continuation of the gender pay gap-- according to Henslin, this gap will amount 1.3 million dollars over a lifetime. It is necessary to recognize that because women as a group are receiving lower pay, earning less money cannot be a reflection of the ability or effort put forth by women as individuals.

Using personal wealth as a way to judge a person's motivation or the moral fiber of a person is dangerous because it allows one to assign blame to the individual rather than the system. This goes back to the American belief of "you get what you deserve." We can more easily emotionally distance ourselves from the suffering of another person by assuming that their actions leading up to the poor conditions must be reflected by their current condition. I chose to use the gender pay gap as an example of social inequity because we all, regardless of our race, class, educational level or political affiliation, are able to witness this inequity firsthand and perhaps better relate to it when it is experienced by someone close to us. The gender pay gap can also be used as a tool of comparison for the general disparities in wealth. Recognition of the social inequities that create economic inequities is crucial to moving away from placing moral judgments based on an individual's wealth or lack thereof.

It is my hope that by recognizing that being poor is not necessarily the fault of the individual but more likely a product of a broken system, there will be increased empathy that will translate into social programs and policy change. The United States has a particular challenge in changing this school of though due to our nation's main culture "rags to riches" myth and also because our population is so incredibly diverse. When a society is starkly divided along racial or ethnic lines, the affluent are less likely to take care of the poor (Gudrais). If Americans are able to see beyond social divisions and make an effort to stop "othering" the poor, perhaps we can begin to break down systemic discrimination that perpetuate a massive wealth gap in our country.

Everyone is kneaded out of the same dough but not baked in the same oven. ~Yiddish Proverb

Davidson, Marilyn "Why XX must think like XY to earn K" BBC. 5/14/2009.

Ellison, Jesse. "Even Female Law Partners Suffer Wage Disparities" Newsweek. 07/09/2010.

Hogue,M., J.D. Yoder, et al. (2007). "The Gender Wage Gap: An Explanation of Men's Elevated Wage Entitlement." Sex Roles 56(9-10): 581-590

Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon: Boston MA