“Poor people buy dumb stuff.”
“Poor people are complicit in their own continued economic oppression.”
“How can he be homeless, he has a cell phone?”
This kind of rhetoric is all too familiar to anyone living in poverty, as it is to me, a historically poor person, by which I mean that I am the only one of eight siblings with a college degree, three of who are or have been incarcerated, none of us knowing our fathers, all having lived at some point in manufactured housing — in short — trailer trash. I offer for context that I’m actively looking to purchase a water tower inside of which I plan to build a house.
I don’t have a particularly good reason for this scheme, it’s just one of many fantasies that have grown wild in the part of my brain uncoupled from a middle-class reality, which has never seemed relevant to me. Anyway, as a historically poor person who has recently made money with a variety of publishing projects, I’ve felt free to imagine all sorts of impractical futures. When I told my boyfriend (a lovely, reasonable person who has never been poor) about this plan, he pointed out various problems with my water-tower scheme, things like its dubious resale value and that the metallic cylindrical structure would be really loud inside. I am not dissuaded by these practical realities.
I’m not saying that all poor people are as ridiculous as I am but when I read that Mike Tyson had three pet Bengal tigers I never wondered, why? I know WHY, we buy tigers. My questions are more logistical; how much does a tiger cost? How often does it eat? Can it live in a water tower?
There is a sort of freedom in this dystopian era of late-stage capitalism, a systematic widening of the wealth gaps has created a world where the rich grow richer and the poor, falling into the gulches, build ever more fantastical tent cities. Look under any freeway here in Seattle, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and you will find three-story mansions made of tarp, and cardboard box abodes adorned with Mercedes Benz hood ornaments. Or, as I saw recently, a geodesic dome constructed out of umbrellas spray-painted gold. It has become clear to those of us at the bottom of the ladder that the system is rigged, and unless you are born somewhere close to the middle class, the climb is a folly. You might one day out-climb your student loans, but by then, in this great America, land of the uninsured, your body will begin to break down and you’ll be saddled with new and impossible to get clear of debts. The poor know that the cost of being poor is continued poverty, so fuck it, we say, why not live in a water tower with no resale value?
Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton University a researcher on the scarcity mentality, or the why-of why-poor-people-are-poor debate, writes about the narrowing of focus that poverty causes, the obsessive attention that must be given to the immediate needs of one’s life. For those in poverty, this narrow focus is unrelenting, and the price of it is a mental taxation so significant that as Shafir’s study shows it actually lowers IQ. “Our effects correspond to between 13 and 14 IQ points,” Shafir says. “That’s comparable to losing a night’s sleep or the effects of alcoholism.”(1) It’s difficult to make decisions when you’re under the constant stress of lack. Anyone who has worked for minimum wage will tell you that it becomes almost impossible to think about the future when you are struggling to just get through today.
Sure, you can hold the same abstractions, the dreams and fantasies others might harbor; but without a fair stroke of incredible luck, it’s just not gonna happen. This is why poor people buy lottery tickets. They are not ignorant of the insurmountable odds, but for five bucks, you can hold hope in your pocket, the intoxicating possibility of jumping socio-economic tracks.
Sure, flukes happen. Poor folks get rich once in a while and we have neologisms for this phenomena: “Nouveau Riche, Parvenu, new money, or my favorite Boganoueois (bow-gen-waa), a term I learned from a Tasmanian friend. The rednecks in Tasmania (Australia has a host of inventive class-specific terminology) are colloquially called bogans, and because of the boom in labor-intensive industries like construction, there is nascent crop of bogans with money, but when you get the money without the generational culture of investment, education, and false modesty, this dynamic results in the same thing down under as it does here; McMansions, flashy cars, and horror of horrors, colored Christmas lights.
Turns out, tigers are much like colored Christmas lights. In a paper for the publication Sociology, Tim Edensor and Steve Millington, investigated the expression of class differences in the UK by studying lawn ornaments and Christmas decorations (2). They reported that people from working class backgrounds favored colored lights and gaudy baubles much to the chagrin and expressed disgust of their well-off neighbors, which is really no surprise to me. If you work a grim job trading physical labor for too little pay, you might also need to come home to some artificial brightness. For the nouveau riche, this taste for the gaudy extends beyond Christmas decorations. Ponder the phenomena of bedazzled jeans and oversized personal-wealth-indicator jewelry such as the diamond encrusted crosses worn by the indomitable Mike Tyson, a patron saint of the nouveau riche. When poor people get ahold of money, they want to let people know about it. “Behold my wealth!” they shout through gold encrusted teeth.
Eschewing blatant display the wealthy favor the well made but inarguably bland. I regarded a high-end women’s clothing catalog recently and marveled at the beige of it all. For three hundred dollars, one can purchase a modestly cut short sleeve shirt in any of the standard white people skin colors; from skim-milk-almost-blue to I-summer-in-Palm Springs-leather-brown. The entire catalog has the texture of a yawn, not one embroidered dragon on any of the forty pages. This catalog is the opposite of the nouveau riche aesthetic. These clothes, in their riot of ecru and buff, do not announce that you have money, but that you come from money, which is an important distinction any wealthy person would like you to make. Only new money buys tigers.
If you look up nouveau riche it is defined as, “a derogatory term to describe those whose wealth has been acquired within their own generation”. This definition gets to the heart of the matter. The Randian American mythos would have us believe that hard work and self-made fortunes are our countries’ ultimate ideal but this is a thinly veiled and destructive lie that keeps the underclass laboring toward the impossible. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once called poverty a “personality defect,” and I bring her attitudes into this essay not as a pro-Keynesian argument but to further make this point; those of us who had the temerity to be born poor people will always remain poor people, even if we get ahold of some money. This is a system set against us and there will be no change without a complete dismantling.
There is a growing swell of fed-up folks who have towed the line to diminishing returns for too long — minimum wage workers, people who went to college only to be crippled by the resulting debt, working class citizens and small business owners that are falling between the cracks as the cost of living far outpaces their pay. This dissatisfaction has made room for the dangerous demagoguery of anyone claiming to be against the status quo — “down with the liberal elite!” they say and the legion of working class people say, “yes!”. In desperate times, we are willing to declare the enemy of our enemy a friend, it is no wonder the rise of our current administration, but therein lies another trap. These demagogues are turning the disenfranchised against each other which further strengthens the prevailing system. Xenophobia offers no answer. It isn’t the immigrant taking the bread from your table, it is the wealthy, as it has always been.
I want more for those who have less. I’ve always considered myself a capitalist but the system is broken, it is a parasite killing it’s host. Now give me a candidate that will champion equal access to healthcare, education, and more radically Universal Basic Income, that’s a person I’d vote for. The common point made against Universal Basic Income is that given relief from the pressures of daily survival, people will become drug addled wastrels, doing little more than playing video games and committing onanism. This is so spurious and classist an argument it could have come from the Iron Lady herself. The intention of UBI is to provide relief from urgency, to lessen poverty stress, to put the fundamentals of daily life within reach for everyone. And maybe the mindset of poor people wouldn’t be so ravenous for short-term thrills if they could imagine a long-term future.
This is not to say that all of any class has defining traits. We’ve all heard of heiresses that spend their lives collecting small dogs and making sex tapes while others apply themselves to altruism or world domination. Some poor people work hard and others make meth and raise pit bulls. As Heraclitus said, “character is fate,” you are either a Cheeto eating chronic masturbator or you aren’t. To say that UBI will create an underclass of freeloading, lazy, poor people content to ride the taxpayer’s coattails is to say that poor people have nothing better to do with themselves than live hand-to-mouth. It is to say that they have no imagination, no desire to create, no drive toward self-improvement, that they would never write, build boats, make music. In short, it is an elitist and anti-humanist position.
But back to those tigers. There is common belief that poor people are dumb, that we are self-defeating and make bad financial decisions, that we are essentially the instruments of our own continued economic oppression. This is a fallacy that becomes obvious when you consider the wider socio-economic picture. Rich people spend money on ridiculous things, too, but it isn’t held against them unless it changes their overall economic standing, and, in that situation, it will likely be dismissed as a “bad investment.” Or, in extreme cases, for example if you spent the family fortune on hookers and aardvarks, it will be chalked up to a breakdown or a mid-life crisis. A temporary pathology will be attributed as responsible rather than an inherent defect.
While there are no born differences between the rich and poor, there are learned behaviors and survival mechanisms that serve an individual well in scarcity but work to their detriment in times of plenty. Delayed gratification, for example, is often cited by sociologists and economists in this context. Those who come from upper middle-class backgrounds with parents that saved for their college, whose vocabulary includes terms like financial planning and compound interest… those people understand delayed gratification. They know that one must put aside immediate desires for distant often intangible returns.
On the other hand, poor people grab what is in front of them while the grabbing is good because life has taught them that the system is unjust and the future is so grim that you might as well buy an albino python with your tax return because even though you will still be poor, at least you’ll have a cool snake.
I am bad at many things, this delaying of gratification among them, which is why I am both fat and often broke. I’m not one to put off for tomorrow the pasta of today. No diet works for me because every day is cheat day, and anytime I get an advance or a royalty check, my impulse is not to put the money in some kind of interest yielding account but to buy bigger tires for my jeep.
Sometimes, I think about buying a pirate ship, bouncy castle, or other impractical things that I very loosely think of as “investments.” When I have these impulses I try to remind myself that middle age is around the corner and that I should really start planning for the future. In these situations I’ll generally compromise and treat myself to something modest, like a peacock, which I’m fairly certain can live in the backyard if I just figure out how to keep it safe from those Australian possums I imported last week. I’d probably buy a tiger too, but I’m not a big cat kind of person and really, how many animals can I fit in a water tower?
- Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Why Having Too Little Means So Much.” Times Books (September 3, 2013)
2. Tim Edensor and Steve Millington, “Illuminations, Class Identities and the Contested Landscapes of Christmas”, Sociology, Vol. 43, №1 (February, 2009)