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Of money and true happiness

Rock and Roll philosopher/king David Lee Roth once told Rolling Stone magazine, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.” True enough, but that is not the same thing by a longshot. A great big yacht is usually a hindrance rather than a sweet ride to happiness.

In America there is a tendency to view happiness as tied to economic advancement. One of the perennial political slogans is, “Let’s provide our children with a better life than we’ve had.” This is supposed to settle policy questions and give us a way to measure the success or failure of the political party in power. We are an optimistic people.  Any suggestion that things are not always getting better financially is, in theory, the blackest of marks. But the answer to the question of whether greater wealth is the same as “a better life” is much more complex.

There is the optimistic view. “Yes, my child will do better than I did. She will go to an elite school while I went to a state school. Therefore she will make better connections than I did. She will get a better job and marry someone in a higher economic bracket.”

One could take the bleak view. “No, my children will not do as well. With jobs being shipped overseas, there are almost permanent structural problems with the U.S. economy and I worry that my child will have to scramble more than I have. Maybe live in a smaller house, perhaps make as much money but that won’t go as far.” And so on.

For a segment of America, this is still a vital question and the bleak scenario is all too real. New research by Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins tell us that for a certain large segment of the population, perhaps as much as 50 percent of the people who will not attend college, even their blue-collar hopes are sinking into working-poor realities. 

This question seems to have more meaning to those who are trying hard to get to the middle class and to those whose hold on the middle class may be tenuous. Like many from the Depression Era, my father grew up in small town and on a poor farm. Of course, he wanted to do better than his father, and his father wanted it too. But I am quite content that I have not done monumentally better than my middle-class father. I suspect that most in the middle class would find similar contentedness.

Still, it is almost a knee-jerk response to an American. Of course, I want my children to do better than me, and if I don’t think that’s possible, then we ought to punish the SOB in the White House. But as we grow richer as a country, the current troubles notwithstanding, and as we see the sprouting of McMansions, though now at least temporarily stalled, shouldn’t we consider something else? What happens to those who live in those big houses?

I have no social-science data to back this up, but it seems to me the McMansion is a family-destroying edifice. Put a small American family into a great big house where all the family members ramble around on their own, in their own rooms, using their own entertainment systems, practically living private lives, and what you have is a recipe for familial disaster.

One of the smartest men I know is a man who has been incredibly successful in starting and running companies and he has a substantial packet of money. He lives in the toniest of towns not far from Boston. He is pals with other titans of industry who live nearby and is known in Washington D.C. and in various capitals around the world. But here is his real genius: He raised his large family in the smallest house in the whole fancy town. His house could sit in any middle-class neighborhood anywhere. His kids shared rooms their whole lives. He said his family grew up right on top of each other. He knew the truth that we need to brush up against each other all the time – for our own good.

The smartest rich folks know all this. They understand they have only a few choices with their wealth. They can leave it all to their kids and ruin their lives. They can create a foundation that would – as least if they are politically conservative – almost certainly over time  betray their values by turning to support leftwing causes. Or they can give a relatively small amount to their kids and give the rest away before they die.

What the polling questions do not even ask is likely what most Americans worry about when they really think about it. What is the state of my children’s souls? And how can I help them, against all odds, to keep the faith? And live moral lives? In the end, who – okay, leave out Donald Trump – wouldn’t  prefer that their children live with God in the middle class or even in poverty than have great wealth and lose Him? That’s a question we hear too little of, even from Catholics, in the midst of our current economic troubles.

Austin Ruse

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.