One day years ago, when I was in midtown Manhattan, I discovered a long line of people stretching out for as many as two city blocks. I was curious. Were they applicants for a job? Were they trying to buy tickets to the next Yankee game? I asked someone, I don’t remember who, and learned that they were in line for lottery tickets to one of the biggest jackpots of that era. The odds of winning were infintesimal, but there they were waiting for hours for the remotest of chances to become rich. I was overcome with awe and respect: what hope, what faith, these people had!
Recently, I read somewhere that the Americans (I guess Republicans and Tea Partiers) who want to let the very rich enjoy their many tax breaks believe that they too could be rich someday. And that’s why they don’t mind that the richest 400 Americans own more welath than the bottom 50 percent of the population altogether. Or that one percent of Americans receive 24 percent of U.S. income.
The relationship of many of us to money is oddly askew, in fact bizarre. I’ve always had difficulty understanding that the income I received was for work done. I can’t explain why. I was raised in a typical American family, got a weekly allowance for chores performed, baby sat, worked during school vacations.
Almost as many years ago as my encounter with the lottery ticket line, I dated a guy who’d grown up poor in New York City. He was a dreamer—one of those people who practice making speeches with pebbles in their mouths on tenement roofs in hopes of improving their diction for careers as actors, politicians, whatever…. He was an occasional longshoreman and one day, standing in line to cash his check, he inadvertently tore it up into small pieces before he reached the cashier’s cage.
No question about it. Many of us have bizarre relationships to money. How else can we explain the Republican votes for the rich when we know for a fact that they’re not all rich—at least, not yet?
Harper’s Magazine has a monthly Index with all sorts of fascinating facts and figures. Here are some of this month’s statistical wonders:
“The average salary difference between a starting New York public school teacher and a first-year private lawyer in 1970 was $2,000. Today, it’s $106,000.”
“Percent change in U.S. labor productivity since 1972: +114; Percent change in wages during the same period: -6.”
These kind of figures fill the canons of Democrats and Progressives. Surely, the Tea Party folks catch some of them. And still, they continue to believe that wealth is privileged. One thing is certain. For so many people, the truth is not something logical and thought out. Maybe it’s like Obama’s foreign birth: something devoutly wished for, and therefore true.
Perhaps the Harper’s statistic that most amazed me was this about the rich: “Chances that a U.S. millionaire does not ‘feel wealthy’: 2 in 5. Average amount he or she believes would begin to create such a feeling: $7,500,000.”