As we begin to consider and heal our own relationship with money, we can’t overlook the values and ideology that permeate the very foundation of American culture. The Puritans had a profound influence on our deep-seated beliefs about money. Their doctrine was that a strict moral code, hard work, and “an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work,” would assure one of financial well-being.
However, as we know, that maxim is not always true, and even brings a harmful attitude about current realities. For instance, the stereotype persists that hunger and poverty are due to people being unable or unwilling to work hard. But Deborah Weinstein of The Children’s Defense Fund notes that from 1995 to 2000, while the number of unemployed parents dropped, the proportion of children in poverty living with at least one working adult more than doubled. She notes that the changing face of poverty in this country is that “the huge majority of parents work, but their earnings alone are not enough to lift themselves out of poverty.”
The truth is, that many of the poor in our country are part of the growing number of “working poor.” They work very hard, long hours, often at multiple jobs, and still don’t have enough money to feed their families.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004, (the most recent data I could find), 17.6 million people lived in a working-poor household. This translates into 8.2% of all American families. This means they are living below the poverty level even though there was a family member that worked.
If how hard a person works was really a determining factor of whether a person would be rich or poor, many of the rich people in this country would suddenly find themselves destitute. And many of those who are currently homeless and hungry would be basking in the glory of their new-found wealth.
The influence of the Puritan work ethic, which tells us that all it takes to succeed is hard work and stoic denial of fleshly pleasures, cannot be underestimated. Even if your family heritage is not from the Puritan founders of this country, their beliefs are inextricably woven into the very fabric of the American dream. To what extent might you find yourself affected by them?
Tomorrow, we’ll take look at what harm comes from holding this assumption in our relationship with money, as well as an offshoot idea that goes hand in hand with the Puritan money ethic and creates even more conflict in our relationship with abundance.
* Note: Although I was unable to track down the precise year that Dr. King said this, to compare these numbers to today’s costs, here are some interesting facts, taken from reports from the federal welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and The Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, as of September 12, 2007:
- Iraqi Insurgents Killed, Roughly Estimated – 55,000
- Cost of deploying one U.S. soldier for one year in Iraq – $390,000
- U.S. Daily Spending in Iraq – over $200 million, in 2007
- In 1993, the average monthly welfare check per family was $373.