Defining ‘luck’

The gap between rich and poor is a perennial topic for debate. There’s one point that gets made about how people get rich that i think needs to be dissected a bit–the idea of ‘luck’. The rich of this world generally have had some measure of luck to get where they are. The first thing that I want to dispel is the idea that being lucky means you didn’t have to work hard to get where you are. Some people didn’t, but others did. Their luck was not in not having to work hard, but in being in a position where effort could be turned into financial gains.

More importantly, I want to define what sort of ‘luck’ is being talked about here. In some cases, it is true luck, but more often that luck comes from privilege and opportunity, the inequalities endemic in our society that allow some to climb and forces others to wallow. Privilege comes in a lot of forms–money itself is one, and the most easily quantifiable. Money is power, and power is a tool. It can be used on things like better schooling, a car to get you there or to your job, or healthcare that will keep you healthy enough to work for a living. Money makes things easier. That’s no secret, but one that seems to get lost a lot in this debate.

Of course, not everyone who has a lot started out with a lot, and this is where other forms of privilege come into play. Sometimes it is race or gender–being white and male still makes it easier to get ahead in our society, because of the biases, conscious and unconscious, that we all hold. Sometimes it is location–a child in New York City will have access to a lot more opportunities than a child in Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia. Health is another one–people with disabilities or perpetual health problems need to spend more effort and money just to live as comfortably as a similarly well-off able-bodied person (This is one reason I support universal healthcare–when you need to pay for your own health care just to be able to work, as soon as you fall below being able to afford it you’re pretty much screwed). And the list goes on. There are innumerable forms of societal bias and opportunities that can make it easier or harder to get ahead in life.

Some people manage despite having the deck stacked against them. And the typical refrain is, “Well, they can do it, so anyone can.” But there’s two things that are missing there–one, those people often still had to luck into some opportunity that normally wouldn’t be an option for them, and two, they shouldn’t have had to work so hard to get to where they are.

When I say, “You’re where you are because you were lucky,” I’m not saying that you didn’t have to work hard for what you had. I’m saying that for many other people, getting where you are is barely even a pipe dream no matter how hard they struggle to get ahead–or even just get by.


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