The Working Rich
The wealthiest Americans work for their money, and the poor could learn from them.


Kevin D. Williamson

There is a reason that money earned from work accounts for a relatively large share of the holdings of rich Americans: They work more — a lot more. While Census Bureau data document a very large gap in the prevalence of college degrees among the top 20 percent vs. the bottom 20 percent, there is an even larger and more significant gap — 60 percentage points — between full-time employment for householders in the top income group vs. the bottom income group. There is, to be sure, such a thing as the working poor, but the most salient characteristic of poor households is the lack of full-time workers in them. For the bottom income group, there is an average of 0.42 earners per household, with 68.2 percent of householders not working at all, as opposed to 1.97 earners per household and only 13.3 percent not working for the highest income group. The answer to poverty turns out to be “get a job,” after all — though that should be an aspiration toward which we assist the poor rather than a contemptuous dismissal of their needs.

Family matters. Not surprisingly, 78.4 percent of those highest-income families were married couples, as opposed to 17 percent for the lowest-income group. What this all means in brief is that the highest-income families are composed almost exclusively of two-earner households, the overwhelming majority of them married couples. Those who are inclined to see public policy mainly through green eyeshades may sniff at the social conservatives and their quaint worries about marriage, but there is a very strong connection between how we conduct our family lives and our economic outcomes — the very word “economy” derives from the Greek term for household administration, οἰκονομία. All the best people may roll their eyes at “tiger mom” Amy Chua’s admiration for Asian-American, Nigerian-American, and Mormon domestic culture, but it is difficult to dismiss the results.

This is not an invitation to moral crowing about the virtues of the rich — okay, maybe it is. The country would in fact be far better off if more people lived the way the top 20 percent do: married, working their butts off, saving and investing their money, and living within their means. (In his research for The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley found that the most popular make of automobile among the wealthy was not Ferrari or Mercedes but Ford, and that the most common Ford model owned by a millionaire was the F-150 pickup truck.)

But this is not just an invitation to moral crowing about the virtues of the rich. If one assumes that a very large portion of the poor would ceteris paribus prefer to be better off, then our analysis of the problem must begin by acknowledging that while there is significant inequality when it comes to income, the more radical and significant instance of inequality is in the opportunity to earn any income in the first place. Blaming the rich for the predicament of the poor is insupportable in the face of the data: If the Waltons dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow, that would make no difference at all to the 68.2 percent of poor householders who have no work but cannot afford to be unemployed. It would simply create more unemployment, assuming the Waltons do not build their own houses and sew their own clothes.

While it would be uncharitable to begrudge the poor the money that is spent on them by the welfare state, especially considering that we spend a great deal more subsidizing the middle class, the fact is that as a practical matter we are running out of ways to spend money on the needy: We already pay for education, food, housing, job training, health care, heating, etc. There are a number of charitable organizations that exist for the sole purpose of providing poor people with appropriate clothes to wear to job interviews. But something is missing — that priceless thing that makes an immigrant into a valedictorian or a successful publican, that inspires people to make the most out of the opportunities afforded by a society that is, for all of its present difficulties, stuffed with them. It isn’t want of material aspiration: There’s a reason that Kanye West makes money singing about his money (“new watch alert” — seriously, that’s a lyric — fortunately, Hublot is easy to rhyme) and why they sell the Robb Report at Walmart. And it’s not just luxury goods: People want better lives — healthier, more productive, and more secure. How to get them there? Mitt Romney might have some ideas about that, but Americans got a good hard look at him in 2012 and said no.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.