Columnist: ‘The poor aren’t poor because the rich are rich’

Will tearing down the wealthy elevate the fortunes of the poor? Syndicated columnist Robert Samuelson argues that the answer is “no”:

Unless you are exceptionally coldblooded, it’s hard not to be disturbed by today’s huge economic inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor is enormous, wider than most Americans would (almost certainly) wish. But this incontestable reality has made economic inequality a misleading intellectual fad, blamed for many of our problems. Actually, the reverse is true: Economic inequality is usually a consequence of our problems and not a cause.

For starters, the poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The two conditions are generally unrelated. Mostly, the rich got rich by running profitable small businesses (car dealerships, builders), creating big enterprises (Google, Microsoft), being at the top of lucrative occupations (bankers, lawyers, doctors, actors, athletes), managing major companies or inheriting fortunes. By contrast, the very poor often face circumstances that make their lives desperate. In an interview with the New Yorker, President Obama recently put it this way:

“[The] ‘pathologies’ that used to be attributed to the African-American community in particular – single-parent households, and drug abuse, and men dropping out of the labor force, and an underground economy – [are now seen] in larger numbers in white working-class communities.”

Samuelson goes on to write that gains in productivity and living standards in recent decades have benefited all income groups, not just the wealthiest 1 percent. Still, many find wealth creators to be convenient scapegoat’s for America’s economic struggles:

[The wealthy] don’t naturally command much sympathy, and their rewards sometimes seem outsized or outlandish. When most people are getting ahead, they don’t worry much about this economic inequality. When progress stalls, they do. There’s a backlash and a tendency to see less economic inequality as a solution to all manner of problems. We create simplistic narratives and imagine that punishing the rich will miraculously uplift the poor. This vents popular resentments, even as it encourages self-deception.

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