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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Boyd: If it just took hard work to make you rich, why are so many of us poor?

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about the wealth gap between the super rich and the rest of us.

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re not included in the 0.00001% of the richest Americans. Not to rehash an old column, but I need to provide context. You may be doing “well,” but there’s a good chance you’re not even in the 90th to 99th percentile of income distribution, which is comprised of Americans who earn $120,000 to $425,000 a year after taxes. Many of us reside in the bottom 90%, and while we may experience income increases, it’s where we’ll reside for all of our lives.

This isn’t the racial wealth gap I’ve written about before. This is a wealth gap that affects all Americans.

Right under my column that week, we published a column written by National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial about the organization’s annual State of Black America report. Morial also wrote about the Pulse of Black America survey, which was conducted in March. The survey found Black and white Americans have vastly different views on the wealth gap and economic disparities that affect Black Americans.

This wasn’t surprising, but it’s good to have the data to back up anecdotal evidence, and this survey provided that.

According to the survey, “A majority of Black respondents, 57%, agreed with the statement, ‘Wealth inequality between Black and white Americans is a cycle that creates never-ending economic disparity, no matter how hard individual people work.’”

Not so if you work harder, said white respondents: “But an even larger majority of white respondents, 71%, agreed with the statement, ‘Wealth inequality between Black and white Americans can be overcome, but it’s up to individual people to change their circumstances.’”

When I read that statement, I immediately wondered if it was that easy why haven’t white Americans overcome their circumstances to become billionaires? Why are so many in the bottom 90%?

Because it’s not so easy to overcome circumstances you’re born into. How many white people think they’re not billionaires because they don’t work hard enough? I’m willing to bet money — the billions I don’t have — that white people think they work pretty hard.

Black people are blamed for their circumstances. We’re poor because we’re lazy, and if we just work harder, don’t buy Jordans or weaves, we can change our circumstances and become rich one day. The thinking implies that Black people don’t believe in personal accountability, and all we need to do is adopt the boot-strap mentality.

The thinking also implies that white people are better off than they really are. If it was as simple as working hard, wouldn’t more white people be among the uber rich, hanging out with Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg?

The fallacy that most Americans have fallen for is it’s about work — hard work. But what is hard work? Depends on who you ask. It’s not about how hard someone works, but it’s about the value we assign to that work. A certified nursing assistant (CNA) works hard. It’s a physically demanding job — and it’s an important one — but you wouldn’t know it by the compensation. Poor people work hard.

Our disdain for poverty and our inability to acknowledge institutional racism allows us to blame individuals for their lack of “success” when it suits our narrative. It’s easy for white people to say Black people can change their circumstances because there’s a lack of historical knowledge of how those circumstances came to be for white people and Black people. But when you flip it and ask why they haven’t changed their circumstances, you’ll get excuses. I call them excuses because that’s what those valid reasons are called when offered by Black people. If your parents didn’t leave you a trust fund and stocks worth millions of dollars, how can you be expected to grow that money to one day be as rich as Musk? He is not a boot-strapper. He was born into wealth. Now, that doesn’t take away from Musk’s business prowess, work ethic or intelligence. The point is his inherited wealth allowed him to make moves to generate more wealth. That’s how it works. Wealth begets wealth.

Getting rich isn’t as simple as just working hard. It’s not about work ethic. It’s about a system that is built and thrives on inequality.

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