Changing our economy through culture

There’s a reason America’s economic classes are growing farther apart, and it’s not just the money.

I have lived in the South for my entire life. Most of that time has been in Central Texas, surrounded both by poverty and by all different kinds of money: little and big, old and new, hard-earned and inherited. What I find most discouraging, time and time again, is the constant insistence from many of those with money that those without it should simply work harder for their share.

But there are people in our country, good people, with common sense and even with ambition, that are trapped in a cycle that keeps them poor enough that they can’t afford the time off from work it takes to educate themselves and look harder for better jobs to get ahead.

The difference in whether you can afford to take the time off to better yourself is what we now call “privilege“; economic privilege, to be more precise. It’s a stark contrast between those of us whose parents could actually afford to send us to college, and those whose parents only made enough to guarantee we would never see a cent of federal grants. Still another part of us had no choice but to go directly to work and forego a formal education altogether, regardless of how much the government wanted to give us.

On top of how different or similar our backgrounds may be, our attitudes and perceptions of where we are and where we started do more than anything to shape the way we see the struggles of others. One of the most popular millennial arguments is that we are where we are because of past generations; usually those arguments are pointing the finger at inflation, at the poor choices of past decades, at the change in culture that has lead us to the dismal economy many college graduates now face, after half a decade of school we can’t afford.

But arguing blinds us to the only way we can move forward.

The Americans that witnessed the complete catastrophe of large-scale communism after World War II and during the Cold War period are still alive, well, and kicking. The scars that the media cut into them with stories of Russia, Berlin and the lurking threat of nuclear warfare will likely never be erased, no matter how much love we preach or how many celebrities proclaim themselves as feminists. Their perception of socialism and their animosity toward it is stronger than a fuzzy, Sanders-wrapped package can dispel.

The reason Robin Hood doesn’t work in America is because of American culture. Couple our ingrained capitalistic survival instincts with economic privilege, and even people who understand and accept socialism in theory will always reject it because of the absolute cognitive dissonance it causes. Clawing your way to the top of an economic food chain and giving back to those at the bottom of it have become such polar opposite concepts that no one is willing to meet in the middle for fear of being labeled a “Commie” or a socialist. No longer do we respect the character who levels the playing field for those less fortunate: the vigilante hero of our childhood has morphed back into a criminal.

I hope we can change that. I hope Texas and the South can bring themselves eye to eye with the policies at work in other states across the nation and the world, moderate policies that are working and improving the economy in those communities. But I do not believe that we Texans and Southerners are going to see the dramatic results that other states and countries have seen in a short period of time. The fiscal change we need won’t happen without cultural revolution, and cultural change takes time. It takes generations. It takes decades.

We have to show the people around us the way back to compassion. We have to lead them back from the edge of apathy to the place where they can admit that they still believe in opportunity, that they still believe in lending a hand to their fellow worker.

Challenging indifference is not simple. We can’t wave a wand and make everyone happy. We can’t expect the government to require heads of businesses to take pay cuts to offset the cost of providing living wages to lower-level workers, not without full-blown American rage against us, not today. We have to remind the economically privileged why they should believe in the poor, not simply why they should pay them more.

I refuse to believe that people who find work, show up to work, and do a great job should be subject to poverty situations. But our solution won’t be found in laws and taxes. Our solution will be found when we change the way we see each other.

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