There’s No Nobility in Being Poor

on the lies of meritocracy and how we decided who deserves help

Our society is afflicted with the myth that those that deserve to have something, will. That those who deserve something, can with great perseverance and effort achieve whatever they choose to. This is the lie of Meritocracy, the grand philosophy upon which the classical American Dream is built on. This is the philosophy that has us idolize the work, idolize the rags to riches narrative that seems to underpin the story of every person we look up to. It is also what tells us that those who do not have something do not deserve to.

From here the idea of the “noble poor” is born: there are those without that deserve to have the security and comforts that we do, who despite being people of upstanding character are forced to live in poverty. This is the tragedy of the story, where good people are failed by an ugly society. We seen this in stories of people like, Mike, a UK citizen who called into a radio station to tell a heartbreaking story of what it’s like not to be able to even feed himself. You see, Mike is a good citizen, a man who is out there every day looking for work despite his hunger, a man whose pride won’t allow him to accept charity from others because he wants to earn it.

Mike’s story is heartbreaking, not because he represents so many others who live without security, but because he deserves better. He lives without basic luxuries such as television, and only accepts food from the food banks because he has to. The tragedy of the noble poor is a narrative that tells us in a society where everyone earns what they have by their own hands to accept charity is a failure of character. I say this not to pathologize people like Mike, but to draw attention to how this idea serves to continually prevent those who need help from seeking it, and furthermore, how it informs our ideas of who is “deserving” of that help. There are an uncountable amount of others in situations like his, ones who suffer under a system that refuses them even basic security. We fixate on stories like his, however, pouring in sympathy and spreading it around without giving more than a throwaway thought towards the systems that create this suffering. Even worse, these stories are used to dehumanize others in similar situations.

Stories like Mike’s are elevated to serve as a moral counter to the images of phantasmic “welfare queens”, women who somehow live off of food stamps and welfare checks, absorbed in luxury, surrounded by towers of canned food paid for by us, the taxpayers. These narratives often bask in fatphobic, sexist racial caricatures ,the flipside of the noble poor, people who exist off the hard work of others and take away from those deserving, especially those other poor people.

Both of these narratives serve as tools for choosing who is allowed our sympathy, and like the now infamous “no angel” label applied to Michael Brown, are often intrinsically linked to issues of discrimination.

Together, these extremes set up a dichotomy from which there is no position where you can be free from criticism. Look to the reactions to Syrian refugees, seen fleeing into Europe to escape the brutal war being waged within their homeland . Among the reactions to the crisis, photos of the refugees using smartphones garnered particular attention. One particular commenter presented a photo of a woman in a hijab taking a selfie, captioned with “Poverty stricken Syrian migrant takes selfie with her $600 smartphone.”

These images are used to call into question the status of these refugees, to paint them as frivolous people who deserve to be in the situation they are in because they prize their luxury over their safety. Underlying sentiments of xenophobia, Islamophobia are compounded with a sexist disdain for selfies. Let us not forget, critiques around selfies almost exclusively leverage sexist views of women as vain, self-absorbed people to create character attacks. Nevermind that technology allows them to take an otherwise ubiquitous medium (the self portrait, medium of choice for many a male oligarch) to document their lives and control the way the present themselves to the world.

There’s a malicious kind of ignorance required to be this disconnected from the conditions and living situations of these people, one that demands nothing short of asceticism to achieve the “nobility” required for sympathy. As the CBC explains , these smartphones act as lifelines for these people. The widespread adoption and rapid obsolescence of smartphones has made relatively powerful smartphones cheap and accessible. Moreover, these allows low-cost, or even free, access to communication, information about the outside world needed to survive.

Even for those not fleeing a destabilized nation, smartphones provide access to jobs and education at a minuscule cost in comparison to home internet services. In my more desperate moments I’ve gotten by using the mobile internet of my $35 phone service to send emails and access sites I need for work and school. Almost every school or job requires some online component at this point, and at the minimum requires a working phone line for contact purposes, something I learned the hard way after attempting a semester without internet. You can’t get a call back from a job on a phone line that doesn’t exist, and you can’t do your online quizzes without the internet. In fact, you can’t even sign up for jobs or classes without the internet in most places. And if you’re reliant on someone else to get you to and from these places? Good luck getting it all done within the limited time you have.

These presumptions of what is considered a luxury are not only outdated, but ignore the real necessity of these devices in a world that is increasingly dependent on them.

More than that, the attitudes that define what is a luxury often deny the simple humanity in being able to access things that have often become everyday fixtures in many people’s home. The idea that someone who has a flatscreen TV or an Xbox must be spending their money irresponsibly is absurd, and often damaging. Aside from ignoring the circumstances in which they purchased those (my experience in retail means I’ve seen many families come in with just enough saved up cash to purchase these devices), it shames people for wanting access to joys that have become routine, or even mundane,to us.

It also ignores the value of being able to engage in the cultural conversation around us, and how that affects our esteem and social well being. In a piece for Offworld, Daniel Starkey describes in the detail the psychic toll it took on him to see others around him with access to art and media that he didn’t have, and how the realization that his family couldn’t afford it left him questioning if he deserved less. For someone hungry to learn more, computers and digital piracy gave him a gateway to knowledge and experiences that would later allow him to build a career.

This is something that we rarely discuss in our judgments of poverty. There is a heavy emotional cost to poverty. Without a guarantee of security household, providers often find themselves working in a state of constant anxiety. The knowledge that you can put all of yourself into your work and still come home next week to a notice that your water is being cut off places a crippling emotional burden on a person. And these jobs often also drain you of the energy needed to seek out education or opportunities to improve your situation.

These anxieties also have a tendency to trickle down to the children of those households. Even without direct knowledge of their situation, children of poor families can pick up enough from comparing themselves to their peers to understand what they are missing. Access to television, or yes, even cable or videogames, can alleviate those anxieties. They provide not only a connection to the world at large, but to others in your social space. Being able to say, talk about The Walking Dead with kids in your high school may seem trivial, but it gives you conversational entrances and helps form bonds with others. It’s a way to feel less alienated in a world where you are constantly reminded what you’re missing.

These anxieties can be magnified for immigrants looking to get settled into a new culture. Local television provides access to the culture, as well as gives them a safe space to practice a new language or cultural idioms. News keeps them informed on current events and provides context to cultural norms and values. For all the howling about immigrants refusing to integrate with our culture (a nonsensical sentiment with too many issues of its own) those who make that criticism seem very uninterested in the process of how that happens.

It’s a process that should be familiar to anyone with social media these days. How many friends have you made bonding over common interests? Your favorite movies or bands? These connections are so common that dating sites and other social networks often put them front and center to help form conversational starting points. Think about how Facebook and Twitter recommend others people and groups similar to you. Think about how Tinder and OkCupid present media interests as a preface for whether or not you may have something in common with another person.

Without the internet, without smartphones you wouldn’t even be reading this. I couldn’t write it, and you couldn’t read it. To lambast those living in poverty for wanting access to this, and to these wide networks of connections is to deny them of the humanity that desires that connection. People in dire situations shouldn’t have to be saints to have our sympathy, and they shouldn’t have to live like monks in order to deserve security.

Thanks to Jetta Rae for editing this piece and helping with its direction.