This is the second installment in Walter Mosley’s cycle of essays on Cultural Famine. The introduction and first installment were published in the October 23 issue. –The Editors
“The rich get richer…” This truism is irrefutable. “…and the poor get poorer.” We look away from ourselves, and our loved ones, when the latter phrase is used to complete the saying.
Often only the first part of this age-old axiom is quoted. It’s as if we are silently saying, “There’s no reason to talk about the poor, about poverty. Let’s just accept the notion that money migrates toward money and leave it at that.”
But where does this money, which moves so unerringly into rich folks’ pockets, come from? This is one of the most important questions in everyday working people’s lives. Because the money that makes the rich richer comes out of the sweat, the sacrifice and ultimately the blood of working men and women.
Many people deny that they are the victims in the proverb because even though the rich make money off them, too, they are also making money, being middle class, off the working and lower classes.
It’s an imagined pyramid scheme, and like all its brethren, a scam.
So-called middle-class people look at working people and say to themselves, “I’m not doing so bad. Look at that poor slob. He’s the one getting poorer. I’m traveling along in the wake of the rich. I don’t have a mansion, but I own a mortgage on a house.”
This is what the poor Irish and Italians and Jews told themselves about black people in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New York.
Today people say it about the Mexican and Central and South American migrant laborers who toil in our fields and factories. “They are the ones who live in squalor and poverty.”
What is the difference between the working class and the middle class? Is it a clearly demarcated line dividing those who pass on wealth and those who accrue it?
Most people I know consider themselves middle-class workers. They’re making good money, they say, and have good credit at the bank. Their children will go to good colleges and get better jobs. They will retire in comfort and travel to Europe (or Africa) to see the genesis of their culture.
These self-proclaimed middle-class citizens feel a certain private smugness about their proven ability to make it in this world while those in the working and lower classes–because of upbringing, lack of intelligence or will, or bad luck–are merely the fuel for the wealth of the nation.
But how do you know where you fit in the class system? Is it a level of income? Is it defined by education or the kind of job you possess? Is class a function of your relationship to your labor? For instance, are you in the middle class because you own your own business? Or are we defined by our rung on the ladder? As long as we are not at the bottom (or the top), then we can say we are in the middle.
It’s a difficult question because the economic state of everyone’s life in this world is in perpetual flux. Depression, inflation, recession–all these and many other economic events continually change our finances and redefine our position in society. Our money grows in the bank, but at the same time it loses value. Our property increases in value, but taxes and expenses also rise. We say that we own the mortgage on our home, but more often than not the mortgage controls us. To buy a $10,000 home we pay $40,000 over thirty years. Where did that extra $30,000 go?