Robert Orben? Milton Berle? Ronald Reagan? Phil Gramm? Michael Dolan? Roger Ross? Sean Hannity? Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Quote Investigator: Years ago I heard a quotation that was credited to Ronald Reagan about the creation of jobs. I do not remember the precise wording, but here are two versions that express the gist of the quote:
No poor man ever gave me a job.
Have you ever been hired by a poor person?
Recently, I’ve seen the saying credited to former Senator Phil Gramm. Can you determine who made this remark?
Quote Investigator: The top etymological researcher Barry Popik has explored this saying, and the results given here build on his valuable work.
The earliest evidence for this expression located by QI was published in a 1977 profile of a professional comedy writer named Robert Orben. The New York Times article noted that Orben supplied humorous material to business men and women who were planning to deliver speeches. The story listed some of lines suggested by Orben. For example, here is an introductory remark and a retort aimed at a heckler [ORNY]:
The program director really wasn’t sure how I’d do tonight. I asked him the capacity of this room. He said, ‘It sleeps 300’.
Sir, to have an open mind doesn’t mean you have to have an open mouth.
The article also contained a statement similar to the one under investigation:
Don’t knock the rich. When was the last time you were hired by somebody poor?
In March 1978 the same quip appeared in a newspaper advertisement for a shop called “Ross Jewelers” of Nashua, New Hampshire.
In December 1981 a South Carolina newspaper column titled “The Stroller” printed a version of the joke [SRSC]:
Here’s something to think about: Don’t knock the rich. When were you ever hired by a poor person?
In 1989 the famous comedian Milton Berle published a collection of his jokes that included a modified version of the quip. The second half was changed to an exclamation instead of a rhetorical question [MBPJ]:
I don’t knock the rich. I never got a job from a poor person!
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In July 1991 a Congressional Subcommittee hearing on rural development was held in Clinton, Missouri. The CEO of Mid-Continent Bancshares testified in favor of lowering the capital gains tax rate and spoke a version of the adage [RPCR]:
One other thing that really bothers me—and I don’t know how to put this in a better way—I never got a job from a poor person. I have always gotten a job from someone who had some money.
At the same Congressional Subcommittee hearing a Representative from Missouri named Mel Hancock also used the expression [MHCR]:
I have never gotten a job from a poor person. I have always been employed by people who have some money.
In March 1994 a business publication commented on an event that occurred during a television show called “Nightline”. An unidentified speaker made a comment about jobs [RRBH]:
It happened off camera, so none of us saw it, but Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich couldn’t hold back his Harvard chuckle when a young man on “Nightline” said: “I’m poor, so you know, if Clinton taxes the rich it doesn’t hurt me any. But one thing you’ve got to remember is that the poor man never gave anybody a job. You’ve got to take care of people that can start businesses and run businesses and help those survive and be strong.”
In November 1994 the Washington Post published an interview with a painting contractor based in New Jersey named Michael Dolan. A change in the tax rate on capital gains was an active political issue when Dolan made the following remark [MDWP]:
People say capital gains is for the rich, but I’ve never been hired by a poor man.
In February 1995 the initial joke given above was reprinted in the tabloid “Weekly World News”. The word “someone” was substituted for “somebody” [PWWN]:
Don’t knock the rich. When was the last time you were hired by someone poor?
In July 1995 the saying was ascribed to the politician Phil Gramm in a Florida newspaper [PGTT]:
“No poor man ever gave me a job!” Phil Gramm thunders, as he argues in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. True enough. But no rich ones did, either. As an adult, Gramm has never worked for anybody but the taxpayers.
In November 1995 a letter writer to a newspaper attributed another version of the expression to Phil Gramm [PGRL]:
Phil Gramm claims that we owe nothing to the poor. “No poor man ever gave me a job,” he boasts.
In 1997 the comments made by the New Jersey painter were reiterated by a columnist in the Washington Times [SMWT]:
Not long ago a New Jersey painter was quoted in The Washington Post as saying: “You’re looking at a poor man who thinks the capital gains tax [cut] is the best thing that could happen to this country. People say capital gains are for the rich, but I’ve never been hired by a poor man.”
In 2001 the gossip columnist Cindy Adams credited the saying to the actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the context was comical [ASCA]:
As for the state’s fiscal crisis, it’s Arnold and Arnold alone who wisely said: “Don’t knock the rich. When’s the last time you were hired by somebody poor?”
In 2003 the saying was mentioned in close proximity to Ronald Reagan’s name in the Congressional Record by a Representative from Indiana named Mike Pence. But the words were not attributed to Reagan. Instead, the statement was ascribed to a “Pittsburg pipefitter” who was reacting to a policy advocated by Reagan. Note that “h” does not appear in the spelling of “Pittsburg” used in the Congressional Record [RRMP]:
But as a Pittsburg pipefitter said of the same cut in capital gains taxes advanced by President Reagan 20 years ago, “It may be a tax cut for the rich but I ain’t never been hired by a poor man.”
In January 2005 a letter writer to a California newspaper invoked the saying [VCSC]:
Like my brother said, “A poor man never gave him a job.”
In October 2005 the New York Times quoted Mike Pence who once again attributed the remark to a “pipe fitter”. In this telling of the anecdote the remark was spoken directly to Reagan [MPNY]:
… Mr. Pence said. “I’m mindful of what a pipe fitter once said to President Reagan: ‘I’ve never been hired by a poor man.'”
A 2012 article at the satirical website “Cracked” titled “6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying” by David Wong included the saying and ascribed it to a well-known radio and television commentator [SHCR]:
“I never got a job from a poor person.”
— Sean Hannity
In conclusion, based on current evidence QI hypothesizes that this family of comments was initiated by a joke constructed by the humorist Robert Orben. The remark evolved over the decades and several variants have been employed by a variety of people including Milton Berle and Phil Gramm.
It is possible that it was independently created by one or more people. There is no evidence that Reagan crafted the saying though he may have heard it.
(Thanks to Joel Fener whose inquiry led to the synthesis of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace.)
[ORNY] 1977 June 5, New York Times, “Did You Hear the One About the Humor Consultant?” by Lawrence Stessin, Page F3, New York. (ProQuest)
[RJNT] 1978 March 11, Nashua Telegraph, [Advertisement for Ross Jewelers of Nashua, New Hampshire], Silver Linings By Roger Ross, Page 12, Column 8, Nashua, New Hampshire. (Google News Archive)
[SRSC] 1981 December 23, The Stroller by Seymour Rosenberg, Page 1, Column 1, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News Archive)
[MBPJ] 1989, Milton Berle’s Private Joke File by Milton Berle, Section: riches, Quote Page 509, Column 1, Crown Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper)
[RPCR] 1991 July 15, House of Representatives, One Hundred Second Congress, First Session, Held in Clinton, Missouri, Rural Development Issues: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Procurement, Tourism, and Rural Development of the Committee on Small Business, [Testimony of Richard S. Pryor, President & CEO Mid-Continent Bancshares, Inc.], Start Page 11, Quote Page 13, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust full view) link link
[MHCR] 1991 July 15, House of Representatives, One Hundred Second Congress, First Session, Held in Clinton, Missouri, Rural Development Issues: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Procurement, Tourism, and Rural Development of the Committee on Small Business, [Words spoken by Representative Mel Hancock, Republican of Missouri], Quote Page 21, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust full view) link link
[RRBH] 1994 March-April, Business Horizons, Volume 37, Number 2, The Editor’s Chair: The Anti-Capitalist Mentality of Clintonomics by Ralph R. Reiland, Sarah J. McCarthy: Guest Editors, Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Published by Indiana University Graduate School of Business by JAI Press, Inc,, Greenwich, Connecticut. (Verified on paper)
[MDWP] 1994 November 22, Washington Post, White Guys: Their Issues Are Guns and Butter by Phil McCombs, Page D1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
[PWWN] 1995 February 28, Weekly World News, Volume 16, Number 22, [Freestanding quotation], Page 5, Published by Weekly World News. (Google Books full view) link
[PGTT] 1995 July 23, The Tampa Tribune, Section: Nation/World, Presidential hopefuls experienced life on dole by William March, Page 1, Tampa, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)
[PGRL] 1995 November 7, The Vindicator, How You See It: Nothing New Under The Sun When It Comes To Dealing With Old Folks, [Letter from Roger LaFontaine, Youngstown], Page A4, Youngstown, Ohio. (Google News Archive)
[SMWT] 1997 July 30, Washington Times, Yielding the tax field to envy Stephen Moore, Washington, D.C. (NewsBank Access World News)
[ASCA] 2003 October 12, New York Post, The Wild West Coast by Cindy Adams, Page 14, New York, (NewsBank Access World News)
[RRMP] 2003 May 9, Congressional Record – House, [Words spoken by Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana], Page 11038, Column 1, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (Google Books full view) link
[VCSC] 2005 January 6, Ventura County Star Section: Local News and Opinion, Education needs more money, [Letters to the Newspaper], Page 9, Ventura, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
[MPNY] 2005 October 11, New York Times, Liberal Hopes Ebb in Post-Storm Poverty Debate by Jason DeParle, Page A1, New York. (ProQuest)
[SHCR] 2012 March 5, Cracked website, “Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying” by David Wong, page 2 of 2. (Accessed at cracked.com on June 11, 2012) link