“Be industrious and frugal, and you will be rich.” — Benjamin Franklin
“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” — Puff Daddy
For over two centuries, Benjamin Franklin’s image has been a symbol of success and wealth. His life trajectory, often referred to as “from rags to riches,” has inspired ideals that have become cornerstones of the American culture.
The “self-made man” and the “American Dream”
At age twelve, Benjamin became an apprentice of his older brother, James. After five years learning the trade of printing, Benjamin fled to Philadelphia, breaching the terms of his apprenticeship contract — an act, one could argue, akin to defaulting on a student loan.
Through hard work, or, as he would put it, industriousness, Benjamin Franklin became a successful printer, writer and politician. His work as one of the framers of the Constitution and as a diplomat during the Independence War has helped to shape the core values of this nation.
Would Benjamin Franklin have achieved any of those accomplishments if he had not learned a trade? Would he have had the same opportunities if he was black, indigenous or a woman?
Proper tools and social climate matter. Despite our ability to reimagine our origins, we cannot change them. No human being is self-made. Our existence, survival and growth depend on others. Hard work without opportunity, without proper tools or in an inhospitable social climate, may still be edifying and fulfilling, but is unlikely to allow one to achieve professional recognition and wealth.
How to escape poverty through industriousness?
No living being on earth is able to grow without resources that exceed their survival needs. Nonetheless, today more than 50% of Americans live pay-check-to-paycheck. According to MIT Living Wage Calculator, a single person without children must make, on average, US$15.16/hour, or US$31,528.22 a year, to afford to live in the US. Even if one earns US$10/hour, far above the current federal minimum wage, one needs to work roughly 60 hours a week to survive in the current economy. This means that those with little resources working unskilled-low-wage jobs have little or no time left to dedicate to self-improvement.
What about Federal help?
The U.S. Federal Poverty Line (except for Alaska and Hawaii) establishes that a single person without children is only eligible for certain federal programs if they make less than $12,880.00/year. Those who earn minimum wage and work 60 hours a week in two jobs without overtime make nearly nine thousand dollars less than the average living wage in the US, yet they are ineligible for any kind of government assistance.
If you find these facts bleak, please know that change is possible. It is up to each of us to look after those who are most vulnerable in our communities. It is up to us to mobilize our representatives to enact changes that may reward hard work with opportunities. It is up to us to protect the dream and ideals upon which this country was found.