The Forbes 400

Forbes magazine published it’s list of the 400 richest people in America. There weren’t any surprises or significant changes in ranking from last year’s list. Most of the 400 richest Americans became richer last year, even those who no longer work at the jobs that made them rich, like number one, Bill Gates.

There is no doubt that Bill Gates is “self-made” as “Forbes” attributes his wealth, but his current increase in net worth has nothing to do with his ongoing hard work and creativity. His wealth increases mostly because he is wealthy and has money to invest. Not a day goes by where Bill and Melinda Gates weigh whether to pay the light bill or to buy their needed prescriptions. They have billions of dollars to put to work for them without making any sacrifices in their daily living. Gates and the country’s second wealthiest person, Warren Buffet, are generous. Between them they have given away $45.5 billion dollars to date. Gates is still worth $66 billion and Buffet, $46 billion. I’m not sure giving away money you can’t possibly use makes you, as “Forbes” contends, the nation’s “most generous.” Jesus used a different measure of generosity when he commended the widow who gave away her last coin. Most of us know people far more generous than any of the 400 most wealthy people. The really generous are people who share their homes, their food and their income with those who have less, even if it puts their own well-being at risk. Statistics show that the poor give a higher percentage of their income to charitable organizations than do the rich. Simply looking at the dollars given away is not a measure of generosity.

Yes, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet worked hard and were creative about how they attained their wealth. They are good examples. Hard work is important and is one of the components of success. It is, however, not the only thing that these wealthy Americans had going for them. Sometimes they happened to be in the right place at the right time. They had someone who gave them a chance when there was no obvious reason to do so. They had others who worked hard for them to make their businesses profitable.

Forbes insists that the American Dream is alive and well because some of the newest members of the richest 400 Americans and some of the old members are, as they claim,  are “self-made.” Quite a few of the very wealthy in this country, however, like the Koch brothers, WalMart’s Walton family, the Mars candy bar heirs, all inherited their wealth. “Forbes” does not list inheritance as a source of wealth.

The editors at “Forbes” point to the ripple effect of these people’s wealth: “ Consider Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the founders of restaurant chain Panda Express, who debut with a combined net worth of $2 billion. Their restaurants employ approximately 21,000 people. The gas and convenience stores owned by Tom and Judy Love, also new entrants, employ another 10,000.” There is no mention of how many of these jobs are part time, how many of the restaurant workers earn less than the minimum wage and are expected to make up the difference on tips, or if these jobs include health insurance or a retirement plan. How many of these 31,000 workers employed by these new members of the 400 wealthiest Americans list will earn enough to owe and pay income taxes? How many will qualify for an Earned Income Credit? Do any of them qualify for food stamps or Medicaid? Maybe a couple of them will be able to climb from their cashier or waitressing job to attain the American Dream as “Forbes” proposes. Chances are, however, that the majority of them will not.

Economists are predicting that the current generation of Americans will be the first one in recent history who will have a harder time getting by than their parents. The average worker in this country is working harder, more efficiently and for more hours a year. They are in spite of their increased productivity, earning less. According to the Census Bureau the median income fell by 1.5 percent in 2011. Three out of five new jobs were low paying jobs requiring low skill levels. These are not the kind of jobs that helps workers climb the ladder of success, but rather they are jobs which require making difficult decisions about which bills to pay first.

It is easy to characterize the poor as lazy and looking for a handout. It is tempting to see those who never get ahead as unlike ourselves. We are quick to point out the examples of those we know who refuse to work or waste their money. Such a view reassures us that we will never find ourselves in the same uncomfortable situation. We don’t want to think about others who follow all the rules, work hard, save what they can, get an education and still struggle. We idealize the rich as somehow worthy of their status. We refrain from talking about exploitation and fairness and the responsibility that comes with doing well.

Our country will not be made stronger by blaming the poor, idolizing the rich or pretending everyone as an equal opportunity. Teddy Roosevelt said it best, “This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains