Horatio Alger's 'Bootblacks' jumpstarted the rags to riches American myth.
Rags-to-riches stories have been with us in the United States since before we were a country. Immigrants by the millions came to our shores in search of a better life and wealth. Many of these stories were popularized in mid-19th century by Horatio Alger Jr.
, through his tales written for young boys about young boys going from rags to riches—which in reality turned out to be nothing but a myth
. His stories were a little creepy, with an older man always taking care of a young boy, but that is for another diary.
Horatio Alger Jr. does not have a corner on the market with perpetuating the myth of rags to riches. We see it in films like Ma and Pa Kettle, Rocky, and Trading Places. On television we see it on The Beverly Hillbillies, game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, talent shows like American Idol, and reality shows like Survivor. The theme of the movies and scripted television shows is that anyone with a little luck, or with a skill, can become rich. Game shows push the myth that you can play and win; however, they never show the winner having to sell the prizes to pay taxes on their winnings, or how people struggle dealing with sudden fame and fortune. Shows like American Idol portray how "easy" it is to become a star, but in reality very few fortunes are made in the music business, there are millions of amazing artists out there who play in bars every weekend with no shot at ever getting a huge recording contract.
Reality shows like Survivor actually exhibit the worst side of the chase for wealth—that it's okay to screw over your fellow man or woman to win a million dollars.
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Of course, popular culture isn't the only place where the rags-to-riches myth is pushed onto onto an unsuspecting public. Las Vegas, Indian casinos, Atlantic City—all of them do what they can to make you believe you will become rich. Just give them your money, play a hand of blackjack, sit down and plunk some tokens into a slot machine, play some poker, with skill and a little bit of luck you will walk out with money falling out of your pockets. Many states are in on pushing this myth as well. You are bombarded with chances to win big every time you walk into convenience store and see the state-run lottery displays. You have better odds of being struck by lightning than you do of winning big in the lottery. Many who play the lottery will be the first to complain that taxes are too high. What do they think the lottery is? It is nothing more than a voluntary tax on the people who can least afford it, the poor.
I remember when I first got out of the U.S. Army and my dad had me meet with an insurance salesman about a life insurance policy. The whole sales spiel at the time was that if I paid X amount of dollars each month, I'd be a millionaire by the time I hit 40. The allure of me being a millionaire by the time I was 40 was too much for my dad—he wanted me to put my money in this policy, money I needed for school. I did it for a while, but paying my rent in the present eventually won out over millions when I was 40. Even my dad was drawn in to the allure of millions, the man who did not trust the stock market wanted me to put my money into a something that invested in the stock market.
Even our retirement system is based on the myth of rags to riches. If you save enough, you will retire with millions in your 401(k) plan. But life events like illness, divorce, job loss, or something out of your control like a downturn in the stock market can wipe out your life's savings, leaving you with nothing.
The quest for wealth, the desire to go from rags to riches, has dominated American culture from before our nation was founded. This quest for ever more wealth gave us the robber barons during the Gilded Age. It has given us what we have today, wealth inequity on a scale that we've not seen in the United States since 1929, and we all know what happened then.
As a nation, we need to take the focus off of the rags-to-riches myth. Instead of chasing the dollar, we should focus on making sure that everyone has a place at the table, and everyone gets a share of the pie. There is no reason that a CEO should be making 350 times the average worker. Pay the CEO less, raise the wages of those actually doing the work. We not only need a raise to the minimum wage, we also need a maximum wage. We need to ensure that every American can have a comfortable retirement—at an age when a person can actually enjoy life after a lifetime of work.
The rags-to-riches mythology, this chase for ever-increasing wealth, is not healthy for our nation. It does more harm than good. It prevents out leadership from crafting legislation that helps the poor and middle class. It is why people vote against their best interest and will push for and defend tax cuts for the 1 percent. To paraphrase John Steinbeck, "...the (American) poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires."