Is there something wrong with being financially successful? Is wealth a badge of hard work or is it something to be shunned? Just last weekend, President Obama told Howard University grads that wealthy Americans should credit luck for at least some of their wealth. Forget hard work and effort, seemed to be his message. And, Obama is not alone. Sen. Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign is fundamentally based on the idea that wealth is immoral.
But getting ahead and being successful is part of the fabric of American culture. The idea that there is something wrong with wealth is misguided. In fact, most of us aspire to being financially successful. Making a success of yourself means you can provide for your family, live in a safe neighborhood and, most important, feel in control of your future. It allows you to make your own choices and live your own life, rather than choosing from a preset menu of options offered by government programs. In my view, wealth is about freedom.
But getting this freedom these days is no simple thing. There are many hurdles to people who want to be financially successful. The young face the difficulty of paying for a quality education. Tuition prices have been rising at a steady 3 percent above inflation. Today’s college grad starts his or her professional life with an average of $35,000 in debt. And, for that reason many delay the important transitions to adulthood, such as getting married, having a child or buying a home. Health care costs for those who get their insurance coverage through the Obamacare exchanges or from their employer are rising as well. The costs of caring for a sick family member remains the No. 1 reason people file for bankruptcy. And, then there are housing prices, which have been on a steady march higher in the wake of the housing crash.
All of these rising prices might go down more easily if people were making more money. But the sad truth is that the median incomes have not risen since President Obama took office. In fact, fully 20 percent of Americans have a net negative net worth, according to a study from Pew Research. This strain isn’t helped by a decade’s worth of negative interest rates that is slamming the retirement savings of millions of Americans.
Higher costs and lower incomes are a toxic brew that is making it tougher to achieve financial success. But here is the thing: Even in this country, even now, people are achieving success. Consider these numbers from WealthInsight: In a single year, 2014, our economy minted 496,945 new millionaires, a 9.5 percent gain over the previous year and a better rate of growth than that found in China, Brazil, the United Kingdom or Russia.
This is why I am not sold on the 1 percent philosophy. America is still the best place in the world to make it on your own and on your own terms. Central to our way of life, I believe, is the idea that you own your successes. As a nation, we believe that individuals own their accomplishments, and it’s this idea that fuels so much economic energy and so many powerful new ideas. Yes, it’s still possible to be a financial success in this country and rich is not a four-letter word.
Gerri Willis joined Fox Business Network (FBN) in March of 2010. Willis is an anchor and personal finance reporter for the network. Her new book is "Rich Is Not a Four-Letter Word" (Crown Forum, April 19, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @GerriWillisFBN.