Friday, June 15, 2007

The challenge of wealth

When people ask me what I do for a living, I often respond with, "Oh, I'm a professional beggar."

My headstone should read something like, "Behold, the beggar died!"

It is true. I spend a fair, and increasing, amount of my time asking people for money. With some of my friends it's become a real joke.

A few years ago, I attended a Dallas Mavericks' basketball game with my good friend, Dan Hopkins. At halftime they blindfolded some poor guy, put him down on his hands and knees and the crowd yelled "hot" or "cold" depending on how close he was to another person wearing a sandwich board with "$500" printed on both sides. If the guy reached the "target" before the music stopped, he won the money.

Dan turned to me after the guy won the money and asked, "Would you agree to do that?"

I replied, "Shoot, Dan, that's what I do for a living!"

He roared and has never let me forget it.

Across the years I have developed an authentic respect for wealthy people, and not just because of our need for their financial support.

The very rich face challenges that most of us never really think about, let alone come to understand.

There is a special sort of burden attached to being wealthy.

In fact, I've noticed across the years that the very rich often share more in common with the very poor than they do with the middle class.

In some ways, in the case of the very rich and the very poor the "sky is the limit" as we say. The wealthy can do just about whatever they decide to do, though the deciding is the challenge. While the very poor, though certainly in no position to do whatever they desire, can realize great gains and receive real encouragement even in small steps because their circumstances are so open to improvement, but again, focus is a lively issue.

The mega-rich worry about the next generation and the transfer of wealth and responsibility and the impact of all of that on children and heirs. The ultra-poor worry about their children, as well, but for much different reasons. Still, generational wealth and poverty share many of the same emotional dynamics.

Many people of wealth and poverty struggle spiritually or theologically with what their personal economic position in life means about their own faith journey, purpose and significance. In many cases both rich and poor are more attuned to this thought process than many of us in the middle range.

I've watched very wealthy people relate intimately and authentically, displaying great openness to what can be learned from the very poor. And, I must say, in a way that is often lost on many middle class folks who often come to "fix" things and to offer instructions about how things ought to be conducted. The very wealthy I've known seldom seem so conditional in their commitments to the poor, and the poor respond with friendship and appreciation that can be amazing.

Stereotypes are never very useful. And, I understand that everyone is different. But, I've seen and felt what I am describing here. I need to think more about it.

For now, let me simply say that it is intriguing to watch.

More to follow.


DJG said...

Very interesting perspective. I need to think about that some more too.

Justin said...

I wonder if this is because being in the middle puts you in the position to be able to criticize both, thereby making yourself feel the most holy.

Most very wealthy people I know (from church) are constantly looking for ways to share what they have with others... whether it be by giving away money to organizations, spending time with those in need, or sharing their home and stuff with others. Most poor people act in similar ways because they don't have a lifestyle they feel they have to maintain to be accepted. Living more day to day makes you prone to share because you wish that others would share with you.

But being in the middle, there is that constant pressure to keep up with the joneses... and do it in irresponsible ways. You have the temptation to try and have the things that your rich friends have, and you have the temptation to put down those whose sitaution is less well off than yours.

Interesting post Larry. Definitely in my top five of introspective ones here. Thanks for what you do!

SeriousSummer said...

I think there a common perspective shared between the very high income and very low income people in the United States and that it's based on an inherent freedom in those positions.

If you have enough money, then most things are forgiven you, you have many options as to what you want to do and the world is open for you.

If you are poor enough, then "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose". You don't have to be afraid of losing what you have, you have nothing to protect, in a way, every possibility looks good to you--at least that's the way it effects some low income people.

It's those of us in the middle income (or upper or lower income that retain a middle income mindset) and who are afraid of losing our position that are always afraid. We are, most of us, two paychecks away from the street, many of us working in positions we could lose at any time, without resources sufficient to withstand a significant set back.

Our economic and social structure is fiercely competitive and our safety net weak. If you don't get up each morning prepared to compete in the "war of all against all" then you risk being one of its victims.

And it gets worse for most of us as we get older. Any change is a threat. When we were young, and had little to lose, we had freedom of action. If we failed, then we had the time and confidence to start again.

As we get older, the world contracts about us and anything new or different (hippies, Blacks, computers, immigrants, cell phones, gays, etc.) frightens us.

Once in awhile, people reach a point in old age where they once again feel free. Their responsibilities have been fulfilled. Fear of loss of position, loss of face, loss of money dwindles to nothing in the face of their brief time left on earth.

Someday, I hope to become one of those feerless old people.

chris said...

I think more teaching should be done on how NOT to be poor. There is no reason a healthy young person of average intelligence, able to work should end up poor. You do not have to be a rocket scientist either. The key is regular savings, no matter how small, regular investing and regular giving. Check out compound interest. If you start out investing just a few dollars each month one can retire a millionaire. There is no big secret about this. I think the best gift a wealthy person can give to a poor person is to teach them how to fish.

Larry James said...

chris, I agree. And, we are doing some of this in our WorkPaths program and in our work with foster youth who age out of care. We hope to begin offering Individual Development Accounts, as well. The support and friendship of older adults and of caring folk is key to success here. said...

Poor and the middle class share as I put it similar mindsets. I believe it's there relationship with money that separates them from the wealthy.
Most poor and middle class people believe that "It's better to have no or little money and be spiritual" they have the (either-OR )thinking. Wealth and successful people think (Both) having there cake and eating it too.

You must know that there is no such thing as the middle class. This term is what the wealthy uses to describe poor people.

Poor or middle class are the same because they share the same mind set. What is known as the middle income mindset. They say things like "It's better to give than to receive" But what they do not know is for every giver there is a receiver and for every receiver there is a person giving. Poor and Middle class people are very poor receivers.

Wealthy people understand that discipline is the foundation of wealth. Weather it be financial wealth, spiritual wealth known as slavation, physical wealth known as health, Family wealth known as having a good relationship with your family. They strive to archive wealth in all sectors in there lives.