- Horatio Alger myth
Horatio Alger (
13 January 1832- 18 July 1899) was an American author of young boys’ stories. Alger wrote over 100 books for young working classmales, beginning with "Ragged Dick," which was published in 1867. The Horatio Alger myth developed out of the hundreds of stories Alger wrote during the 1800s. His books have been described as rags to richesstories. “By leading exemplary lives, struggling valiantly against povertyand adversity,” Alger’s protagonists gain both wealth and honor, ultimately realizing the American Dream. [ [http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0803314.html "Alger, Horatio"] The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2007. Columbia University Press. 13 Apr 2008] The characters in his formulaic stories improved their social position because of auspicious accidents as opposed to hard work and denial. [ [http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4935/ Gimme A Break! Mark Twain Lampoons the Horatio Alger Myth] . History Matters: the U.S. Survey Course on the Web. 2005. American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY) and the Center for History and New Media (George Mason University). 14 Apr 2008]
The rags to riches theme which has been associated with Alger’s stories is somewhat misleading, as his heroes rarely become extremely wealthy. His characters usually hold “low-level jobs in companies, often attaining personal stability but not
wealthor prominent position.” [Horatio Alger, Jr. [http://wikipedia.org/ Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia] . 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Apr 2008.] Some of Alger’s novels assert that material wealth is insignificant unless it is paired with middle-class respectability and a solid reputation. For Alger’s characters, wealth was the product of a meritocracy, and the direct consequence of “honesty, thrift, self-reliance, industry, a cheerful whistle and an open manly face.” Ironically, in some of Alger’s works there is an implied belief in hereditary determinism, explicitly contrasting achievement based on merit. [Weiss, Richard. "The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale". New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, 1969.]
Criticism and Analysis
Scholars have conflicting views over the validity of the Horatio Alger myth, although there is an overwhelming notion that it is indeed, and appropriately titled, a myth.
However, American economist and political writer Thomas Sowell (born June 30, 1930) alleged that the Horatio Alger myth is more truth than fable. Sowell notes that incomes in the top income brackets have risen relatively, as well as absolutely, in relation to the bottom income brackets in the United States. Millions of people move from one income bracket to another – a phenomenon known as economic mobility. Taxpayers with incomes in the bottom 20% in 1996 had a 91% increase in incomes by 2005, just 9 years later. All the while, taxpayers in the top one-hundredth of one percent, the economic elite, had their incomes cut by 26% from 1996 to 2005. Sowell’s arguments based on statistics from the
Treasury Departmentreports and the U.S. Census Bureautell a story that contradicts the “political and media story” that the rich are becoming richer and the poor are only becoming poorer. The divergence from such a concept is confirmed by a the University of MichiganPanel Survey on Income Dynamics which showed that among people who were in the bottom 20% income bracket in 1975, just 5% were still in that category in 1991. Almost six times as many of them were in the top 20% in 1991. Intellectuals as cultural, social, or political elite often discount income mobility as a Horatio Alger myth. However, “among people who have not yet abandoned facts for rhetoric, it is worth stopping to consider whether they are being played for fools by politicians and much of the media.” [Sowell, Thomas. [http://www.townhall.com/Columnists/ThomasSowell/2008/01/23/dangerous_demagoguery_part_ii?page=full&comments=true Dangerous Demagoguery: Part II] . [http://townhall.com/ Townhall.com] . 23 Jan 2008. 14 Apr 2008.]
During the 1930s and 1940s, Alger’s works were virtually out of print and many commentators seemed to have regarded Alger as a
propagandist, saying “the author who celebrated capitalist markets and insisted that in the United States, any poor boy with patience and an unwavering commitment to hard work can become a dazzling success.” [Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. "The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr". Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.] While those moving between income brackets and improving their socio-economic status may not be experiencing dazzling success, there is some evidence that the United States is in fact a land of opportunity, highlighted by, “the potential greatness of the common man, rugged individualism, [and] economic triumph.” [Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. "The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr". Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.]
Other statistics and intellectuals make a strong case against the Horatio Alger myth, providing evidence of its fallacy.
There are certainly class and wage disparities around the world: for example British CEOs make 24 times as much as their average workers; German CEOs only make 15 times more than their employees; Swedish CEOs get 13 times as much. However, the gap in the U.S. is considerably greater. The ratio of CEO to average worker pay was steady until 1979 at 35 times more than an average worker. In 2003, CEOs earned 143 times more than their workers and in 2005, CEOs made 262 times the amount of the average employee.
Academy Award winning American filmmaker, author, and liberal political commentator
Michael Mooreis vocal about his opposition to the Horatio Alger myth. In 2003, Moore remarked, “So, here's my question: after fleecing the American public and destroying the American dream for most working people, how is it that, instead of being drawn and quartered and hung at dawn at the city gates, the rich got a big wet kiss from Congress in the form of a record tax break, and no one says a word? How can that be? I think it's because we're still addicted to the Horatio Alger fantasy drug. Despite all the damage and all the evidence to the contrary, the average American still wants to hang on to this belief that maybe, just maybe, he or she (mostly he) just might make it big after all.” [Moore, Michael. [http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=4317 Face It, You'll Never Be Rich] . [http://www.guardian.co.uk/ The Guardian] . 09 Oct 2003. 15 Apr 2008.]
Moore claims that during the past 20 years, corporate powerhouses such as
Disney, Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, Dow Chemical, JPMorgan Chaseand Wal-Marthave been terminating life insurance policies on their low- and mid-level employees, in turn benefiting directly from lower expenditures. [Moore, Michael. [http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=4317 Face It, You'll Never Be Rich] . [http://www.guardian.co.uk/ The Guardian] . 09 Oct 2003. 15 Apr 2008.]
Max B. Sawicky, an economist at the
Economic Policy Institutewho has worked in the Office of State and Local Finance of the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, also refutes the Horatio Alger myth. In a column on the five leading concerns for populist economics, Sawicky wrote, “trade policy alone is woefully inadequate to significantly lightening the burdens of the working class… [Populism’s] point of departure is the domination of monied elites who jury-rigcommerce and call it free enterprise, who marginalize dissent and call it democracy. It rejects the Horatio Alger myth, with its false promise that if you study, work hard, and play by the rules, economic security will be yours.” [Sawicky, Max. [http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2006/12/11/the_five_boxes_of_populist_eco/ The Five Boxes of Populist Economics] . Talking Points Memo - The Coffee House. 11 Dec 2006. 16 Apr 2008.]
Harlon L. Dalton, Professor of Law at
Yale University, not only objects to the Horatio Alger myth, but also maintains that it is socially destructive. Dalton explains that the Horatio Alger myth conveys three basic messages, “(1) each of us is judged solely on her or his own merits; (2) we each have a fair opportunity to develop those merits; and (3) Each of them is, to be charitable, problematic. The first message is a variant on the rugged individualism ethos…In this form, the Horatio Alger myth suggests that success in life has nothing to do with pedigree, race, class background, gender, national origin, sexual orientation—in short, with anything beyond our individual control. Those variables may exist, but they play no appreciable role in how our actions are appraised." [Dalton, Harlon L. [http://18.104.22.168/search?q=cache:KkI2Lk4ho7oJ:jonsenglishsite.info/Class%2520Docs%25205/3_DALTON.doc+%22alger+myth%22+favor&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us Horatio Alger] . "Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites". 1995. 16 Apr 2008.]
Dalton also believes that the deep appeal of the Horatio Alger myth is that it allows and even pulls people in the direction they want to go. Psychologically, the Horatio Alger myth opens many doors. When the odds are stacked against you, one often has to convince himself that “there is a reason to get up in the morning.” [Dalton, Harlon L. [http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:KkI2Lk4ho7oJ:jonsenglishsite.info/Class%2520Docs%25205/3_DALTON.doc+%22alger+myth%22+favor&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us Horatio Alger] . "Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites". 1995. 16 Apr 2008.]
Dalton does see a positive aspect in the myth, it serves to maintain the racial pecking order. It does so by mentally bypassing the role of race in American society, by fostering beliefs that themselves serve to trivialize, if not erase, the social meaning of race. The Alger myth encourages people to blink at the many barriers to racial equality (historical, structural, and institutional) that litter the social landscape” and believe that all it takes to be successful in America is initiative, persistence, hard work, and pluck. According to Dalton, there is a fundamental tension between the realization of the
American Dreambased on the Alger myth and the harsh realities of a racial caste system. Obviously, the main point of such a system is to promote and maintain inequality. Conversely, the main point of the Alger myth “is to proclaim that everyone can rise above her station in life. Despite this tension, it is possible for the myth to coexist with social reality. Not surprisingly, then, there are lots of Black folk who subscribe to the Alger myth and at the same time understand it to be deeply false. They live with the dissonance between myth and reality because both are helpful and healthful in dealing with ‘the adverse events of life.’ Many Whites, however, have a strong interest in resolving the dissonance in favor of the myth. Far from needing to be on guard against racial ‘threat [s] or challenge [s] ,’ they would just as soon put the ugliness of racism out of mind. For them, the Horatio Alger myth provides them the opportunity to do just that.” [Dalton, Harlon L. [http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache:KkI2Lk4ho7oJ:jonsenglishsite.info/Class%2520Docs%25205/3_DALTON.doc+%22alger+myth%22+favor&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us Horatio Alger] . "Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites". 1995. 16 Apr 2008.]
The myth suggests we are judged solely on our individual merits, in turn implying that the caste has little practical meaning, apart from race-based advantages of disadvantages. Generally Whites are more successful than African Americans, as they are facilitated by their preferred social position, while African Americans believe that they can “simply lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” It is in our national interest, Dalton believes, to give the Horatio Alger myth a rest, because it is a mythology that assures us we can have it all, when in reality, “we live today in an era of diminished possibilities.” [Dalton, Harlon L. [http://188.8.131.52/search?q=cache:KkI2Lk4ho7oJ:jonsenglishsite.info/Class%2520Docs%25205/3_DALTON.doc+%22alger+myth%22+favor&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us Horatio Alger] . "Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites". 1995. 16 Apr 2008.]
The erroneous concept of the Horatio Alger myth is apparent in the non-corporate realm as well, with specific contradiction seen in education. Education is a means of maintaining class boundaries. Employers use education to determine who to hire, as education is used to select persons who have been socialized into the dominant status culture. Differential achievement in school occurs because of different expectations of administrators, teachers, and parents for students of different socio-economic backgrounds. Instead of mobility, childhood education merely reproduces the current social system. The wage gap between those with college degrees and others is growing. College tuition has increased dramatically and many can no longer afford college, and financial aid options have not kept up with increases in tuition. Those who earn a college degree or more have a median income of $222,000, with an average of $563,000. Those with some college education have a median income of $85,000, with an average of $341,000. Those without a college education make hundreds of thousands less than the average person with a college education.
Despite Sowell’s insistence that tax brackets tell the real story of income distribution and economic mobility, the increasing wealth disparities between upper-class and working-class Americans confirm that indeed, the rich are getting richer at the expense of the rest of the U.S. population.
The real median income on has increased steadily since 1947, from $22,000 to just over $50,000 in 2003. Since 1979 then incredibly divergent income patterns have developed between the rich and the poor. There has been an almost negligible growth for the median and 20th percentile, with explosive growth at the top 95th percentile. The increase in income inequality since the 1970s can be described as the middle class squeeze, with the greatest changes in the bottom third and the top third. In the bottom third, income is generally as it was almost 30 years ago. The top 1% of the population have seen their incomes more than double. Among the poorest people, income grew during 1995 and 2004 due to the increase in annual hours worked, but the increase was very small. The opposite is true for the elite. According to Gregory Mantsios, director of Working Education at
CUNY, “the wealthiest 20 percent of the American population holds 85 percent of the total household wealth in the country,” a statistic that does not offer much hope for the remaining percentage of the population. [Mantsios, Gregory. "Class in America: Myths and Realities." "Rereading America". Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St.]
The poor are becoming poorer and owing more money. In 1985, the average working-class citizen owed $500, compared to $8,000 today. For the top 5%, wealth (income and assets) has increased from about $500,000 to about $1,000,000. In 2005, the average family had a net worth of $80,000. The poverty level is also much too low for the Horatio Alger myth to be applied in modern society: “a total of 14 percent of the American population – that is, one of every seven – live below the government’s official poverty line (calculated in 1996 at $7,992 for an individual and $16,209 for a family of four)”. [Mantsios, Gregory. "Class in America: Myths and Realities." "Rereading America". Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St.]
Income disparities are tied to ethnicity as well. Ninety-one percent of whites have assets, while just 64% of African Americans have assets. Whites on average had parents with (a) mean net worth of $505,800 ($198,700 median net worth). African Americans mean net worth is $95,000 ($47,000 median net worth). As a final point, Mantsios provides statistics revealing the likelihood of being poor based on sex and ethnicity: “one in eleven for white men and women, one in four for white female head of households, one in three for Hispanic men and women, one in two for Hispanic female head of households, one of three for black men and women, and one in two for black female head of households.” [Mantsios, Gregory. "Class in America: Myths and Realities." "Rereading America". Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St.]
Evidently, as Dalton proclaimed, we are living in an era of diminished opportunities for most; this is especially true for minorities and women.
Wealth inequality in the United States
Notes and References
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