Inequality. It’s a loaded word, isn’t it? Some people will argue that it is always the fault of the people who are at the bottom of the heap, that they simply are not working hard enough, that if they just weren’t lazy, they could achieve the same success that the people at the top are achieving. In making these arguments, the idea that certain groups are inherently lazier and others are inherently harder workers is perpetuated- how else could the theory of hard work overcoming all explain the stories of who makes it and who doesn’t? How else could they explain the fact that success is largely the domain of the white straight men without disabilities? So they state that inequality is an acceptable cost of the trickle-down economy (which doesn’t actually work, since simply handing rich people more money doesn’t change the margins where they make their hiring decisions) and that if the poor just worked hard enough, they wouldn’t be poor.
Others will note that there is insufficient education for many who are at a disadvantage, that social mobility is not nearly as extant as the hard work advocates claim, and that there are huge amounts of disinformation on the subject wherever one looks. As Americans, we generally hold that the proper distribution is more equal than what we think it is, but what we think it is turns out to be yet closer to equal than reality.
For people who are at a disadvantage, we see that discrimination often is part of what’s going on, and we see stories that show hard work to be insufficient. We hear about the single mother working multiple full time jobs who still needs food stamps (or the alternately named equivalent, as many states changed the name to avoid the stigma associated with food stamps.) Occasionally, we hear about lower pay for people of color or firings upon hearing that a person is not straight.
What we hear less about is people with disabilities. Send the same twelve men to repair shops to get the same thirty-six repair shops. Half use wheelchairs; half don’t. The result? Wheelchair users were charged approximately thirty percent more, and a follow up suggested that it was because shop owners expect wheelchair users to do less shopping around because of their mobility impairments. Every car repair costing 30% more than it should adds up over the course of a lifetime. Add in the fact that proving discrimination in the workforce is nearly impossible, and we find that people with disabilities have a tougher time than most staying out of poverty, even working just as hard.
The numbers show that women, people of color, the elderly, and people with disabilities are over-represented in the “people living in poverty” demographic and under-represented in the “highly successful” demographic, and part of the inequality seems to come from access: getting charged more, getting offered fewer jobs, getting offered lower-paying jobs, not being able to afford the suits that would force employers and the world to stop taking advantage of populations they (correctly) assume to have trouble fighting back. Poor people stay poor because they are vulnerable to being hit again once they are down, not because they are less willing to work hard.