COMMENTARY: The Rich, the Poor, and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Movement

Aaron W. Hughey


Confucius observed that “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”

If you have been following the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, then you already know that concerns about the growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us are escalating.  

Scratch a little below the surface, and it becomes obvious that this movement is about a lot more than just economics or politics. 

It is really about who should have access to the American Dream.

Keep in mind that any discussion involving the “haves” and “have-nots” in this country should probably be prefaced with the awareness that the most of the world’s population considers even the poorest Americans to be fairly well-off. 

The standard of living we have enjoyed in the United States for generations is exceptional and unprecedented.

At the same time, not all Americans are Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. 

The idea that those who ascend to the highest rungs of the economic ladder do so “on their own” is a complete fabrication; i.e., a myth perpetuated by those wishing to absolve themselves of their inherent responsibility to give back to the society that made their success possible.

Is hard work essential to success? 

Of course it is. But those who mistakenly believe they “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” need to realize they were provided with boots, bootstraps, a place to stand and instructions. 

Gates and Buffet obviously worked hard, but their extraordinary accomplishments are also undeniably due to the tremendous opportunities afforded them by the country in which they live. 

The families and economic system into which they were born can never be marginalized or underestimated — heredity and capitalism afforded both of these men unprecedented opportunities.

So if you do find yourself “rich” at some point, try to appreciate the fact that you did not achieve this status in a vacuum. 

While individual effort and personal initiative no doubt contributed to your financial success, so did other factors over which you had absolutely no control. 

Anyone who manages to acquire a disproportionate share of the resources also inherits a disproportionate degree of responsibility for dealing with the immense economic challenges we are currently facing as a society.  

What you are required to give back should be based on what you have taken; everyone needs to pay their fair share.   

Finally — and not unrelated — we need to stop blaming the underprivileged for their plight in life. The vast majority of those who are barely getting by are not choosing their circumstances voluntarily, nor are they a bunch of “moochers” as I heard them characterized recently.

Some of the hardest working people I know live at or below the poverty line. This idea that it is somehow your fault if you are poor is cold-hearted to the point of being sadistic.

JFK once remarked, “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.”

We can do better.

Aaron W. Hughey

Professor, Counseling and Student Affairs

This commentary doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the Herald or the university.