Not superior or better, just luckier

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Listening to people who would deny their neighbours a living wage, kick families out of state houses, and insist those on a benefit eat no junk food ever, there is a common theme I’ve noticed coming through.  It is a belief that because they themselves are not poor they are somehow superior, better, than those with little or less.
Good choices, rather than bad, are apparently behind their improved status.  At least that’s what I guess it is comforting to tell yourself.  I could never be poor because I make good choices, I work hard, I’m better than that.
But what about the advantages of birth?  A matter of who your parents are, the family you are born into and their circumstances, the place, the time.  If Bill Gates had been born earlier he wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time to get into the computer geekery that later made him billions.  If Andre Agassi hadn’t had a father who was determined to create a tennis champion would he have won all those Grand Slams?  And would someone like me, the first in my family to get a degree, ever have stuck out university without the financial support of money left to me by my grandfather?
Let alone the privileges of birth that come with skin colour and gender, and the genetic lottery that determines appearance, sexual orientation and identity, all influenced to a greater or lesser degree by those crucial early years and beyond.
Once you are an adult the luck stops though, surely, and the superiority kicks in?  Not if you have got a good education because your parents stayed together, never moved house, and were able to support you at school.  Not if you get your first job, your start in the paid workforce, through family connections, even if it’s sweeping up the warehouse floor.  Not if your tertiary qualification came about because you were able to live in the city which offered that course.  All of these factors, and many more, are more determined by good luck than they are by your skill or good decision-making.
And then there is bad luck; bereavement, illness, disability, unplanned pregnancy, sexual abuse, malnutrition, lack of housing, divorce, redundancy, substance abuse, adult illiteracy, and so much more in the household which can impact hugely on kids.  Yes there are many who overcome those obstacles, and there are some who don’t.  Whether a person does or not, there are many factors at play and most of them are out of your control, especially as a child.
So next time you hear someone claiming anyone can get a better paid job if they want to, and programmes like Breakfast in Schools just encourage bad parenting, you may want to point out that the only reason they aren’t in need themselves is luck.
We can help create good luck and minimise bad luck through the way we structure our society and in particular how we support the vulnerable.  These are political decisions we can make, to direct resources with the intention to create equity for all rather than excellence for a few.
But first we need to recognise that our status, our income and our advantages are not a result of our superiority, but instead have come about due to a cascade of good luck, starting at our own Year Dot.  If we really want everyone to be able to harness their potential, to succeed (whatever that means in each context), then we must seriously attempt to balance up the vicissitudes of luck.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Outrageous! Next thing you will be suggesting that we love each other and look after each other. Its a slippery slope from there. It might even lead to a more equal, just and caring society, where creativity and compassion and fairness are valued and nourished. Cant think of anything worse!

  2. Great article. There was an old advert for National Bank that said “you’re so lucky” and then “luck has nothing to do with it” and flashed back to a university student waitressing etc. to save the money to go on her OE. I hated that advert and one day I met the woman from the advertising agency who made it and I told her I hated it because luck has everything to do with it.

  3. As much as I think you are right and we need to stop blaming the poor, do you disagree that it’s also about design – having a group of people who are poor benefits a certain group of people in society, capitalists, because they can use tge threat of poverty to keep wages low and their employees pliable? Your post sounded to me like it was letting those who are responsible for poverty off the hook.

    • @ James: the evidence suggests that you’re right about the structure of society, but I think that recognition of this is implicit in this post.

  4. Yes , excellent Post . Now , if only the institutionalized soulless would read and understand the context of it .

    In so many words , and not mine .
    ” It’s the responsibility of society to embrace it’s eccentrics . ”

    ” The measure of a society is how well that society treats it’s most at risk . ”

    And these words by Chris Hedges . American Journalist .

    “Those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes, no matter the external reality, are seen as maladjusted and in need of assistance. Their attitudes need correction. Once we adopt an upbeat vision of reality, positive things will happen. This belief encourages us to flee from reality when reality does not elicit positive feelings. These specialists in “happiness” have formulated something they call the “Law of Attraction.” It argues that we attract those things in life, whether it is money, relationships or employment, which we focus on. Suddenly, abused and battered wives or children, the unemployed, the depressed and mentally ill, the illiterate, the lonely, those grieving for lost loved ones, those crushed by poverty, the terminally ill, those fighting with addictions, those suffering from trauma, those trapped in menial and poorly paid jobs, those whose homes are in foreclosure or who are filing for bankruptcy because they cannot pay their medical bills, are to blame for their negativity. The ideology justifies the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, shifting the blame from the power elite to those they oppress. And many of us have internalized this pernicious message, which in times of difficulty leads to personal despair, passivity and disillusionment.”
    ― Chris Hedges

    • @ Countryboy: and add to this the Bible:

      “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” Matthew xxv. 40

      The quote from Hedges illustrates one of the most pernicious aspects of neoliberalism: blame the unfortunate for their misfortune. It’s a hard-eyed worldview that’s gradually worked its way into our society over the past 20 years or so. People born since the late 1980s have known no other societal narrative; it must be very difficult for them to go against this particular stream.

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