In Washington and on the campaign trail, Grover Norquist and the Americans For Tax Reform support a flat tax rate on the grounds that equal work should earn equal reward. Few would disagree that Americans who work hard deserve to be rewarded. But for those hard-lining against tax hikes, the meaning of hard work is lacking some perspective.
This perspective can be found in the stories of exceptional Americans whose hard work isn’t just measured by their economic success: the student who takes on two jobs to pay her way through college, or the small-business owner who works around the clock to support her family.
But it can also be found in the stories of how comfortably middle-class families got to where they are. “The Greatest Generation” is a phrase coined by television journalist Tom Brokaw to describe Americans who grew up during the Great Depression. These are my grandparents and their peers, who were motivated enough to make it in America, and who are are humble about their success and generous with what they’ve earned. Their generation is full of Horatio Algers — small-town Americans who worked their way from incredible poverty to middle-class security.
My grandfather grew up in a South Dakota farming town in the midst of the Dust Bowl days of the Depression. He used to deliver newspapers for less than a buck a week. Eventually, through lots of work, a few big failures and a little help from the G.I. Bill, he carved out incredible success for himself in the media world.
Not many paper boys are growing up to be CEOs these days.
It seems that there will be no Horatio Alger stories for our generation. More and more of today’s top achievers are backed by parents or grandparents who worked to give their families every possible advantage. Many of us — myself included — are starting on their shoulders, getting a big boost up the ladder of American achievement.
And maybe that’s fine. But let’s at least give credit to those who gave us a leg up.
The Horatio Algers of the world rightfully derived a sense of pride from their hard work. This pride is still strong among those at the top of the ladder today, though it’s becoming less righteous, and more self-righteous. Most successful Americans of our generation didn’t make it from the corner store to the corner office all on their own. Most are successful because of situation and circumstance — because of families who could support them and open doors to education and social mobility.
College enrollment numbers are now at an all-time high, though the costs of higher education are outpacing ability to pay them on a middle-class income. Opportunities for the average American to succeed are fewer and farther between, and in current political rhetoric, hard work only seems to count if it earns a fortune.
I’m lucky. Thanks to my grandparents and my parents, I’ve had every opportunity laid out before me. So have many of my peers.
The question is, what are we going to do with these opportunities? Will we continue to skim the cream off the top of the American economy, while millions are unemployed and Warren Buffett’s secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does?
Instead, I’ll take a slice of humble pie: from my grandpa’s hometown diner in Eureka, S.D., or Buffett’s favorite local dive in Omaha, N.E. I was raised to appreciate what I have, to value what I earn and to recognize that I’ve benefited from the hard work and generosity of those who came before me. I was raised to understand the difference between a privilege and a right, and to believe that money and education are not the only indicators of success.
I’ve been given the opportunity to work toward a Cornell education, graduate debt-free and take a job out of college that will build my career path, regardless of how much it pays. That makes me lucky. It doesn’t entitle me to claim that people who aren’t so lucky are just lazy.
Dani Neuharth-Keusch is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and Associate Editor of The Sun. She may be reached at email@example.com. Collapse the Box appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.