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If you work hard, will you get into the one percent?

By Carol Costello
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carol Costello: Those who succeed often emphasize the power of their hard work
  • What is often left out is the role of luck in positioning people to achieve success
  • She says having supportive parents and a good education makes a huge difference
  • Costello: Higher college costs, tough job market make the odds tougher today

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday.

(CNN) -- Many wealthy, successful Americans regale us with stories of how they worked their rears off to get to where they are. Living proof, they say, that hard work can propel you to heights you cannot imagine.

I don't doubt their stories; I worked hard too. But along with that hard work came something no one seems to acknowledge -- luck.

Understandable, for luck says nothing about your smarts or talent or beauty. Luck is a happy accident. Seize it and make it work for you and nine times out of 10, you're golden.

I'm not saying only luck brings success. Hard work is necessary too, but it is not sufficient. Did I work harder or think better than hundreds of thousands of others? I would love to say yes, but although I tried to outsmart my competitors, I know I would not be sitting at CNN without Lady Luck on my side.

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

I know. I hear you. "You make your own luck!" Yes, you can, but it was a lot easier for me to "make my own luck" than it was -- is -- for many others

Bear with me.

I grew up decidedly middle-class. My father was a steelworker, my mother an office manager and occasional bookkeeper. Neither parent attended college, but they managed to carve out a comfortable life for me, my brothers and sister. There was no money to set aside for college, but I knew my parents expected me to be a college graduate.

Lucky me?

Yes. Because my father, a high school graduate, was able to find a well-paying job. Back in the day, manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and they paid well, as did many traditional middle-class jobs. Today, not so much. An article in The New York Times on September 18, 1987, reported the average wage for an automaker was $13.50 an hour. In today's dollars, that's $28.47. (Annual inflation over this period averaged 2.8%.) More than two decades later, thanks to the 2008 recession and the erosion of union power, entry-level unionized autoworkers were paid between $14 and $17 an hour, while veteran workers earned between $28 and $38 an hour.

So, I was lucky to be born to parents who could afford to feed me, clothe me, house me and, as an added bonus, expect me to make something of myself.

Also, my mother was not an alcoholic, and my father was not an ex-con. We lived in a variety of middle-class neighborhoods -- some middle, some lower -- but there were no drug dealers on the corner, no gunshots in the street. There were no metal detectors at the doors or armed security guards patrolling the halls of any of the schools I attended.

I did work hard to get through college, though. I worked two jobs for minimum wage -- one in a cafeteria and another at SeaWorld -- to pay my way through school.

In addition to those jobs, I interned at WAKR in Akron, Ohio, for free and attended night classes to finish my degree.

Ah, you say -- finally -- proof that if you work hard enough you will escape that minimum-wage job and achieve your goals.

Except luck played a part here too. According to the College Board, there was little to no growth in college prices in the 1970s. College costs actually just started to rise in 1980, the year I entered Kent State University. I just missed the massive sticker shock students face today. Since I went to school, college costs have risen at twice and sometimes three times the Consumer Price Index.

Still, I was happy to apply and accept government grants and loans to help pay the bills.

That internship in Akron paid off too.

WAKR-TV hired me. I made minimum wage in my first professional job, but I was not a single mother and did not have to care for aging or sick relatives. I just had to worry about myself.

Luckily, a news director in Cleveland named Ron Bilek offered to mentor me and eventually hired me in Columbus, Ohio. Four jobs later, I was off and running for CNN.

So yes, I worked hard. I put in long hours.

But millions of others have as well.

Luck, by definition, means a chance happening of fortunate events. And I would argue that far too few middle-class Americans are now experiencing the same "happening of fortunate events" that I did.

The majority of middle-class people are struggling not because they don't work as hard as the most successful Americans, but because it takes more than sweat to succeed and the odds are tougher in 2014.

It's time for our leaders to help people turn their luck around.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carol Costello.

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