Overcoming a Rough Start Isn't Easy
Let's call him "Brian" (not his real name). He worked for me doing landscaping for the better part of a year several years ago. He must have been 19 or 20. He didn't have a car, a bicycle or a mailing address. His mom lived in another county with problems of her own. She was in no position to help him.
Sometimes he stayed with an aunt and uncle in Southern Pines, sometimes with a girlfriend. No place was really home. I used to pick him up and drop him off at the Armory in Southern Pines.
Vividly I recall the sight of Brian on his knees with his hands behind his head and a police officer with his pistol trained on him barking out orders. There had been a burglary earlier in the morning, and the officer had seen Brian running with something in a plastic grocery bag. The something in his bag was his lunch, and he was running from the apartments across from the Armory, as he did most mornings, to meet me.
In the short time Brian worked for me, I found him to be intelligent, engaged and industrious. I never worried about the pace or the quality of his work. It was not for lack of ability, gumption or character that he struggled. Brian had just been dealt a tough hand when he came into the world. It's harder than a lot of people want to believe to overcome a start like that.
As I write, Iowans are set to cast the first votes in the 2012 race for the White House. Mitt Romney seems poised to win a bizarre war of attrition. One by one, beginning with Bachmann, then Perry, Cain (who ultimately didn't even make it to the starting line), Gingrich, maybe for a hot second Paul, and finally Romney (with Santorum closing fast), the candidates have taken their turn atop the polls.
Only John Huntsman, apparently for the sin of actually being the kind of intellectual that Gingrich only thinks he is, has been spared the white-hot spotlight that comes with being at or near the top of the polls.
It's not hard to see why Republicans might be wary of making Romney their standard-bearer. Romney has the same blue-blood upbringing as former President George W. Bush - but without the Texas good-ol'-boy folksiness that made people want to drink beer with the latter Bush.
At a time when the Occupy movement has shifted attention from deficits to the ever-widening wealth and opportunity gap, nominating a real-life Thurston Howell III (think "Gilligan's Island") risks sending the wrong message. Ruminations on the relative merits of an "Entitlement Society" versus an "Opportunity Society" ring hollow coming from someone who has never lacked for anything - least of all, opportunities.
2010 was the year of the tea party and 42 million spirits of Ronald Reagan chanting that government is the problem.
2011 was the year we discovered that the solution was worse than the problem. It was the year of finding out that, instead of firing those proverbial bureaucrats with nothing to do but to throw pencils into the ceiling and approve requisitions for $500 hammers, the "waste" the new Congress really meant to cut was funding for public education, for law enforcement, for first responders, and for programs that middle-class, working-class and marginalized Americans depend on.
2011 was the year that we noticed that the loudest of those decrying the excesses of big government were living pretty excessively themselves. We learned that the top 400 households in the U.S. held assets totaling about $1.37 trillion in 2010 and paid an average tax rate of 16.6 percent. That top one-tenth of 1 percent control more assets than the bottom 60 percent of Americans.
Romney is right. 2012 is about entitlements and opportunities. He earned his success. He made the most of ample opportunities. But life is not meritocracy.
This year, as I grow sick of politics, I will remember a very rich man positing whether we would live in an "Entitlement Society" or an "Opportunity Society" and I will think of Brian - a young man whose potential was thwarted by limited access to entitlements and even less access to opportunity. I will think about people born with every advantage defining the terms for a country where one in four children lives in poverty.
Those children are entitled to better opportunities.
Kevin Smith lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at email@example.com.
More like this story