In light of the debate raging about the unfairness of income inequality in America, I thought I’d share the stories of two men I know, one in the bottom fifth of income, and one in the top fifth.
Worker A is in the bottom quintile of income. He is an itinerant worker who is also a union member. Unable to find steady work in his field, he travels from town to town, living out of a suitcase and staying in motels and occasionally in his car between towns. He does not have a permanent residence, so he stays with his parents for a week over the Christmas holidays. By government and activist definitions, he is officially homeless.
Worker B is in the upper quintile of income. He is a small-business owner. He does not belong to a union. He works locally, but takes out-of town jobs when they suit him. He owns a nice home on 11 acres, and is about to pay off his mortgage. He has leisure time for participation in the arts, and helps support his local church.
Worker A is a college drop-out. He graduated from high school and went to the local community college for one quarter. Realizing he had no idea why he was there, he left and went to work as a laborer. Looking to develop a trade, he re-entered community college the following year in a electronics technician program. He also tried to enlist in the air force, where he had been promised electronics training, but was declared 4-F, a medical disability due to poor eyesight. After one year of vocational training he dropped out, because of the eye strain involved in doing the close work required by the profession. He lives paycheck to paycheck.
Worker B has a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters, and a doctorate. He has worked in several careers. His training has given him the flexibility to navigate the difficult economic climate. He has money in his retirement account and cash on hand.
Worker A’s father is an alcoholic from generations of alcoholics. Although the family managed to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, the emotional climate at home was less than optimal. One of worker A’s siblings developed a mental illness.
Worker B’s father is an engineer with a good state job. His father was unable to complete college, but due to years of independent study managed to pass the civil engineer’s license exam without a college degree. His mother works for a bank. Worker B’s parents instilled into him the value of hard work and education. Both of his siblings graduated from college.
Worker A married his high-school sweetheart when he was 20. But as soon as his work turned into permanent itineracy, the marriage fell apart. He is now divorced. He does some recreational drugs, some on a regular basis. This has at times jeopardized his already-tenuous employment.
Worker B is in a stable marriage and has two children. He doesn’t take any drugs, except by prescription and only when absolutely necessary. He once threw out a prescription for Xanax. He does enjoy a beer in the evening.
Through no fault of his own, worker A was born into disadvantage. He is a hard worker, but he has been unable to take advantage of the meager opportunities provided him. If anyone is deserving of government help, it’s him.
Through no merit of his own, worker B was born into advantage. His parents taught him to direct his own life and to pursue his dreams. They helped him through difficult times in his life. If anything, worker B has not maximized the advantages life has offered him. Looking at him now, one might conclude that he has coasted through life to prosperity, and could afford “to pay a little bit more.”
Now for “the rest of the story.” Worker B doesn’t really think he needs to help out worker A, and he’s even more certain that increasing his contribution to the federal treasury wouldn’t help worker A one bit. This is because worker B is worker A, 36 years later. Worker A realized that the path his life was on was a dead end, and might become literally so. Responding to the witness of a friend, he confirmed his childhood faith and became an adult Christian (if a lousy one). He quit his job as an itinerant nightclub musician, moved back in with his parents, got a manufacturing job, began saving money, and went back to square one at the community college. This time he applied himself, went on to a four-year school, and graduated.
While in college he married again, and as it turned out his wife found her dream profession as a registered nurse, and went on to earn a significant living. The worker continued to work at academics until he had earned three degrees, dabbled in several careers, and ultimately decided that the best thing he could do for his family was to support his wife in her career and find ways to give back to the community. And yes, we have a great life and great kids.
It’s all in how you tell the story, isn’t it?