New York Times op-ed on why the poor won’t rise up: Give credit to our culture of self-help.

Why Aren’t the Poor Angrier About Inequality?

Why Aren’t the Poor Angrier About Inequality?

Your money and your life.
June 26 2015 2:08 PM

The Church of Self-Help

There’s a reason the poor don’t rise up over inequality. Because our culture shames them.

A McDonald's employee sweeps up in front of a restaurant.
A McDonald’s employee sweeps up in front of a restaurant, April 15, 2015, Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The question of why we aren’t angrier about our increasing income inequality is back, courtesy of Thomas Edsall at the New York Times. In a Wednesday op-ed he asks, “Why are today’s working poor so quiescent?”

Helaine Olen Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen is a former columnist for Slate and co-author of The Index Card. She was the host of the Slate Academy series the United States of Debt.

While Edsall believes living conditions are better for the poor than they were in the past (affordable televisions and air conditioners go a long way!), he flags something else to blame for the lack of public rage: the United States’ individualistic culture, one that has left all of us ever-more skeptical of appeals to group action. “There is very little social support for class-based protest, “ he notes.

We take the increased economic risk that’s been shifted onto the individual for granted. Instead of anger, there is acceptance and resignation. The “great risk shift” described by Jacob Hacker in his book of the same name is so thorough and complete, most of us no longer realize—never mind believe—that our world could be any different. We’ve internalized the language of the corporate state.

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And this, in turn, leaves us powerless to change our electoral dynamic, one in which both political parties have little to gain by addressing the issues of those most pummeled by the economics of our great income divide.

But this analysis, while compelling, misses a vital piece of the puzzle.

We like to say that we don’t have a national religion in the United States, but that’s only true if you think of religion in the conventional way, with an organized structure and a place of worship. But we do have one national belief system. Think of it as the First National Church of Self-Help, where the tenets preach that we are responsible for all that happens to us, for good or ill.

In the Church of Self-Help, there is no problem for which there is not an individual solution. As Nicole Aschoff writes about Oprah Winfrey in the recently published The New Prophets of Capital, “In her story, success comes from righteousness and hard work, not luck—so anyone can achieve it.” The unspoken but equally compelling piece: The converse is also true. Failure is a result not of ill luck but insufficient effort and a poor attitude. It’s not for nothing that Oprah promoted The Secret, the book that claimed we could positive-think our way into success.

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This stuff is legion in the subject I cover, the world of personal finance. Millionaires are regularly held up as having better, more orderly, and more disciplined traits than others, and we’re told they rarely fall prey to negative thoughts. (Who is paying the not-unsubstantial therapist bills in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta is never addressed.) When I Google the phrase “habits of wealthy people,” I discovered Inc. had published “7 Habits of Exceptionally Rich People” this past January, a post that must have proved popular, because it was followed by “7 Habits of the World’s Richest People” a few weeks later. Not to be outdone, Fortune then posted “5 Surprising Habits of the Wealthy” the next month.  

It follows by extension that if the wealthy are wealthy because of their more virtuous habits, the poor must need improvement. Barely a day will go by on CNBC, Fox Business, or Bloomberg when someone, at least once, does not make reference to all the economic unfortunates who are wasting their money on smartphones when flip phones will do. As for jobs, their low-wage positions are their own fault. A few years back, when the Internet was in an uproar about the infamous McDonald’s worker budget, NBC financial guru Jean Chatzky stepped forward to say that the workers bore responsibility for their dire financial fates. “People who are stuck, essentially, in these minimum wage jobs need to be asking themselves, ‘What can I do to get out of this?’” She was not, I assure you, referring to the Fight for $15 movement.

In fact, the various New York Times best-seller lists are filled with the tomes of self-help, so much so that Advice, How-To, & Miscellaneous gets its own category. The No. 1 book there right now? A thing called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a perennial there too, though the book—as well-intentioned as it is—doesn’t spend much time contemplating what happens if you lean in and get pushed back. A number of books on the more conventional New York Times nonfiction lists also seem to qualify, from David Brooks’ The Road to Character, which, as the short description puts it, “extols personal virtues like kindness and honesty in a materialistic age” to Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, a tome that shows “how disadvantages can work in our favor,” and sounds as much like wish-fulfillment as I’ve ever heard.

Yet almost all of us believe this stuff to some extent. When Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper studied how families in Silicon Valley cope with the economic uncertainty of our times, she found they kept it together—at least emotionally—thanks to a combination of positive thinking and new-age nostrums. They meditated and claimed their children had as good a chance of getting ahead as the progeny of their wealthier contemporaries. They were shamed, not angered, by their financial woes.

True, hard times are notorious for the self-help true believers they inspire. I am not the first or last person to note that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was first published to great popular acclaim during the Great Depression. But that era also produced the New Deal and other calls to political action. We, on the other hand, are so beholden to the belief that we are the sole masters of our own fate, we can’t let the ideology go even when it would benefit us enormously to do so. It’s time we all admit the individual solutions to greater economic down winds that self-help promotes will only take us so far. It’s when we band together that we get results.