I stumbled onto this essay today (Jan. 22, 2023), one that I had composed in 2003 — almost 20 years ago — and had forgotten. Since then I have published articles on money and wealth both at this page at AlbertJayNock.org and at this page at Poor David’s Almanac.
I understood money in pennies and even in quantities as high as a few hundred dollars.”
There is enough here, though, to offer it as a stand-alone article, especially for its emphasis on how, when I was a child, I perceived other people’s wealth (not our own — we didn’t have any).
A Poor Child’s Understanding of Money
From an early age I understood money, but not as you might expect I did. In the late 1950s, at about nine years old, I delivered the Toledo Blade to four customers in Gomer, Ohio. Pennies were real money. By eleven, and until I was sixteen, I was delivering the Lima News to eighty customers in a mostly-Black neighborhood west of Cole Street in Lima. The weekly rate for seven-day delivery was thirty-five cents during my first few years as a Lima paper boy.
My mother was a school teacher before I was born and until I was an adult. When I was five and the oldest of three kids, my father started college. He worked numerous jobs and went to school for eleven years. We lived on my mother’s teacher’s pay. At forty my father was finally qualified to teach. By then he had six kids.
During those years, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, we lived in and around Lima, Ohio, and we were just above dirt poor. On a couple of occasions during those years my parents declared bankruptcy. I remember watching the movers come and strip the house of all but our beds and toys (what few we had).
In the fall of 1960, when I was ten, we moved to a house at 1165 West High Street in Lima, which my parents “bought” (mortgaged) for $13,500. We lived there for seven years. That’s where I lived while I was learning the most about money.
What did I learn?
I learned that we didn’t have any. My parents didn’t have savings or investments or property. Only one or two relatives even owned their own homes, and to me they seemed rich. (My mother’s sister and her husband, a Lima firefighter, never had children, so they owned a spotless little two-bedroom bungalow as well as a cottage at Indian Lake — with an actual view of the water.)
I tried to maintain a bank account in order to save for college and later to save for a car. By my early teens, being able to maintain a couple hundred dollars at a time, I became responsible to buy my own clothes and occasionally to “loan” my parents grocery money. At 15 I even bought a car, an immaculate 1939 Chrysler, for $395. But by the time I was heading off to college, whatever I had remaining in savings was entirely spent in applying and matriculating. I made it through my freshman year at the University of Cincinnati without income or remaining savings.
Other people of my closest acquaintance, as a child and teenager, also didn’t have money — relatives, friends’ families, neighbors. But one block behind us in Lima lay West Market Street. Somewhat in the 1100 block, and certainly in the blocks farther west, there was money.
Now this is important, so pay attention. There’s a concept here that is central not only to my early understanding of money but also, I believe, central to the understanding of anyone in any century who doesn’t have money but lives one block from any Market Street anywhere else. It’s also a concept that someone who has always had money would not suspect is held by those who never had it.
I understood money in pennies and even in quantities as high as a few hundred dollars, which was a lot to me. Even as an older teenager I didn’t understand thousands or higher quantities of money. There was no need to, because I was convinced I’d never amass that kind of fortune anyway. There was the amount of money I could amass myself as a kid, which was more than my parents could boast; then there was any quantity over that. One or two thousand dollars was functionally indistinguishable to me from thousands of thousands. A few thousand and a few million seemed equally out of reach.
Not that I was poor in math. I could multiply raw numbers, a thousand times a thousand, and so on. By junior high I had memorized the population figures of several states and countries in the millions. I could concede that there might be ten million cornstalks in an Ohio cornfield. But I could not conceive a million dollars. It’s not that I concluded that the people in the stately homes on Market Street (or the “West End”) had millions. I understood only that they had money and we didn’t. Quantity was irrelevant.
They had money waiting for them at the bank. They had paychecks that could go partly into savings. They could buy clothes whenever they needed them. They didn’t go from the A&P for the 19¢ hamburger and then across town to the IGA for the 19¢ bread. They were rich. Rich people were those who could go to the bank and withdraw a hundred for whatever they wanted, and up to my early teens I couldn’t conceive of wanting anything more than I saw a block away from me.
I didn’t know who lived on Market Street. I don’t believe I ever learned the name of anyone who lived there. And this, too, is important: I understood, probably from remarks that my parents occasionally made, that the people of Market Street and the West End were in a different social and economic stratum. Not a class, but a stratum. We would never be in that stratum. I even felt awkward when any of the kids from the West End, whom I knew in school, would speak to me. I was honored whenever one did, and I know I behaved accordingly.
Since I was pretty much a high-achieving student, I probably could have taken more advantage than I did of those associations. Instead, my best friend for several years was Mike Stewart, a darkly Black boy from around the corner. And I would never trade that relationship for one with a rich kid anyway. (In those days, there was still a “society page” in the Lima News, and sometimes I thought it was my mother’s highest aspiration to get one of us written up on that page.)
I recall having a sense, however, that these rich people, including the households of the kids who awed me, were involved in business. I concluded, correctly or not, that they were people who owned or managed businesses. (I was aware that there were a few doctors among them, too.) There was money in businesses. I understood that, once I became an adult, I could probably hire on as a laborer for someone, as I had seen my father do during his eleven years of odd jobs through college. But, throughout my youth, it never occurred to me to aspire to own or manage a business. I understood absolutely nothing about commerce or management. I could even say that it struck me as a distasteful direction when considering career options.
I don’t mean that business and management struck me as evil or the people involved as greedy or mean-spirited. (Those concepts were yet to be widely disseminated by the hate-America political factions.) I simply didn’t know anyone who liked what he was doing in those nebulous fields and therefore I didn’t think I could like it either.
(I also recall being told that you had to go to college for ten years to become a doctor and I dismissed that idea both because I knew I couldn’t afford even one year of college, although I expected to go, and because I concluded you had to be some other kind of person than I was in order to put up with that much schooling. On the other hand, I never questioned whether I would go to college and get a degree. My teachers all expected me to go, and who was I to question their expectation? My parents, for their part, assured me that my grades would get me full scholarships. Not true, but I trusted them…)
I didn’t envy my rich classmates. And I especially didn’t feel that I was owed anything by them. I had heard and taken to heart all the proverbs about hard work and thrift and knew that my duty to myself lay in cultivating those qualities. I vaguely grasped that a Thomas Edison or Henry Ford could occasionally make the leap from the no-money stratum to the money stratum. I didn’t conceive myself an inventor, but I also vaguely grasped that, while I probably couldn’t cross into that stratum financially, I could probably earn the respect of anyone in that stratum by my own accomplishments in another respect. (I believed I would achieve that respect as a pianist with a classical repertoire, a profession well-populated, I was aware, by the gifted poor.)
Throughout my public education there was no attempt made to explain free enterprise or basic principles of business and finance. There was no education about taxes, about personal banking, about the stock market or investing (other than a game played by all eighth graders where we chose a couple of stocks and followed them for a couple of months). There was a club one could join at Lima Senior High School called Junior Achievement, or maybe it was the DECA club, which stood for distributive education. I did understand that that’s where kids went who wanted to pretend to run a business. I didn’t join because my thing was music.
Never, never in my junior high or high school years did a “guidance counselor” or teacher ever attempt to assure that I comprehended all my options or attempt to assess my potential in various other career paths. Unfortunately, they probably didn’t feel they needed to. I was an ‘A’ and ‘B’ student with notable skills in reading and writing as well as foreign languages. I was a whiz in math, although math was entirely theoretical and had no practical application for me. But any guidance counselor who knew me also knew that from the time I was in seventh grade my mind was made up and that I would be a pianist — no counseling needed.
I was a giver, not a taker. I saw myself reaching out to the world, to rich and poor, through music. (Also, at about 12 or 13, I told my parents I wanted to be like Albert Schweitzer – an idea I quickly abandoned because I realized he was also a doctor.) I had no ambition to become rich, like the people on Market Street, although I was pretty sure I could become as prosperous as my aunt and uncle, the fireman, who had no kids.
And I didn’t desire accolades and acclaim for my musicianship; I wanted to perform and to continue to compose music that would reach the depths of people’s souls as certain music filled my own. Knowing that I had sent something sublimely beautiful into the airwaves was my motivation. Unfortunately, I suspected incorrectly that music such as that which enthralled me would speak to most other humans in much the same way — that there would be a “market” for my artistic creativity.
It might make more sense, though, if one realizes that it was the music of Rachmaninoff that was wrapping itself around my soul in the 1960s, and if one realized, concomitantly, that Rachmaninoff himself had lived and performed well into the 1940s. It was not completely unreasonable, therefore, that I might consider the classical era in music still alive and deserving to be prolonged by my efforts to write more of it. (And by the mid-1960s I was writing more of it.)
Back to money: I believe that this same fallacious two-level concept of money — you’re either someone who never had it and never will or you’re someone who always had all you wanted and always will — is held by most poor-from-birth people today, and not just while they are children but also as adults. What’s more, I suspect that stratification of people into socio-economic classes is driven from below as much as it is from above. I don’t believe that those born into money perceive the gulf as readily as those born into none. Those with money, (as I would have sorted them out as a child), aren’t as conscious of their “stratum.” It’s especially those who have enough (however much that is, but that’s where I am today), but who aren’t really wealthy, who are the least likely to realize that they are lumped in with the super-rich by those who have nothing.
I also grew up in the last period in American history when a family that didn’t have a telephone or a television or a car or insurance also had no expectation that the government would provide any of those luxuries. We had a roof and meals and presentable clothes, (as a ten-year-old boy probably construes the word “presentable”), so we were doing just fine, thank you. Besides, we were all smart and healthy and on good terms with our neighbors. It’s interesting to me that, in spite of our circumstances, my father drilled into me that the genius of America was in letting people achieve what they could. The evil wasn’t that some people had money while others didn’t. The evil was that those who didn’t had the audacity to demand it from those who did. He fumed at the “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson and decried the notion that someone else should be taxed just to put our family on welfare.
Growing up poor, I was also less aware than I am now that some people are voluntarily poor, or poorer than they have to be. I don’t remember how much cigarettes cost in those days, but my father smoked a pack or two a day. (I was allowed to purchase them for him at a couple of stores, also for the grandfather of my friend, Mike.) My father also squandered money in other ways, and I even recall being mildly embarrassed by his naïveté about some “investments.”
What changed for me? Well, among the principles drilled into me as a child was the one which said I would certainly get a college education. Whatever I studied, furthermore, would be for my own edification and only incidentally to prepare me for a career. It was a 19th-century concept of the purpose of a college education, but one that stands as perfectly valid just the same.
So I went to college for a year, took three years off to become a Vietnam-era veteran, then returned to complete a degree program. (Not in music mainly due to an injury, but that’s beyond the scope of this explanation.) And I went right from college into… business and management — the paper industry.
Yes, the money was there, in business, at least until the end of the 1970s. And, although I still expected never to become rich or even necessarily have a bank account with anything more than a few hundred dollars in it, I rapidly came to comprehend that money can be viewed as a continuum of quantities. There isn’t a level with an upper limit of a few hundred and right above it a level of untold wealth — the two strata of my youth. There is everything in between and beyond. But that understanding came late, not until I was an adult.
Two more aspects bear mentioning, one an anecdote, one a concept. When I was fourteen and had been a paper boy for some five years already, the U.S. government decided that the citizens of all the countries of the world no longer needed a medium of exchange that carried intrinsic value. So, thirty years after turning gold from a medium of exchange into a commodity to be hoarded by governments and their central banks, and to be regulated like uranium, the USA did much the same with silver.
For at least five thousand years those two metals had served to represent value and had served as standards of exchange in commerce. They had also stood as wealth that individuals could own outside the view of government, which no government can tolerate, of course. In my lifetime and before my own eyes, the last medium of true value in the world was sucked from our hands and pockets. As vaguely as I understood quantities of money at fourteen, I understood the historical significance in substituting promissory notes (and now electrons and magnetic recordings of digital values) for true money.
When I was a teenager, also probably about fourteen, my father once commented to me: Do you know that you’ll earn over a quarter of a million dollars in your lifetime? To which I remember I replied, authentically: Wow! I won’t even say how quickly a quarter million newfangled mini-dollars pass through my household nowadays…!
The other final aspect that bears mentioning: At fourteen I wouldn’t have imagined that I would not only earn but eventually save over a quarter of a million dollars, nor did I consider how that amount might become devalued after it was no longer tied to a tangible standard. I now have IRAs and a 403(b) and other investments with well over a quarter million set aside. And if it weren’t for certain stock market shudders after the 1990s, that would probably be nearer a half million today. (But my quarter million-plus is a mere shadow of what that amount would have meant forty years earlier.) And it’s money in concept only. Even if cashed in, it would only result in bags of paper promises from the federal government. I don’t trust it, but it’s what I have to show for my life’s effort.
What I also have, but not to show, are a few pieces of silver and gold in denominations that, on their face, amount to a few hundred dollars. It wouldn’t serve as money unless the entire country (and hence, the world) fell into permanent fiscal collapse. Sadly there is probably no way that a country’s citizens could seize control (by force?) of the precious metal that supposedly supports each one’s paper promises of today. The gold and silver that men and children risk life and limb to extract from underground is all confiscated and buried back underground by the governments that pretend to serve them. So be it. It doesn’t exist for me once it is mined and minted into coins just as surely as it doesn’t exist for me before it is mined.
I can claim only a rudimentary understanding of money and finance in today’s terms, since it is no longer money that we’re concerned with but the pretense of money. There is so much hocus-pocus in government fiscal policy, economics, accounting, investments, and “the market” that none of it should be trusted, and surely none of it is understood by any but those few who control it. (And those who control it probably only comprehend that special aspect that each one controls.) But my meager fortune is trapped in that electronic confusion, and I will hope that collapse and chaos don’t erase it in my lifetime. If it does happen, I will be carrying a silver dollar in my pocket until I need it to buy my very last meal.
David A. Woodbury
27 August 2003