Casaubon's Book

So the Poor are People…Really?

A week ago, one of our former foster sons celebrated his ninth birthday.  He’s now living with family in another state, and we have kept in regular touch.  We sent a gift, a card with some pictures we thought he’d enjoy, and on the afternoon of his birthday, we tried to call and wish him happy, but the phone had been disconnected.

This was not a total shock.  It had happened once before, during the process of getting him ready to move.  His family loves him and he’s very happy there – but they live very, very close to the economic margin.  Both of the adults in his family  have serious health concerns that sometimes impinge on their ability to work.  Both have low paying jobs of the kind that lay people off when the economic winds blow.  They barely have enough money to get along, and they don’t have health insurance, so any number of things get sacrificed when a sudden expense comes along – and they often do.  Their family is constantly balancing different needs, paying the most urgent bill and setting the others aside, and that kind of roulette involves a lot of painful mistakes when something breaks or gets turned off.

I’ve had a pretty good sense of how close to the margin they live since the day that the Dad mentioned offhand that when his step-daughter graduated high school, they couldn’t afford a camera to take pictures, so they were borrowing a robe and a camera to reproduce the experience so she’d have one picture of her graduation.   High school graduation is quite an accomplishment in their family – it isn’t something you take for granted.  It was a big deal – and when the day came around, they couldn’t take pictures, so when things eased up a little bit, they struggled to make a facsimile that would allow them to remember/

Which led me to wonder – did their phone get cut off because they were buying our former foster son a birthday present?  It isn’t at all implausible, although I’m only guessing.  Their family has a tradition of lavish gifts for birthdays – more lavish than my own family’s, which is better able to afford it.   Our former son was in the habit of telling us what he got for every birthday and Christmas from each family member – and he never forgot anything – including the years that there was no money and no birthday or holiday presents.

Some months ago I read a report in a magazine (The Economist I think – I can’t find it again) that argued that the world’s hungry people overwhelmingly have enough money for food, they just spend it badly.  The report showed evidence that among the world’s poorest people money was spent on liquor, cigarettes, dowries and weddings, gifts for others, etc…. demonstrating that the poor should have enough money to buy food, and almost no one should ever be hungry, because all the poor have to do is stop buying everything else, and they’ll be fine.

Echoes of this appear in discussions of the purchasing choices of those in poverty in the US – they mostly aren’t starving, but they are often food insecure and insecure in other ways.  Invariably, it comes up in the discussion of poverty – but these poor people I know have smart phones and cable, and I don’t.  Their poverty stems from bad choices, not from any real and objective experience.

There is some truth to that.  My foster kids sometimes come from homes with expensive gaming systems, flat-screen tvs.  Their parents may have no money but they have better cell phones than I do.  At one point we held a celebration for some kids in our home, giving them a set of (we thought) very nice  gifts, only to be told “I have three of these” “Oh, but I have a better one at home.”  (In fact, the kids were homeless and their prior stuff had been discarded, but this is a pretty normal reaction from kids who don’t want to betray their parents by appreciating you too much, although I admit, it does sting a little.)

The reality is that in a life without much stability, with few high points, lots of fear and violence and desperate poverty, those moments of seemingly foolish consumer spending can be really meaningful.  At one point a child in my care who had been beaten, starved and tied defended the abuser by saying “But for my birthday they took me to the toy store and let me pick anything I wanted up to $50.  $50!!!!  So I know they must love me.”   And maybe they did.  Within the horrible limitations of their ability to love and care for these kids, at least they spent money on them sometimes – even if it would have been better to spend it on keeping food in the fridge.  Because my kids know that birthdays matter, gifts matter, stuff matters.  They see it in the culture around them.  They see as much advertising as anyone does, if not more.  They know that other people have other things, and they don’t understand why their lives full of pain and fear don’t look like the ones on tv – they are acutely conscious of what they don’t have (in every sense), for they’ve spent hours looking at it.

The kids tend to be fixated on material things –  when a birthday comes around, or Christmas (and remember, often those things also come with additional stresses as grownups struggle with too much pressure and not enough money), at least there is an object there to assure a child of that most basic thing – that they matter. Indeed, my kids have been taught to see money and things as all – because those are most lacking in their lives, but also more present than things like security, peace or love.

It is absolutely true that often poor people make stupid, lousy choices.  It is also true that poor people live in culture, not in isolation – that is, they are taught to want exactly what richer people have.  They are taught exactly the values that richer people have.  And then they are told that wanting those things and valuing those things that they have been taught matter most makes them bad.  The father who forgets his daughter’s birthday is evil – but the poor father who spends part of the rent money on toys for his daughter’s birthday is bad too.  The person who can’t bear to be the only one without a smartphone is normal if they can afford it, but perverse and making bad choices if they can’t – even though advertising and cultural values are distributed without regard to wealth.   It is normal to smoke in many cultures of the global south – and indeed, smoking can quiet the hunger pangs that are part of life – but it is also bad to smoke because the smoking costs money.  Too bad it is so hard to stop when the need comes around again.

It is absolutely true that the world’s poor and the American poor spend money on escapism, and on the celebrations and cultural events demanded by their society.  It is easy to say “Well, they just shouldn’t spend all their money on a wedding feast for their son, they should buy more groceries.”  But how many of us can resist those social pressures?  How many of us can say “Ok, your wedding day is just another day, no graduation party for you, and cancel Christmas?”  How many of us keep up appearances in some way – not wanting to look poor – but blame the poor, who in many ways struggle much more with that issue, for doing the same.  This is true in Bangladesh and in Illinois, in Detroit and in Sofia.  In fact, as the graph in this article shows, the poor spend a smaller proportion of their income on entertainment and luxury items than the middle class or wealthy – but we really want them to spend none.  What we want is for the poor to be more moral than we are, to recognize that their dependence gives them no rights and no choices, unless they are morally perfect.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not defending all their choices.  There is a part of me that wants to explain to the family of our foster son that there are ways to spend less and get the same amount of pleasure – and indeed, that’s a lot of what I do as a writer, hoping that at some point the ideas I teach will trickle down to those who need them most, and more importantly, the culture that says it is ok not to have most electronics, that says it is ok to wear used clothes instead of new and to make your own shampoo rather than paying $6 a bottle will reach down.  I get upset when kids arrive with shoes four sizes too small and stories about sleeping in bus stations but their parents have smartphones.

At the same time, I recognize that living in culture creates demands upon people that seem necessary to them – and that we are all of us subject to this.  The perception of need has been altered so much by our culture’s materialism that it is incredibly hard to resist – and often the poorest people in our society, at least the ones I encounter,  are the LEAST equipped to resist – they are least educated in resisting consumer norms, least educated in thrift and do-it-yourself culture, struggling with medical and mental illnesses that devour their time and resources, afraid to go out of their apartments in unsafe neighborhoods and watching tv to find out what other people live like.  They often are as uncritical a consumer of our culture as you can possibly be – and they are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  Excoriated for their alienness if they have none of the trappings of normalcy, excoriated for their choices if they keep to as many as they can.

It has been one of the great realizations of modern research that the poor really aren’t different than you and I.  It seems strange that this should come upon people as such a shock, but it truly does.  For example, for a long time people assumed that the rise of unmarried motherhood meant that low income people didn’t value marriage.  In fact, it turns out that they do – they believe in marriage and family just like most other people do.  They simply don’t see themselves as having access to it – they don’t want to put their kids through divorce and failed marriage, and they don’t see the people around them as providing what would be needed, so they don’t marry.

I’ve written before about what I think is coming to America over the next decade or so – what I call “Ordinary Human Poverty.”  That is, the experience of poverty and struggle as a growing norm, because without the underlying push of cheap energy and hitting the limits of endless growth, more and more of us are going to struggle.  This has already begun, and it is likely to only get worse as climate change and related disasters eat up more of our resources, as energy and food prices rise, as we simply can’t count on growth.  So we need to ask ourselves – if poor people have the same values as everyone else, but those values are a set-up for increasing struggle, ones that constantly set them back, and lead to them being seen as morally inferior, do we accept that fate for ourselves, or do we change our culture and our culture’s values?

I have never seen the tv show everyone is talking about, “Honey Boo Boo” and I doubt I ever will, since we have no tv reception.  It is, depending on who you are and how much you enjoy wringing your hands about the death of culture, either the tv apocalypse or a great show to watch with a kind of hip irony.  I can’t comment, because I haven’t seen it.  My own take from what I’ve read, however is that Honey Boo Boo has a reasonably functional family, even if they are tacky.  They aren’t homeless, they were able to support a teenage mother in their midst, and everyone seems to be getting (too much) dinner – and their values seem taken straight from tv, where Sketti really is better than homemade and fart jokes really are awesomely funny for the 97th time.  If there’s anything weird about this it isn’t the four kids, four fathers thing – it is the self-referentiality of a tv show about people who represent a version of what they see tv saying they should be, and do a pretty good job of being that.  I’m assuming the meta-qualities will get even greater as spin-offs arise showing tv characters built around the assumptions of the Honey Boo-Boo show.  Yeah, its a race to the bottom, but is that really surprising?

Again, if the values of our culture don’t serve the poorest people, they don’t serve the potentially poor either – that would be you and me.   The reality is that the culture that demands we always buy more and have more sucks for everyone.  Moreover, you could certainly make a case (I’ve spent pretty much all the years I’ve been blogging making this case, so I won’t reiterate here) that they don’t serve the rich all that well either, and will be even less helpful as more people get poor.  After all, discontentment with your lot and cultural materialism lead to anger when those needs can’t be met.  The Tea Party and the Occupy movement are early heralds, but time will tell just how angry people will get, and with whom.  I’d suggest there are other good reasons why this doesn’t serve anyone, but if nothing else, when my foster son who has been taught to believe that the spending of money on luxury items is the best and only expression of love he will ever get grows up, and can’t afford those expressions of love, he’s going to be mad.  Really mad.  And he and all the other kids who grew up in a world that told them only wealth and things matter and then denied them those things aren’t going to be quiet about their expressions of anger.

I hope my foster son had a happy birthday.  I hope in some ways that his family was able to buy him a gift, that the phone turned off didn’t mean that he got nothing, because they were pushed to the wall, but that they were choosing their son’s birthday party over their landline.  I probably would have done so too – because their child has been told that celebrations and lavish birthday gifts are a sign of love and a secure family – they’ve seen it a thousand times on tv.  Moreover, having been denied most of the things that other kids take for granted – a home to sleep in at night, food every day on the table, parents who protect rather than abuse – this is the only thing they know with certainty, that love comes wrapped in a box.

Beyond that day, however, I hope for something different.  I hope that the experience of real love in their new family will slowly teach them that the box isn’t the point, that presents aren’t love, that things are not what matter most.  Moreover, I hope that our culture can move past its painful and stagnant and incredibly destructive confused materialism to something else as well so that their parents aren’t bound up in the tangle of materialism that demands that they meet conflicting needs and keeps them struggling in the depths of poverty.  If we don’t change the culture, if we don’t find a way back to valuing thrift and things beyond materialism, the poor – all of us in our own way – will always be doomed to failure.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 z
    October 21, 2012

    You’re so down on the phones– are you at all familiar with the things a smartphone can do? I think they’re actually a pretty defensible expenditure, at least for someone who depends on public transportation. The NextBus app alone can save you hours and hours of waiting outside in the cold with kids, and there are lots of price-comparison apps that help you save money. They’re also great for entertaining kids during all the waiting that poor people have to do. If it’s a family’s only phone and internet access, that’s pretty significant value for the money. Most people would have some kind of phone anyway, right? I decry the fancy TVs, the clothes, and the shoes, but it’s hard for me to criticize the phones because I know how spectacularly useful they can be.

  2. #2 Sharon Astyk
    United States
    October 21, 2012

    Hmmm… I didn’t think I was down on the phones, actually. I used them as an example because electronics tend to be the things that people pick on when they get upset with poor people spending inappropriately. On the other hand, the diffference between those and a Tracphone (what my family has – and one for all of us) is about 3,400 dollars over two years, or 1,700 a year – that’s a lot of money for convenience, and a lot of money on an annual income below the poverty line. Not arguing they can have pleasures and benefits, but I’m not sure I buy it.

    Ref on smartphone costs: http://www.pcworld.com/article/168486/smartcost.html

    Tracphone costs are based on our yearly expenditure.

  3. #3 GB Heron
    October 21, 2012

    I agree with z. I don’t think you appreciate the value of a smartphone for communicating with and keeping track of friends and family, entertainment, providing a sense of connectedness even when alone, providing the security of knowing you can call someone if you get in trouble no matter where you are, the ability to document events (good or bad) by taking a video or a picture. Just like a car, a smartphone gives you a lot of power and that’s something everyone wants. If you don’t have money to buy power, connection to allies and resources goes a long way.

    I bet what also happens is that poor people want to camouflage their poverty so they don’t get attitudes from others in public. Hence they carry smartphones. Just like most people who can’t read go to great lengths to conceal that fact. If you just want to go about your business, you want to have the ability to seem “normal” in public, or at least not standing out in a “bad” way.

  4. #4 c.
    October 21, 2012

    I highly recommend reading Ruby K. Payne’s work on poverty. She points out one very important factor – when you are poor relationships matter. They matter more than anything else because they are what will get you a bit of cash or food or a ride or whatever you need at that moment that you cannot get with money. So spending the money on the relationship is always the way the poor will go because they might need that person later. Now, this was in adult interactions, not with a child. But think of that in terms of status within “being poor” and ability to connect within that pool of possible help. Yeah, those choices are made and made again and again and will continue to be made.

    As for your foster son, I’m happy to hear that he is with family that is trying to care for him, however imperfectly it may be. I have friends with a great deal more money who are quite imperfect in their trying with their children too. The attempt to care and the love is what matters and that, that is reassuring there are still people working at it. :D

  5. #5 Sandra Wilson
    October 21, 2012

    My husband and I put off our wedding date for 3 years because we couldn’t seem to come up with $88.50 for a marriage license and $20 for a notary to perform the ceremony (we almost had it once and then the car broke down). My very catholic mother was not pleased.
    People tell me how unusual my son is, in that he doesn’t really fall for the consumerism crap. My sister in law took him somewhere and asked him if he wanted anything from the gift shop and he said no. She was actually disappointed. I used to think that was just one more of his differences that stemmed from his autism, but after reading this, I realize that it at least in part is because he has two parents who love him dearly, weirdness and all (he is very proud of his weird lol).
    I think an occasional splurge is very important to quality of life. I have been guilty of booking a hotel room for the weekend for myself and my husband when we really couldn’t afford it (I use a site that can get me great rooms for less than $50 a night). We do this about every 4-6 months, and it is important for our relationship. We have been together 20 years and still very much enjoy each others’ conversation, but once Jon did start talking, well, he never seems to stop :) and it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise. I have noticed that before we did the hotel thing, we argued a lot more. I grew up in an environment of constant arguing, and it was not good for my psyche.
    I do lots of things to save money in other ways, like gardening, canning, mending clothes, scratch cooking and baking, making my own soaps, rioting for austerity :) etc, and I am sure that those activities more than make up the $100 two or three times a year (heck, the laundry soap alone probably saves that much) and so I don’t feel as guilty spending the money on my marriage.
    Everyone has to make choices and trade-offs, and I think everyone should be free to make the ones that are good for them and their family, and not feel judged for them.

  6. #6 Sandra Wilson
    October 21, 2012

    We have Tracfones, too. I love the prepaid thing, and it costs a lot less than our previous phone contract did. If I don’t have the money to get more minutes, I just do without until I do have the money, rather than being stressed that I can’t pay the bill.

  7. #7 Susie
    October 21, 2012

    Bless you.

  8. #8 Jean
    October 21, 2012

    I was considering the value of the smartphone as a portable computer and communications device in an otherwise unstable world. People with no other reliable computing source, internet access, and phone can use it to search for and obtain employment. Without a stable home with landline, the smartphone will be with them wherever they are, so they can get callbacks for jobs or other needed ways to participate in society. A basic TracPhone will handle the phone capabilities, but when your home is what you can carry — or if someone is moving every few months, the smartphone packs a lot of value in a small space and doesn’t have the added costs of re-establishing a connection during yet another move. There are a lot of reasons for having to move, but the costs associated with it can become overwhelming.

    I hadn’t considered all the uses z mentioned above, but they made a lot of sense, too. Additionally, if used carefully to minimize data costs, it can be used as an effective tool to camouflage poverty as GB Heron mentions.

    It’s a tough road to walk. And for too many, there seems to be no way out.

  9. #9 Shakatany
    October 21, 2012

    I grew up fairly poor. I knew my parents loved me and I knew enough to ask only for a few things that I knew we could afford for my b’day and Xmas. The big difference was that we did not get a TV until I was 7 and back in the 60s there were fewer ads and channels. Now there are 16 minutes of ads per hour continuously trying to manipulate people into buying the product plus all these reality shows featuring the rich and semi-famous. No wonder we are in an era where it’s thought that money can buy happiness by acquiring things and often they are things we really don’t need.

  10. #10 Sierra Volk
    Harrisburg, PA
    October 21, 2012

    Invaluable. Thank you.

  11. #11 Esther
    portland or
    October 21, 2012

    There is also the matter of cheap credit and rent to own. They can’t afford financial security or stability but they can get their hands on the PS3 and the flat screen TV.

    The American way used to be pay people enough so they could buy what we make and sell. Now its just lend us the money to buy the crap.

  12. #12 kaw
    October 21, 2012

    Another fan of the stripped down, prepaid $10 Tracfone. When I had more disposable income, and was generally pretty clueless by choice, I used an iPhone. Sure, smartphones can be useful, but they can also be a chain that keeps you online all the time.

    My obersvation Sharon, is that very few people are willing to truly acknowledge that you are likely spot on in predicting continued economic decline. They’re not ready to hear your message, so they’re going to look for something silly to attack instead.

    I know many people who live close to the margins because they have very money little coming in, but I know many, many, many more who have an income closer to my own and instead try to live as though it was 3-4x what it actually is because of what they perceive as needs and things that “everyone” has. Such as smartphones.. They all drive new vehicles, have big screen TVs, all the gadgets, and so on and think I’m crazy for not having cable, a smartphone, walking whenever possible, and so on.

  13. #13 kaw
    October 21, 2012

    Also? The people I know in the second category? They think they are “poor” because they can’t buy everything they want. They earn enough to get buy on, and to have some treats, but it isn’t enough. It is very rarely ever “enough”, for most people I know. They truly have no concept.

  14. #14 Jean
    October 21, 2012

    kaw, that’s a good observation on the economic decline, which we have largely ignored in this thread. Smartphones are only one aspect of the discussion, and, I suspect, the easier thing to discuss.

    The potential for economic decline we are experiencing now is much scarier. Sharon’s observations (if I captured them correctly) is they will be made worse by people who are angry that they cannot achieve the material things our television culture has taught them to expect. This is a much tougher topic to discuss, and I suspect we’re avoiding it.

  15. #15 z
    October 21, 2012

    Well, you’re cherry-picking the most expensive smartphone plans from the article. Like it says, Palm Pre is $110/month, and there are often promotional deals available, or you could buy one secondhand.

    I’ve never heard of Tracphone, maybe it’s a regional thing? Do they not have internet? Remember, a smartphone removes the expense of separate internet and a computer, so of course people are willing to pay more for it. The great thing about a phone is that even if they shut off the cable and electricity, you can still charge it elsewhere and have internet whereever you go.

    Also, I don’t find smartphones anywhere near as useful in rural areas as I do in the city, especially for real-time public transportation information. Those systems have improved dramatically in the past few years. If you’re not familiar with apps like NextBus, perhaps you’re missing a piece of the story.

  16. #16 Jean
    October 21, 2012

    I think too few people focus on the true riches in their lives — not the material things, but the relationships. As someone mentioned above, relationships are important to people who are economically disadvantaged, because by sticking together, more people can get what they need — transportation, clothes washed, child care, a cup of sugar, you name it. What one doesn’t have, the other does, so over time, everything balances out, and the relationship is symbiotic. Health is another thing we tend to not realize the value when we have it (assuming we’ve been lucky enough to have it to begin with). While money helps, it doesn’t guarantee health.

    I know people without material wealth who are very happy and well adjusted, but I also know people who have “everything” and are miserable. Poor is more than an economic state.

  17. #17 Velo
    October 21, 2012

    Smartphones are fun. They are not necessary. And they are not a substitute for a computer. Please try to look for and apply for a job online without having access to documents (like a resume). No jobs I apply for require only info entered into fillable forms, anyway. Maybe you can apply for jobs at fast food restaurants, but nothing I would be looking for could be done this way. And having one just to see when the next bus is coming seems absolutely absurd.

  18. #18 Aimee
    Oaxaca, Mexico
    October 21, 2012

    I didn’t read the comments so I’m not sure if anyone had brought this up yet, but it is also true that parties and gifts serve a function for the poor that is met in other ways for the richer classes, that function is to build and maintain social webs of mutual support. Here in Mexico, the system of compadre/compadre is vitally important – your compadres re the people you can count on to help you when your breaks down(should you be so lucky as to have one), when the city water fails and you need to wash your clothes, when you lose your job and need a loan, when you have to take care of your dying mother and need Somone to take care of your kids. But in the absence of emergencies, the way these relationships are created and maintained is through parties – baptisms, birthdays, weddings, and funerals. You better believe people remember who brought a good gift to their kid’s baptism and who just showed up to eat and drink free liquor. When you need Somone to drive 100 miles to come get you on the side of the road, or put you up with your five kids or a month, you will thank god you spent so much on gifts for their wedding.

  19. #19 Josh
    October 22, 2012

    Ok I stopped reading about half way. I bet you could write at least a passably intelligent article, but this is just stupid crap. I am 60% below the poverty line, and I have a smart phone. It cost me $56 used. off kijiji, all things considered. It has paid for itself many times to help me find my way with maps, communicate in a timely way, make better buying decisions by looking things up while I’m in the store, saving me time and so forth.

    Your other examples were like that too. Just do the math and it will turn out that in most cases they are in fact being rational. In the case of addiction and so forth, well it’s addiction now isn’t it.

    Get real. The only thing wrong with poor people is that they don’t have any money. That you fail to understand the strategies they use and think you know better illustrates your own hubris and stupidity far more than being due to theirs.

  20. #20 Lucia Mora
    October 22, 2012

    This is a good article, but I can’t help but notice that it still talks about poor people as if we are some sort of separate “THEY”. And many of the commenters do, too.

    We aren’t. We are your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers, sometimes even your relatives. We are not so far removed from you. You just don’t notice us because of how often we *look no different from anyone else*. You can’t necessarily see poor, any more than you can see gay. Gaydar is a myth. Do you take my meaning?

    I think the article gets it spot on with the bit about people expecting the poor to be “more moral.” It is a ludicrous way to think, and cruel. We do not have to prove that we deserve what we have, by spending every penny and every hour working to buy and do only those things that are most necessary, that bring in money.

    Parts of the article and many people in comments are speaking judgmentally from a place of privilege, feeling comfortable, obviously, in talking about what we should and should not do, judging our choices, debating whether we should do this or that. To sit in comfort, knowing your home is safe, that your children can get medical care, and then say “Well, I can’t approve of all their choices, but sometimes people are unfair to THEM,” that is grossest privilege. You CANNOT understand unless you have been there, no matter how much you think you can.

    Instead of blithely talking about what “THEY” should do with what they have, you should be quiet, and listen to what “THEY” have to say. And not be so quick to judge the choices other people make, whether they seem good or bad to you. In the long run, it costs you precious little. Corporations, billionaires, take more money from you, withhold more money from you, than poor people ever shall. And they take from us, too, even though we have less to give.

    It’s very, very easy to talk about not buying luxuries, ever, when you live a life in which you have hope. When you are stripped to the bone, you *know* that $100 or $1,000 won’t make a difference to how screwed you are — you still have thousands in debt with medical bills, the government still denies your disability, you can’t get insurance, you can’t find a job, you can’t afford rent. Sometimes you want the goddamn Kindle, so that when you are couch-surfing with your friends because you have no home, you at least have your books with you. You buy your precious daughter a trip to the amusement park with her friends because you want her to feel like life holds some beautiful things, some surprises. You have a pet, and it may be the only companionship you have.

    There are people who can’t manage money. There are people who make poor choices. Those people can be rich, too. The careless rich people just haven’t committed the cardinal sin of being poor, which is to be barely human. They do not have to be well-behaved and virtuous and humble in order to earn their humanity back. Starting from a position that judges all poor people by assuming that they are among the people who cannot manage, who choose poorly, is a horrible, horrible thing to do. In my experience, as a poor person, networking with other poor people, talking to other poor people as if they were people, and trying to understand their choices, listening to them when they speak about their experiences, most poor folks are doing the best they can with what they have. A shocking number of our families are burdened with illness, mental or physical, not because we are poor, but because these things happen to human beings, and when they do, unless you are exceedingly lucky and wealthy, they tend to tear you down to the mud. The cost is great. Many of us come from poor backgrounds. We never learned to manage money, because to do that, you have to have had money. We maybe grew up “ghetto” or “white trash”, and so we don’t look or sound deserving to people who can hire us, who can give or deny us help, and we either have to change that (do you KNOW how offensive that is, to be told the way you speak is incorrect, to be told that the way you were raised means that you are inherently “less than,” and that to be excused from that, you must literally change who you are?) to “pass,” or be labeled as “trashy.”

    Yes, before you judge the poor for being “trashy,” consider whether things are considered “trashy” because they are associated with being poor. And consider whether that might not be a self-perpetuating loop.

    We are human, as human as you. We make mistakes, we buy things we don’t need, but we also fight for what we have, we save, we balance, we juggle, we try like hell, we love our families and our homes, we feel fear, and hopelessness. We have less to lose than you do, and therefore we cling to it desperately. We are human. Human. And we deserve your respect.

  21. #21 Brad K.
    Ponca City, OK
    October 22, 2012

    Sharon,

    Advertising isn’t the only pressure on poor folk to live an affluent lifestyle. The government food stamps, WIC, and other support programs have a specific purpose, and it is not to help poor people. It is to tide them over, so they continue consuming as if they were middle class, continue buying consumer goods. That is what government support payments are intended to do.

    I look at the supporters of smartphones (mine just qualifies as a cell phone), and see that, for the most part, the use of the smartphone is to continue interacting with others as if they had the resources and needs of the middle class.

    People complain about federal tax dollars spent on foreign aid (money and supplies given to other nations). But the purpose of foreign aid serves America very well, as does government support money to citizens — it builds and defines a relationship, one that the recipient, resentful or not, must mind, to continue the flow of dollars and goods.

    Because American politicians mean the *formal* economy when they say *economy*, the government and producers of *stuff* have a vested interest in keeping the poor buying that stuff.

    What I hear you saying is that more people will learn to cut their utility bill by turning off the hot water heater, at least as a full time (more than one day a week) appliance — as one simple for-instance. And learn to live differently to compensate, rather than find an alternative that preserves the same aspects of the middle class lifestyle.

  22. #22 K
    October 22, 2012

    I thought your article was very insightful.

    I really wish to avoid putting poor people into categories that might not apply to some of us that are “poor”. The class line is drawn just with the writing of this article, but I digress.

    I don’t have a smart phone. I have a jurassic flip phone. I pay 35.00 a month for unlimited talk and text. I don’t have cable. I have internet. I can watch tv on that. I don’t have a landline. I purchase clothing for my children (rarely myself and my clothes are old) at Good Will. I live in a decent place, make excellent use of food stamps that I get and my children are LUCKY if they get a birthday present, but I make sure they have had birthday cake, ice cream and their family around them on their day. I have suffered immense amounts of guilt for not being able to buy senseless items left and right, but that’s okay because now they are old enough, have jobs of their own to buy their own stuff. Cool.
    I was raised in a wealthy home. I could have, and did have, anything that anyone could ever wish for. EVERYTHING. I was never once loved. I receive the most expensive gifts and Christmas was hours of unwrapping gift after gift. Same with birthdays. Yet I was never loved and I lived in the most abusive environment on the planet. It was things that I learned to hang onto because of that lack of love becaues that was shown to be what was important. Money, success, image and all that is attached to it.

    I’m happy poor. Happy in spirit. I have several chronic illnesses and that’s not so great. I’ve lived years of stress from abuse. I was married to an abuser for 20 years, my children all born from this marriage. He never paid a dime of child support. When I was very ill, before diagnosis and could not work, i had to be on ‘welfare” **gasp!**. I was grateful and happy that it was there because I’d rather have a hole in the head than to ask my wealthy, severely abusive family for anything. I’ve healed much from all of that abuse.

    And I gave my children something, even though we were “poor” that can never be bought. My love, affection, care.

    With the above experiences, I really don’t give a crap what people think of me or my situation. Or that I’m “poor”. But it does bother me to see others hurt by it, and many are everyday. Please remember that when you speak of the poor and question or discuss what should or should not be their morality, remember that the wealthy exploit the poor and you wonder why they behave as they do with money. Our culture is all about THINGS. Also, please keep in mind that some of the most neglectful parents I know are those that have money. While the poor buy a child a birthday present at the expense of a phone bill, the wealthy buy their child’s silence to hide behind their abuse. And there is plenty of it, enough to infect an entire forthcoming generation, hence, our current very narcissistic and unkind, materialistic society.

    Let’s not exploit the poor to make our wealthy abusive friends look more altruistic huh?

    Good article.

  23. #23 K
    October 22, 2012

    Lucia,

    I have to say that your post is one of the most HEALTHY I’ve seen here. One more thing I’ll say about poor people: When you’re constantly stripped of your humanity, people that are also “poor” or struggling, whether it’s with finances or even illness, are some of the most humanitarian individuals alive.
    I personally have given money to others I didn’t have to give. I have also taken in children of drug addicted parents who had nowhere to go. I’ve also taken in teenagers who were dying to tell their wealthy, snobby, religious fundie parents that they were gay and knew they would be booted out of their homes. I’ve held their hands and their heads as they cried in my arms or in my lap. Like CHILDREN.

    For all the exploitation, abuse, projection that the poor endure, it is the rich doing it. In this political season, I have never in my life seen the incredible narcissistic, exploitation of the 47% and those on “food stamps” as I have this year. When Romney made that statement, he dehumanized, half the population and made it “okay” for the rest of the 53% to either keep on hating, or to begin too. At the expense of HUMAN BEINGS. A friend of mine, on her way home from work in NYC, passes by a homeless set up by by a bridge near her home. She told me that the nicest people she has ever met were HOMELESS. “It’s gotten so bad in high society (she is a fashion designer), and so abusive, I’d rather spend time with them, then with my own coworkers”

    Go figure. You know what the ‘rich” and “middle class” do with their kids? Get them all I-phones and throw them fifty to a hundred dollars to spend during the day while they’re at work. Lazyiness is not bred amongst the poor, nor is the need to bully others who have less, but this is the agenda of the rich kids…and the middle class too. How is that for class warfare?
    Can’t say I don’t understand this. Because i LIVED it.

    Thanks Lucia for sharing on this thread.

    BTW, Sharon, I really did enjoy your article and thought several of your points valid, if not missing some important elements within the ranks of the poor that would have tied it in better, because you cannot talk about the poor, without implementing the exploitation of them by the rich and the middle class to feel good about what is their narcissism and materialism.

  24. #24 et
    October 22, 2012

    I agree with Lucia. Saying “they” so many times serves only to distance us all from each other.

  25. #25 Wow
    October 22, 2012

    “I’m happy poor.”

    ‘course you could be happy and better off. :-)

    Its a bit like a wealth Dunning-Kruger. Nobody themselves are either rich (“I’m well off, but I struggle to send my three children to the ivy league, so no, I wouldn’t say I’m rich”) or poor (“Well, there’s plenty worse off than use, with no roof over their head. We get by”).

    But no matter how rich you are, there are people who are or could be soon richer than you. And when you’ve got a billion in your name, there’s almost no difference between a billion and ten billion, except you can force others to do things and avoid being forced yourself. So paying taxes, rather than taking food off the table, takes power from the powerful.

    And if you’re powerful, you don’t like that. Even if you wish to use it to do good (like Gandalf).

    It would work better if the wealthy could realise that if nobody else got away with avoiding taxes, they would be no worse off.

    And the tax rate would probably fall if people started paying what was considered the rate.

  26. #26 Sarah
    October 23, 2012

    Most of you clearly have no idea what it means to be really poor. Lucia Mora’s comments are especially accurate however. She is right – you should be listening to what the poor have to say rather than the other way around.

    It is about relationships and it is about not “looking” poor, because people treat you very badly when they know you are. (Why? Because they can. And because people absolutely LOVE to judge, especially when someone can’t fight back.) I used to be that poor, and it’s a very precarious, very vulnerable life. Especially for single parents.

    Gift giving to your kids when you otherwise have nothing is really about this: “my kid never gets to do things with other kids, she is always hearing “no”, I can’t pay for her clothes or for after school activities, I can barely feed her, she thinks a plastic container of cantaloupe from the grocery store is only for birthdays, so I will use whatever available cash that I can to give her the best Christmas presents possible and pay the consequences later, just so she can go back to school and talk about it and not feel like a loser” (and Mom doesn’t feel so much like a loser for her continuous failure, either.) For a day, or for a few hours before you have to go back to work, you get to forget about the struggle, you get to pretend things are ok, pretend that you are a “good provider.” It is about hope, and not having any.

    What Lucia Mora said:
    “There are people who can’t manage money. There are people who make poor choices. Those people can be rich, too. The careless rich people just haven’t committed the cardinal sin of being poor, which is to be barely human. They do not have to be well-behaved and virtuous and humble in order to earn their humanity back.” – If you don’t get it after reading that profound statement, then you don’t want to get it.

    The worst thing about poverty isn’t the poverty. The worst thing is the daily-ness of it, the grinding knowing that things won’t get any better, that it isn’t temporary. The worst thing about it is the psychological pressure, how you come to view yourself because you are poor: worth…less. The worst thing about being poor is the smug superiority of more fortunate people.

    I will never, ever, ever, forget being poor.

  27. #27 Josh
    October 23, 2012

    I came back to check things because this is an important issue, and I was rather jarred to see the author of this blog talk like this, in such an oblivious way. Many parts of Lucia’s post are excellent and I fully agree with them.

    There is as wide variation among the “poor” in terms of quality of decision making as there is among the middle and upper class. Many of the poor consistently make far better, more efficient decisions than the vast majority of the middle class, and certainly the upper class.

    And yet they are still poor. Because they don’t have any money, duh, which ultimately is almost always due to a lack of capital of various forms.

    You talking to me about making “poor decisions” when you live out on a farm spending vast amounts of time to do things that are far more efficiently done through mechanized means, adopt children (highly inefficient from a biological standpoint),

    Middle class people have the option of wasting vast amounts of money on extremely poor, macro scale decisions like equipping their houses with off grid solar electric systems when they are smack in the middle of the city.

    If you ask them why, they will tell you various things about “living a full life”, sometimes riddled with errors or bad logic, and so forth. Not “because it helps me be a more effective person and I need all the help I can get” or “because it is an effective part of my survival strategy on this planet”.

    And for them, everything is fine. It just hacks away at the margin of their wealth.

    Conversely, there are early “retirement” (really financial independence that allows freedom, not the lazing around kind of retirement) extreme types, who notice the efficiency of the methods used by the poor, and adopt them while still making very good money. Net result, they are millionares by the time they are thirty or so. That is the sort of thing that happens when middle class people try to actually be as efficient as the poor.

  28. #28 Wow
    October 23, 2012

    You’ve never seen people in grinding poverty, have you.

    Doesn’t exist much (though it does) in the western world, but pop over to Somalia or Eritrea or other similar places.

    Poverty makes you really REALLY unhappy.

    And what’s wrong with self generation of power in the middle of a city, Josh?

  29. #29 carol gudz
    October 23, 2012

    Maybe I’m revealing my age (50) when I say that the responses strongly defending cellphones feel completely alien to me. I just don’t get it. The feeling is pretty much the same as when years ago people tried to explain the importance of microwave ovens. Searching for deals — do you get free flyers in the mail? Trying to find your way somewhere — do you have a map? Gotta say it sounds very much like phone-addiction. Here’s how you know: try to pass a weekend without the phone. It might be useful to know how you would survive without the cellphone, since cellphone towers are not invincible.

    PS: this is not a rant against the poor — I wholeheartedly appreciate the sense of wanting to have some tokens of what the larger society endorses.

  30. #30 Wow
    October 23, 2012

    It is also a way to show you AREN’T poor.

    Escapism doesn’t have to be via books, movies or daydreams.

  31. #31 NM
    western Oregon
    October 24, 2012

    I’m reminded of something you wrote sometime back, about the changes that generations go through, as they move off the land. My father’s parents were Italian immigrants, and my grandfather gardened and raised a very large portion of the family’s food — enabling them to make it through the Great Depression in fairly good shape.
    This background later proved to be of enormous benefit to my father in the 70s, when he found himself trying to raise three kids on a salary that qualified the family for food stamps; he bought a little 5-acre farm with a small house and a well, and raised all our meat; gardened, and bought produce from u-picks, that he and my mother canned and froze. Despite little glitches, like the well running dry in late summer, we lived quite well, with no food stamps, and I feel deeply privileged to have enjoyed such a childhoood. Also lucky — didn’t see a dentist until age 14, so it’s a good thing I wasn’t cavity-prone.
    But, of course, all of that was made possible by a number of things, starting with the background to know that such a thing was possible, by the way he’d been raised. And the existence of inexpensive u-pick farms, in close proximity. And the existence, then, of traveling butchers, which are harder to come by these days, I hear. And the ability to afford the land. Etc. I suspect it would be more difficult to do today.
    Part of the heartbreak of people trying their hearts out, in a society Designed to keep a certain percentage of the population grindingly poor, is the loss of that kind of knowledge. But also the disappearance of various ways of managing; for example, while someone in a remote village might be just as poor, they might be able to at least cook food over a rocket stove — this might be harder to manage in an American city, when the electricity gets turned off. Not to say that the hypothetical villager doesn’t also have his or her share of problems, or that any of this would be an answer for everyone, just an observation that this is one facet of a multi-faceted issue.
    It’s a good discussion, and so valuable, as we keep seeking solutions, to be reminded of the many things that might not be obvious if you aren’t living in grinding poverty, which is why it’s especially important to be hearing from those who either have done so or are doing so currently.

  32. #32 Greenpa
    http://littlebloginthebigwoods.blogspot.com/
    October 27, 2012

    I’ve been re-reading James Michener recently. Ran into his book “Iberia”; listed as “non-fiction”, a first person account of multiple long stays in Spain, over decades.

    He has straightforward accounts of the deep (utter) poverty endemic to the Spanish countryside that should properly terrify us. It appears permanent, and embedded in the culture. Perhaps exactly as it is, in our own.

    I found his accounts educational and insightful; and for the first time truly realized that all of his books are absolute non-fiction; only presented as novels to prevent him being sued out of existence, or murdered. His Quaker upbringing started him towards a solid humanity I admire; though he seems able to forgive human actions I probably could not.

  33. #33 laura
    Baton Rouge, LA
    November 1, 2012

    I, too, as greenpa above, also have read “Iberia”. I was also in Spain in the early ’70’s before the end of Franco’s regime, when there was a bank closure for 8 or 10 weeks.The people who lived on the island of Formentor (where I was) made fun of those who might have had money in the closed banks…as their world was largely farming and fishing, not yet a cash economy.To my surprise and relief, neighbors brought me food every day, even though as a visitor I had no way to pay them. We settled up financially when the emergency ended. I have never forgotten these people’s grace under pressure, and kindness to me. With sardines hanging on a line to dry, and pigs and kids playing in the yards…

    Again, I’m closer to 60 than 50, and don’t get the cellphone/IPhone thing. I do see it could be helpful if one could master and afford all the “Apps”….

  34. #34 Matt G
    November 4, 2012

    If you are homeless, a cell phone can be a lifeline. How else will a potential employer or social worker get ahold of you?

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