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The Horatio Alger Myth

by Adam Price |
February 1, 2004
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Over one hundred years ago, Horatio Alger, Jr. wrote hundreds of novels and short stories about poor young men who achieved a better life through hard work, luck and the help of a wealthy individual. His writings were so popular that the term ‘Horatio Alger story’ came to describe the idea that anyone could succeed in America. This idea is still used by conservatives who defend the gap between rich and poor by saying that there are opportunities for the poor to succeed if they work hard; and that those who don’t succeed remain poor because of their own faults.

In the years after World War II, many poor and working class Americans did achieve a better way of life, buying a house and sending their children to college. While they did work hard like the heroes of Horatio Alger’s stories, their success had less to do with luck and a wealthy patron, and more to do with the strength of unions who forced businesses to pay a living wage and the expansion of public colleges and universities - funded in part by taxes on the rich.

Even then, it was only a minority who were able to succeed. A 1978 study found that 23% of fathers with little education and working in low-paying occupations had sons who became educated and went on to high-paying work. This minority of the successful poor almost certainly had very few African Americans and Chicanos, and women were not even included in the study.

Today, not only is the gap between the rich and the poor growing, but the opportunities that did exist are shrinking dramatically. An updated version of the 1978 study found that today, only 10% of less educated poor fathers have very successful sons, or less that half the rate of only 25 years ago. This is no surprise, given the attacks on unions, cuts in funding for education and tax cuts for the wealthy.

We need unions that will take on the corporations and fight for better wages and benefits. We need to fight to protect public education and other public services, and to stop the attempts to privatize Medicare, social security and other government programs. We need to fight for universal health insurance and jobs or income for all families. And we definitely need to roll back the dividend tax cut and the cut in estate taxes, and raise taxes on the rich.

But achieving these reforms is not enough. Working people would be better off with universal health insurance, access to college education and a living wage. But as long as we live under capitalism, the rich will use their control of the government and corporations to roll back these gains whenever they have the opportunity. That is why working people need political and economic power - socialism - to protect their livelihood, health and education.