The relationship between hard work and wealth

Hard work. It’s an American value, part of the American Dream we all hear so much about. “Work hard and you, too, can be rich!” That’s been ingrained into all of us. And whenever a debate arises about whether taxes should be raised on the wealthy, I can’t tell you how many times I hear arguments like, “The wealthy shouldn’t be penalized. They worked hard to get where they are.”

I would never argue that the wealthy do not work hard (more on this to come). Rather, my question is, how are these people quantifying hard work? If all it takes to become wealthy is hard work, that sets up two premises:

1) Only the wealthy are “hard workers”
2) It takes something else beside “hard work” to become wealthy

I don’t much care for number one, because it devalues the work that anyone who isn’t rich does. Does a hedge fund manager really work “harder” than a fireman? Or a teacher? Or a construction worker? So that leaves us with premise #2–there is some other ingredient beside simple “hard work” to becoming wealthy or getting ahead. Is there a difference between the hard work of someone who busts their hump doing manual labor all day and the hard work of a lawyer who works 70 hours a week? I’d be willing to bet that both individuals would say that they work pretty damn hard. Yet society only views one of them as traditionally successful. And why is that?

It’s because ultimately, in this country, we quantify “hard work” with money. Generally speaking, the more money you make, the “harder” you must work. On the surface, that makes sense. If you run into a neurosurgeon at a cocktail party, you might think, “Gee, that’s a really stressful, highly specialized job that requires large amounts of time, focus, and years of schooling. Of course they make $500k/year.” At the same party you might also run into someone who digs ditches for a living. “Sure,” you might think, “of course they only make $12/hour. How hard is it to dig a ditch? Anyone could dig a ditch…”

Economically, I can understand this. Obviously the neurosurgeon makes more money once you factor in the degree of difficulty, being on call, the fact the job is literally life and death, and the investment in education and training made. So how does this relate to the beginning of this piece? Well for one, it serves to illustrate the fact that, for a great many people, it’s very easy to brush off people who do not make a lot of money as people who “don’t work hard.” It feeds back into the idea propagated by certain political institutions that the woman who works at McDonald’s is just lazy, and that if she “really worked hard” she, too, could be wealthy. But that’s wrong on two levels. First of all, she most likely does “work hard.” But, as I said before, she’s lacking some other element for success, which leads me to my second point: “hard work” on it’s own does not ensure economic success. For every hard working wealthy person, there’s a hard working teacher who spends 15 hours every day teaching a room full of unruly children and then coming up with lesson plans and grading papers when they come home. But the teacher most likely will never be wealthy.

What people really mean when they talk about working hard to become wealthy or to get ahead is opportunity. To go back to an earlier example, take the hedge fund manager. Of course they work hard. They probably have a lot of wealthy clients and therefore a lot of pressure to make money, not the least of which involves understanding the ridiculously complicated financial system and all of it’s laws. So what makes this kind of hard work different than everyday, run-of-the-mill hard work? I think a lot of people would say, “Luck, obviously. It’s being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, etc.” And that’s what opportunity is, and it’s that missing ingredient.

Part of the myth that politicians sell us is that all it takes to become wealthy in this country is elbow grease. I’d say that this obviously isn’t the case, because there are plenty of people who “work hard” but aren’t wealthy and who never get ahead. And they aren’t wealthy because they don’t have opportunity. I’m not trying to argue that opportunity = luck (although that certainly can be the case). But think about starting a business. Who do you think would have a better chance at success? Someone who has family members who are wealthy enough to provide seed money or who know people who could act as investors? Or the minimum wage worker with an associates degree? How easy do you think it would be for this second person to get small business loan?

Even if someone has the best, most profitable idea in the world, it’ll never get off the ground unless a certain set of circumstances are met–circumstances that for the most part, the average person doesn’t control. Funding, labor, raw materials, navigating the legal system–these are all substantial hurdles unless you just happen to know the right people. Sometimes that means coming from a wealthy or privileged family. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s certainly possible to “know the right people” without being wealthy yourself. But like the old saying goes, “it takes money to make money,” so if you ain’t got no money, you more than likely ain’t going into business.

So is it possible to move up the socioeconomic ladder? Yes. And does it take a tremendous amount of work? Yes, of course it does. So in that sense, I can understand the argument that, “the wealthy work hard for what they have, so what right do we have to tax them more?” But I can’t help but feel that such a statement continues to devalue the work of people who aren’t wealthy, essentially stating that if you’re not wealthy you must obviously not be a hard worker, especially when it takes the perfect storm of conditions to arise for the average person to become wealthy. Ultimately, this is not an indictment of the wealthy or capitalism. I have nothing against rich people, nor am I advocating that they don’t deserve their wealth. I’m simply suggesting that we all be more honest when it comes to discussing wealth, hard work, and socioeconomic opportunity and mobility.


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