My parents worked through poverty,
Through hardship and through strife,
In part so we, their children, had
A better chance at life
And we, their sons and daughters,
With our parents’ words well heeded
Have worked so that our children, too
Have better lives than we did.
To make the world a better place
Each generation’s toiled…
And when it worked, our folks complained
That kids these days are spoiled.
So I’ve been helping, these past few days, my niece move into her new apartment, preparing for grad school. My parents were also visiting at the time, and helping as well.
And so it is that we know how much bigger this apartment is than the one they started out in, and how they got by with just two cooking pans, cracked plates, mismatched cutlery, and let’s not even get started on things like a TV. “The one thing we couldn’t give you is the one thing that did the most for us, and that’s poverty.”
I’m calling bullshit. This is the same romanticizing of the past that leads people to vaccine denialism–people were stronger back when they had to struggle with measles, polio, and whooping cough. Kids these days have it too easy, with their vaccines, their child labor laws, their health care, and an infrastructure that puts the accumulated knowledge of the world at their fingertips. We didn’t have computers back then, and we are better for it.
Back when my parents actually were poor (and even then, I suspect their own parents had a different view of it–my dad’s father built their house by hand, even digging the basement himself, so quit your complaining about a small apartment someone had already built)… where was I? Oh, yeah, back when my parents actually were poor, poverty was not a character builder, it was something to be escaped, or better yet, avoided. Any decent human being would work so that their children would not have to experience the poverty they did.
And it worked. Well, it worked for some, my privileged self included. My parents gave me a start that their parents could not give them. I tried, and mostly succeeded, to do the same thing for my children. As did my siblings. As did countless other parents, generations of people doing their best to change the world for the better. Our power grid is better (well, at present it is aging); our water and waste systems are better; our telecommunication structure, our food distribution, our information superstructure, all better (again, for the privileged, including my parents and my family).
It worked. Now, my kids and nieces and nephews, and their generation, can answer questions in seconds, that we had to find a library and look for appropriate sources and hope they were available and yadda yadda yadda… and which my parents’ generation might not have even attempted to answer, or asked in the first place. The world is different; it always is. It was not better to have to work for those particular answers, it was just more difficult. Now that the answers can be found easily, the newer generation can spend that effort pushing the envelope. Look at the astounding progress of science in recent decades; in part, that is possible because technology has made the difficult tasks easier, so that the hard work can be devoted to the hard tasks.
We should not romanticize poverty. If we do, it is too tempting to choose not to fight it. And just as childhood illnesses could have long-reaching consequences that last decades, poverty has long-reaching consequences, that can span decades and cultures. Vaccines can spare us much of the cost of these diseases. Education and health care are a good start at sparing us the costs of poverty.
And when it works, we should appreciate that success, not belittle it. It makes no sense at all to promote doing easy things the hard way, when we have enough hard problems to go around.
So, yes, my niece has a nice apartment. Congratulations, Grandma and Grandpa–you have succeeded in making the world a better place for your kids and theirs. Thank you, sincerely and from the bottom of my hearts. We couldn’t have done it without you. And think–if she were starting out as you started out, all your hard work would have been for nothing.
So hush now, and be proud–of her, and of yourselves. And watch, cos it’s her turn now to work on the hard problems. And because we have some real hard problems, aren’t you glad you gave her a running start?