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We Need New Definitions of Rich and Poor

May 4, 2009

"Contentment makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor."
- Benjamin Franklin

Much has been written about the Greatest Generation, and with good reason. They grew up during the harsh years of the Great Depression; then, just as they were reaching adulthood, they were asked to save the world from tyranny - which they did, even though many of them were still teenagers.

Most of them were poor. The majority of the country was poor. Truly poor. As in "your mother and I don't know where your next meal is coming from" poor. The kind of poor portrayed in the Depression-era movie "Cinderella Man." The main character is a professional boxer who, even though he has to fight that night, gives up his dinner so that his children can eat. That kind of poor. In another scene, the same character is ashamed that he has to go and file for what they used to call "relief." And when he earns some money, he goes and pays it back!

We've all heard about the soup lines of the 1930s. Didn't you always think that those soup kitchens were simply handing out free soup? I did, until I read more about it. Turns out that most of them required the man of the family to go out back and chop firewood for a couple of hours in order to earn a bowl of soup for himself and his family. And he was glad to do it. In fact, he would gladly have accepted that as a fulltime job if someone had offered it to him - because 25 percent of the population was unemployed.

And then there were the "rich." The rich were demonized by FDR and the Democrats who figured out that they could win elections through the use of a little class envy. At that time, many of the rich had inherited their wealth (like Roosevelt). They were the "idle rich" and were easy targets in a time of great need.

Americans need a whole new definition of "rich" and of "poor" for the 21st Century.

Today, most "poor" Americans drive cars, have a place to live and own at least one television set. We provide them with unemployment insurance, ADC, free food, public housing and Medicaid. Today's poor have so many safety nets many don't worry about falling into poverty, they jump. Our government replaced the father in the home, especially among black families, and now, sadly, three quarters of their children are born out of wedlock. That's how mamma did it. Why not? It is an endless cycle of dependence, and now shockingly, fewer black children are raised in marriage-based, two-parent families than during the shameful years of American slavery.

It took the geniuses in Washington and in most state capitals three decades to figure out that food stamps can be used as an alternate form of currency to buy drugs and other illicit merchandise. Today, in order to avoid that problem, and to spare the poor the shame of actually having to fork over food stamps in the grocery line, we now give them a debit card and tell them to buy whatever they need. Have you ever watched someone in front of you in line buy their food with a debit card and their liquor and cigarettes with their cash? That's your tax dollars at work.

By contrast, today's "rich" are a far cry from the martini-sipping, ascot-wearing, Thurston Howell III types portrayed for so long in popular myth. The people being targeted for scorn, derision and hyper-taxation are self-made millionaires who started with nothing, built a small business into a moderate-to-large business and created a lot of jobs along the way. Unlike their lessers - who choose to whine about how everyone else has won life's lottery and who can't produce a job for themselves, let alone anyone else - the rich have availed themselves of the boundless opportunity that is America. They are not the idle rich. They are the entrepreneurs who risked everything they had on their dream and worked 70 hours a week to bring it to fruition.

We need a new definition of rich and poor in this country, because in 2009, our "poor" are among the richest non-producers in the world; and our "rich" are the most demonized producers on the planet.

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Copyright ©2009 Doug Patton

Doug Patton describes himself as a recovering political speechwriter who agrees with himself more often than not. His weekly columns are syndicated by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Readers are encouraged to email him at dpatton@cagle.comand/or to follow him on Twitter at @Doug_Patton.