The front of the line

I have never had a first class ticket on an airplane. I’m not a member of the elite flying club that has their own lounge in the airport. I’ve never had a valet park my car nor can I afford a luxury box seat at a ball game.

Once in my life I was a workshop presenter along with a group of high priced lawyers. They were nice people, but for most of their lives they traveled in a different lane from me. It was not unusual for the group of us to pull rank and pass to the front of the line at restaurants, in tourist venues and registration lines. Perhaps because this was a one-time experience for me, I found passing people patiently waiting their turn extremely uncomfortable. It didn’t bother my wealthy lawyer friends in the least. They felt they had earned a “first in line” status. I’m not sure how they had earned it. I think it unlikely that they actually worked harder than most of the people in the line, but their career choices and their opportunities had led them to accumulate higher wealth than many. My fellow presenters, like most people who have achieved status, wealth and power, felt entitled to the front of the line, a bigger portion of the pie, a place in the fast lane.

We hear a lot about “entitlements.” The people accused of feeling like they are entitiled to these political hot potatoes, are, however, not wealthy lawyers, financial advisors, hedge fund managers, or corporate executive officers. Those who are accused of benefiting from entitlements provided by our political system are the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the sick and children. The picture painted of the recipients of these programs is one of a group of people who are lazy, stupid, greedy, and undeserving; people who are looking to live off the hard work of others. We are encouraged to resent those beneath us on the economic ladder who haven’t earned the help they are given.

The rich and powerful are not all greedy and self serving and being poor doesn’t guarantee honesty. Studies again and again, however, show that the poor are more generous with what they have than are the priviledged. The poor, in general, give away a higher percntage of what they have than do the rich. People driving BMWs are more likely to ignore pedestrians in the crosswalk and to feel like the rules do not apply to them.

John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”  We all think that someday we will be ushered to the head of the line.  We really want to believe that the people responsible for our not getting there are those behind us in line, not those pulling up to the front in a BMW. We would rather fantasize about someday being one of the privileged few than recognize that we really are part of the nation’s struggling masses.

So what does it mean to feel entitled? Is it an entitlement to expect not to have to live in poverty after a lifetime of working hard and paying your Social Security taxes? Is it an entitlement to expect that you should have enough to eat no matter how little you get paid for your work? Is it a sense of entitlement to expect to be able to go to the doctor when you are sick without putting your family in inescapable debt? Have we been tricked by those who decided to label as “entitlements” those programs which care for the poor, children, the elderly, unemployed and disabled? Have we bought the idea that it is the poor who are keeping us in our place, not those who control the largest part of the wealth of our society and the power that goes with it?

If those of us at the middle of the line are kept busy trying to defend our position from those behind us, we are less likely to notice those who have used wealth and power to by-pass the line altogether.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains