Heads, the rich win; tails, the poor lose


T HE rich, to man­gle F. Scott Fitzger­ald slightly, they ra­tio nal­ize dif­fer­ently than you and me. Whether they suc­ceed or fail, they’ve al­ways got a pseudo-sci­en­tific ex­cuse. If they do well, it’s be­cause their habits are bet­ter than those of the rest of us pe­ons. If they do badly, it was their up­bring­ing, since wealthy par­ents too read­ily sub­sti­tute lu­cre for love.

Last month, per­sonal fi­nance and self-re­spon­si­bil­ity guru Dave Ram­sey posted a list on his web­site en­ti­tled, “20 Things the Rich Do Ev­ery Day,” orig­i­nally writ­ten by New Jersey ac­coun­tant and cer­ti­fied fi­nan­cial plan­ner Thomas C. Corley, who, ac­cord­ing to his web­site “stud­ied the daily ac­tiv­i­ties of 233 wealthy peo­ple and 128 peo­ple liv­ing in poverty.” The list, which quickly went vi­ral, was filled with the self-im­prove­ment tropes that could be called “Why the Rich De­serve Their Money.” Pros­per­ous peo­ple eat less junk food than poor peo­ple. They read more books. They watch less re­al­ity tele­vi­sion and make their chil­dren vol­un­teer more time to char­ity.

It should come as no sur­prise that the coun­try that brought you the myth of Ho­ra­tio Al­ger should love such bits of wealth­build­ing ad­vice. We have a his­tory af­ter all, prob­a­bly one go­ing back as far as Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Al­manack, which of­fered up such words of wis­dom as “a penny saved is a twopence dear,” now widely re­mem­bered as “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

Franklin, how­ever, lacked ac­cess to mod­ern mar­ket re­search tech­niques. As a re­sult, the mod­ern it­er­a­tion of this way of think­ing re­ally be­gins with the pub­li­ca­tion of The Mil­lion­aire Next Door in 1996, a book that posited that the wealthy might be our neigh­bors but they re­ally aren’t like us. They are thrifty, lux­u­ryeschew­ing self-made men; they drink Bud in­stead of mer­lot, and most cer­tainly do not give too much to their chil­dren.

Do they re­ally? Who knew? Au­thors Thomas Stan­ley and Wil­liam Danko based their find­ings on a self-se­lect­ing group of mil­lion­aires will­ing to an­swer a 249-ques­tion sur­vey in re­turn for $1, not ex­actly a rep­re­sen­ta­tive group. But no one cared. The suc­cess of the book (it spent more then two years on the New York Times best­seller list) spawned hosts of im­i­ta­tors rang­ing from The Top Ten Distinctions Be­tween Mil­lion­aires and the Mid­dle Class and To­day show guru Jean Chatzky’s The Dif­fer­ence, which stud­ied the fi­nan­cial habits of the wealthy to bet­ter ad­vise the rest of us. And now, cour­tesy of the In­ter­net, we get lists. On Ya­hoo, there’s the Daily Habits of Wealthy Peo­ple. Life­hack could sup­port a ver­ti­cal de­voted to the topic, with posts in­clud­ing 10 Habits of the Rich­est Peo­ple in the World, 7 Rea­sons Why You’re not a Mil­lion­aire and, my per­sonal fa­vorite, 11 Sleep Habits of Suc­cess­ful Peo­ple.

Even if you take th­ese lists at face value, all they are do­ing is con­fus­ing ac­cess with virtue. Take the pop­u­lar meme about how the poor don’t pre­pare healthy meals. There are solid rea­sons those lack­ing funds might pur­chase less-than-nu­tri­tious of­fer­ings, and lack of dis­ci­pline is only one item on the list.

First, lower-in­come peo­ple all too of­ten lack easy ac­cess to af­ford­able out­lets. Poverty struck Cam­den, New Jersey, al­ready deemed a “food desert” by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which saw its last su­per­mar­ket, a Pathmark, close its doors this past fall.

Or think about this: how many times have you pur­chased fresh fruit or veg­eta­bles, only to have them turn be­fore they can be con­sumed? That’s not a prob­lem with boxed mac­a­roni and cheese and that’s some­thing some­one re­liant on food stamps to get by needs to con­tem­plate when tossing food into the shop­ping cart.

No mat­ter. Sub­tlety is not re­quired on th­ese lists. The sub­text to all th­ese con­glom­er­a­tions of some­times-du­bi­ous sta­tis­tics is the same: the shift­less poor de­serve their fate. Never mind un­em­ploy­ment, and full-time jobs that don’t of­fer a liv­ing wage. Just eat an ap­ple a day and floss your damn teeth.

Let’s dis­cuss af­fluenza, which could be deemed what hap­pens when the poor lit­tle rich boy or girl syn­drome meets the DSM, or at least meets some­one who thinks such a con­di­tion is of­fi­cially rec­og­nized by the psy­chi­atric com­mu­nity.

—Cour­tesy Reuters

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