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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

93

"The Logic of Stupid Poor People," Or, the Only Thing Worth Reading About the Barneys "Shopping While Black" Arrests

Recently, police at Barneys New York have been catching well-deserved heat for detaining and arresting black shoppers buying luxury items; also catching heat are the shoppers, particularly the nursing student Kayla Phillips, who bought her Celine purse with her tax refund and took the subway back to Canarsie and, according to some people, has no business buying a $2,500 purse anyway.

Tressie McMillan Cottom takes this issue on hard and perfectly: why "we hates us some poor people," because "first, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags." Why might "they" do this? Tressie gets into it.

I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. [...] How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child?

[...] You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

[TressieMC]



93 Comments / Post A Comment

calamity

That was an absolutely fantastic read. Thanks.

allendaniel

Really nice work@a

hungrybee

"Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied." My, she's excellent.

adorable-eggplant

This essay is so absolutely perfect. It is the most incisive essay I have read on this subject. Sharing with everyone I know.

Also, this part made me cry at my desk, because that is true for me too: "I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield." Thanks, parents.

OhMyGoshYouGuys

Yesterday, a Marketplace reporter (who is latina) was talking about her own experience of being followed around in stores.

"I was followed by security. And I'm looking at the other female shoppers who were not of color -- no one's following them around," she says. "And the assumption at the register was that I was going to wear the dress I was buying and try to return it."

But then she started shaming the kid who bought that Ferragamo belt, saying that was his real crime--buying something so expensive to acquire instant status.

"Within the urban community, the assumption is that you can buy status," Wong Ulrich says. "So these kids grow up around these department stores and all they want with their first paychecks -- such as with that young man who spent $350 on a belt, which was his real crime -- is to get something that conveys status. Because it's something that they feel like they can actually buy -- as opposed to they feel like everything is against them in terms of getting a college degree and actually advancing in the workplace. Buying that $350 belt was instant status for this guy."

I guess she was saying that she earned her status and these young people being profiled didn't. I'm not sure why she even brought that up. Isn't the issue simply that stores shouldn't profile? Her comments aren't making her case stronger in my opinion.

http://www.marketplace.org/topics/your-money/shopping-while-black-and-paying-respectability-tax

adorable-eggplant

@OhMyGoshYouGuys But going to college also = buying status. I'm still writing a monthly check AND as the essay above points out, buying status (belt, college) can allow for leveraging status, which is exactly what you need to get by under the current economic arrangement.

Ellie

@adorable-eggplant That's an interesting point about buying status via an education; I wouldn't have thought of it that way. Of course, college is a way to obtain status and it costs money. On the face of it, it didn't strike me as exactly the same way, because going to college says something more about you beyond simply having purchasing power while you could argue that having status-object possessions only speak to the purchasing power, but of course it's kind of chicken/egg because you might have got the purchasing power by going to college. Really interesting thing to think about.

peasofmind

@Ellie

Definitely interesting. Education and material goods are certainly different, but people do refer to college (or used to, anyway) as a "ticket to the middle class." It's still a status marker that can be purchased. (Though the middle class itself isn't exactly robust and thriving these days . . .)

Don'tcallmeJenny

@Ellie Also the where you go to college counts too and that *is* an issue of purchasing power. Saying you went to a "brand name" school is going to automatically open a lot of doors for you, but you need to put up a lot more money than you would for your standard state school.

redridinghoodrat

@peasofmind It is insane how many $11/hr jobs in my city (LA) require at least a bachelor's degree, even if your area of study has nothing to do with the job description. I never finished my degree, and it's been a burden. But I'd say my friend's 80,000+ student loans are a bigger burden.

adorable-eggplant

@redridinghoodrat Currently 80k is the bigger burden, but like the other status symbols it's a gamble and if it does get your friend through the gate, then they can expect it to pay dividends over a life time: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/the-return-on-college-around-the-world/

adorable-eggplant

@adorable-eggplant Not that I think going to college is good in itself! Or that it measures intelligence or persistence or anything else! Just that the mind-boggling debts are actually not quite so mind boggling over time. Not a judgement at all.

ETA: I'm also the only person in my family to finish college, and I make the least by a landslide, so averages don't tell the whole story on the individual level.

SexySadie

I love TMC and usually find her to be really insightful. Full disclosure: I'm at work and haven't read the linked piece yet, but to me, this excerpt doesn't sit right in the context of the $2500 Celine bag that's referenced here. I COMPLETELY get the desire/need to spend outside one's means to have clothes, hair, accessories, nails that signal a higher social status. But how is a $2500 Celine bag going to get your child more attention at school? Or more help at the Welfare office? I would 100% be on board if we were criticizing a lower-income person buying a $200 Coach bag, or clothes from Banana Republic.

There's a LOT to be said about wealthier people criticizing the purchasing decisions of lower-income people, but I guess I draw the line somewhere, and buying a $2500 Celine bag when you can't afford it, in my opinion, crosses that line. That said, whether or not people could "afford" what they were buying when they were stopped by security is irrelevant and doesn't take away from the unfairness of these incidents.

vine fruit

@SexySadie The main point of the article, as I read it, is to counter the people who condemn poor people who buy any status items by saying that status items can and do make a difference. She's not necessarily saying that a $2500 Celine bag is necessary. But she's also saying that it's easy and not necessarily fair for people who aren't that kind of poor to make the kind of call you're making - that there's a threshold somewhere of money that is appropriate to spend on a luxury item when you're in x financial situation.

She's also saying that purchasing luxury items is, for people who are poor, partially an emotional decision - something that feels important. And that isn't less legitimate or based on reality than logic, even if you think you can draw a direct conclusion about why she's (still) poor from the kind of things she chooses to spend her money on.

stuffisthings

@SexySadie But where's the income threshhold at which other people are allowed to start judging you for your purchases?

Better to Eat You With

@stuffisthings Never. It's none of anybody else's business.

vine fruit

@Better to Eat You With Yup!

SexySadie

So, my original comment came across as more judgy than I intended. However, having read Tressie's article now, my mind still isn't changed. She makes an excellent point about benefits lower-income people can get from spending outside their means to present themselves a different way. And apart from that, I think "poor people" are entitled to spending on entertainment and indulgences just like non-poor-people. I mean, I think all of us have spent money we shouldn't have just b/c we wanted a pick-me-up. That said I do think there are limits to these arguments (which apply to people at a range of income levels, including my own). And I don't think that I'm being overly judgmental for suggesting that for some people, most people in fact (again, myself included) buying a $2500 handbag is irresponsible. This is not the same as like, criticizing someone for getting a manicure or having an iPhone when they don't have a lot of money.

For the record, when I read these stories about racial profiling the financial responsibility of the parties involved never even crossed my mind. Not the point. I did think it absurd for a 19 year old dude to be buying a $350 belt, though.

bombazinedoll

@SexySadie Do I understand why someone would spend $350 on a belt or $2500 on a purse? Maybe not, but aside from the points made in the article, you're judging people on a criteria that you don't actually know. There was nothing in the first article to suggest that woman hadn't saved up for the bag. If anything, it suggests that she wanted it for a while and waited until she had the money. Is spending that kind of money financially irresponsible if you've saved up and that's the sort of splurge purchases you want to make? Maybe for some people, going out for a drink with your friends on the weekend would seem irresponsible. Or buying your lunch at work, rather than bringing one.

Irresponsible is living outside of your means. It's not someone spending their discretionary funds on something that you personally don't see the point of.

SexySadie

@bombazinedoll I agree with you 100%! Note that I never said this particular woman was being irresponsible - I don't know anything about her situation! Maybe she views her tax refund as money to buy an indulgence for herself, or maybe she was was adding to her credit card debt. I dunno! I'm afraid my comments make it sound like I'm walking down the street checking out people's bags/belts and judging who should and should not have them. I just feel that some of the comments on this thread have more of an "anything goes" attitude that suggests that people can buy absolutely ANYTHING they want and it's justified/not irresponsible because they (1) gain important social benefits from it (2) want to treat themselves. That's what I disagree with, because I think there are common sense limits to that.

alexah

The fact of the matter is, it's their money, that they earned, they can do whatever they please with it. They can set it on fire if it strikes their fancy. And it feels to me that this whole discussion of "yes, it's terrible they were profiled, but really they probably shouldn't be spending their money on these wasteful things." is in a sense, profiling as well. No one would ever question a rich seeming white person spending that much on a purse or a belt.

vine fruit

@SexySadie When you say "irresponsible," that's giving money a moral dimension, which it does not by nature have. What's the scenario in which buying a $2500 purse becomes "irresponsible"? A person ends up without the money to pay his or her electricity bill, say? That is a situation in which there will probably be consequences - like having the electricity cut off, or the bill going to collections and having it affect your credit rating - but does that make it morally bad? I don't think so. A decision with negative consequences is just a decision, and implying that a person is somehow less good or less adult or whatever "responsible" means is, I think, neither kind nor useful.

queenofbithynia

Having to make the status argument, although it makes perfect sense, is strange to me -- strange that it should be a necessary defense against this attack -- because I've always heard poor people criticized for their/our stupidity in not buying high-quality luxury personal goods. You know -- it's so so dumb to buy a $30 pair of pleather boots from payless/Goodwill that won't last a season when you should be smart and buy a $400 pair made out of real leather that's resoleable and a cobbler can keep going for you for the rest of your natural life, because that would be cheaper in the long run. And then you have to patiently explain that you are not dumb and you do actually know that nice things are nicer than not-nice things, and the reason you buy the shitty personal good is not because you have no impulse control or taste or sense of wastefulness, but because you don't have $400 goddamn dollars and you do need something to put on your feet right now, today.

and likewise, a super fancy belt or bag from a high-end manufacturer is exactly the kind of "investment piece" that I thought we were all supposed to be scraping and saving for instead of buying the disposable garbage that is all many of us can afford. I thought that was an example of the counterintuitive thriftiness of the deserving rich, that they had the cleverness to throw money at accessories because Quality Lasts. I mean, not that poor people would do this simply because rich people do it, but that rich people do it because it is actually a worthwhile thing to do, when you can.

& even though I am not poor these days in the sense that serious people mean it, I have similar spending habits for similar reasons, and I absolutely would drop a thousand dollars on a single bag or pair of boots, if I ever had a thousand dollars handy, because that's a smart fucking thing to do.

MrsTeacherFace

@queenofbithynia I will never agree that it is smart to spend $1,000 on any item of clothing/accesory, no matter how long it lasts.

hahahaha, ja.

@queenofbithynia: It seems to me that the mantra of "save up and buy quality" is usually aimed at people who see themselves as middle class, by other people who see themselves as middle class, whereas the sort of judgment described here is reserved entirely for the Poors. In any case, I don't think the point is where we personally draw the line between "smart investment" and "not a smart investment," the point is that we should recognize why others might make these choices when we insist that we never would.

RubeksCube

@queenofbithynia Oh wow, thank you thank you thank you. I have heard this argument "Why do people shop at Walmart/Target/insert cheap-ass place here for clothes when they could buy something that will actually last at a better store??" Ummm, because they can't afford to. "But in the long run, it's cheaper!" But in the short run, maybe they'd like hot water. It especially irritates me coming from people who should "know better" - i.e. someone in particular that I'm thinking of, who actually did grow up poor and now has quite a bit of status/wealth. Hits me right in my rage centers.

Spaghettius!

@hahahaha, ja. "Save up & buy quality" always seems tempered by the other side of the coin, "Buy this season's hottest ______!!!" (which, when you wear it again next season, will look readily identifiable as outdated and overplayed.) So how does this work, exactly?
Some people's response to this is to stick with things that are basic and classic (clothes more so than technology, obviously), but some people *would* like to treat themselves to the ability to participate in the present moment. If you have the money, that means you can have something really nice that you will soon be replaced with the next nice thing; if you don't have money, you buy a flimsy knock-off version that will conveniently fall apart when the season is over. Being who I am and coming where I come from and knowing the money I make, my choice in terms of spending habits is my own, but it's impossible to not at least *hear* the siren song of "moar cool stuff NOW" at every corner. Why do people forget that when they judge other people's purchasing decisions?

Super Nintendo Chalmers

@Spaghettius! Definitely agreed about the tension of the "buy quality" vs. "hot new trend" messages. ALSO, even if you buy a "classic" piece I'd be really hard pressed to think of something that would just never ever be out of style, which is not so much about being on the bleeding edge of trendiness, but also not looking like you climbed out of a time machine from 10 years in the past. Even with classic pieces there are changes to the overall design that are based on whatever's of-the-moment, the changes are just more subtle than they would be with something that's more fast-fashion.

she came in through the bathroom window

@queenofbithynia You are so right. That's just one of the many ways that it's EXPENSIVE to be poor, because you don't have the luxury of saving up for things. It even applies to non-luxury items. You can be at Target, looking at the jumbo box of tampons (or the multipack of toilet paper, or whatever), and do the math, and say "It would be way cheaper if I bought this 36-pack of tampons for 9 dollars versus this 15-pack for 6 dollars, but I only have thirty dollars to my name until payday, so I have to buy the smaller pack with the higher unit cost because I am bleeding right now and I also want to eat, even though I know I'm going to have to spend 6 dollars on this again next month." It ends up being a vicious cycle.

And there are so many people who come from privilege who really don't understand what that means -- that someone can't just charge it, that they can't just borrow the money from family, that ALL THEY HAVE is that thirty dollars.

dirkbenedict'sfeatheredhair

@she came in through the bathroom window I have gone through that exact thought process in the drug store! Ugh. It definitely makes the whole "gosh why don't you just buy bulk goods and save money, silly" argument grate on the nerves.

twirl2

Wow, that essay took my breath away, it really described a lot of what I experienced but did not put in words as I transitioned from a poor household in childhood (marginally educated poor white, but not dignified genteel poor white) to "normal" middle to upper class adulthood. Thank you for posting, Jia. Now I will proceed to feel a lot, for everyone who is poor (or even not that poor), and making decisions about status and presentation. None of us really knows whether they are dumb decisions or smart decisions, do we?

hungrybee

@twirl2 These reflections on the habits of the gatekeepers really resonate with me. I once heard a male, white executive criticize another male, white executive for wearing a crew neck undershirt rather than a V neck, and therefore having a bit of the collar peek out when he took his tie off and undid the top of his button-front. They were both raised poor, but one came from working class roots and one came from genteel poverty. I bet you can guess who was who.

How do you learn the markers? How do you decide what's a fair price to pay to signal your right to be in the club? Add gender and race to this class-driven gatekeeping, and it just gets more insidious.

peasofmind

@hungrybee

Wait, I'm actually curious who was who in that situation--who criticized the crewneck? I think some people who were raised in poor households were brought up with very strong ideas about the "right" way to present oneself, whose parents kept impeccable houses, who were always incredibly clean and neatly dressed. And I wouldn't necessarily describe those people as coming from "genteel poverty."

Maybe I'm just not clear on what you mean by working class poverty versus genteel poverty?

hungrybee

@peasofmind The one who made the comment remarked that having your undershirt collar showing marks you as coming from the working classes. Which I do come from, so this was news to me. This is how I first learned how subtle class markers could really be, and how much poor, working, and middle class people are judged by how well they understand them. Sickening, right?

MrsTeacherFace

That's an amazing article; I hadn't thought about many of her points before.

As an aside to her main point (obviously this isn't her main point) I know our situations are different, but it makes me a little glad that I'm a teacher rather than a person in the business world, because I will probably never wear anything made of silk or carry a purse that costs more than $100, and it's horrifying to think that something like that could cost anyone a job they're otherwise qualified for.

Mira

@MrsTeacherFace Yeah, this was an incredible read. I'm so glad to have read it.

This kind of thing costs people jobs all the time - I've seen it myself in the nonprofit world, where people are expected to be a very particular type of "poor" (i.e. okay with personally making very little money, but from a wealthy enough background that you can afford that, and preferably with a degree from a super-elite college). This article came as a really good reminder to be more careful with my own unconscious judgments in general.

archived

I really liked this article, and found the argument interesting - a perspective I had never thought of. But I still hate that how [poor] individuals spend their money even needs to be justified or discussed at large.

It reminds me of that report that came out several years ago that exposed and broke down how "the poors" actually own stuff, causing a lot of uptight rich people to clutch their pearls and tsk tsk. (I hesitantly link to the Heritage Foundation study: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/07/what-is-poverty)
About a year ago I got into a big argument with a friend's fiance about the fact that poor people dared to own things like TVs and video game consoles - this was a guy who had just returned from an 8 week European vacation and lived in a $4000/month 1 bdrm apartment, a guy who comes from wealth I can't even conceive of and who walked into a job in his families business likely making more than my parents and I combined. He legitimately thought that because they were poor they shouldn't own such "luxury items" (the fact that nothing in the study shows that these items were new when purchased - or even purchased rather than received as a gift was lost on him.)

Ugh, I don't know where I am going with this, I'm just left with a feeling of frustration at the condescending tone taken towards these shoppers. As a person who grew up not quite poor, but not quite middle class I can just totally relate to the ecstatic moment of opening up a tax return check and thinking I could finally buy myself something exciting, maybe I never bought a $2500 purse, but I can relate to that desire.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@archived Please please tell me that this guy then sold one of his expensive possessions to buy groceries for a less-wealthy family, or that he got Robin Hooded.

EleanorHiggsByson

@archived I really like your comment -- the amount of judgment directed at the way people show their wealth (or lack thereof) is astounding; our society as a whole places a shit-ton of character value on the way people (everyone) spend their money: when rich people dress in jeans, they are considered "down to earth", whereas poor people who spend what looks like too much money are accused of being irresponsible (never mind the fact that the one judging likely has NO IDEA where that money came from -- could've received a gift! who knows?). And yet in terms of character value linked to class, Richer people give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than poorer people. WTF, everyone? I think it really becomes back down to the idea that regardless of personal wealth, our consumerist culture hits us all equally hard, but it hurts rich people less. ARGH.

SarcasticFringehead

@archived It's like when people are *shocked* that poor people have computers or internet or smartphones - those things aren't luxuries, they're pretty much the only way to get information and find government resources and look for jobs and any one of a million other things people have to do. There are some places where, if you go in looking for a job, they'll tell you to go home and fill out the application online. But I guess that's what happens when you haven't had to actually look for a job in years/ever, because you live by networking with your rich friends.

Or the argument that homeless people shouldn't waste money on cell phones, as if cell phones are a) a needless luxury in the age of disappearing public phones and b) somehow eating up all the money the person would otherwise use for rent.

RNL
RNL

@archived What complicates and adds fuel to that argument is the whole right wing "but my TAX DOLLARS" hysteria as connected to social support networks. The right wing loves to argue that people are grafting on welfare because they have new shoes or whatever. Like, ok, people on welfare should not wear shoes? Or should walk around wearing a scarlet W made from rags?

People love to hate the poor. They love to demonize those who but for the grace of whomever walk in their shoes, because otherwise their own privilege is too great a weight to bear.

archived

@RNL Yeah, living in a very conservative part of the world I always hear people complain how "those people on welfare" misuse their food stamps by shopping at Whole Foods or whatever. Because as a tax payer you deserve a say in their grocery choices? What if the head of family is really bad ass at making healthy meals stretch and it works for them? And why does it piss people off? It isn't like the person receiving welfare will get extra money if they run out.
It enrages me.

SarcasticFringehead

@archived People like that get SO MAD when they feel like somebody else is getting something they don't deserve...and then they turn around and call us millenials the entitled generation.

j-i-a

What I love about this piece is that - yeah, I *personally* think it's ABSOLUTELY FUCKING RIDICULOUS to spend $2,500 on a handbag, even if you can afford it, maybe especially if you can afford it. I would absolutely call myself a huge idiot if I spent my tax return on a Celine purse! That purse is really pretty but what is Celine. Who knows! I don't know, I hate brand names and do not understand conspicuous consumption, but I'm wearing a polyester sweatshirt that says TRUST NO BITCH over the face of the Mona Lisa, and that's pretty stupid too.

BUT, it's the same as any up-in-your-business-when-it-shouldn't-be type of argument. It's her decision. It's everyone's life. I think Tressie is justifying not the behavior specifically but the fact that no one other than Nurse from Canarsie can understand why Nurse from Canarsie finds it so deeply important to signify luxury that she'd blow her tax return on a $2,500 Metrocard container. And that reasoning has so much to do with how shittily black people and poor people are treated when they are NOT flossing as hard as possible, and also, double-bindingly, when they are. Not ours to focus on Nurse Purse over the economic inequality and structural racism that went into the Purchase and Detainment of Nurse Purse.

Blushingflwr

@j-i-a Pretty much. If she wants to spend $2500 on a purse, well, that's not a choice that I would most likely make in the same situation, but it's not my money to spend. And she used her tax refund, right? It's not like she put herself into debt to get it.
We are a culture that is pretty obsessed with material displays of status and wealth, and then we judge people for choosing to participate in that culture. If you repeatedly judge people by their clothes and their accessories, then why are you surprised when they go out of their way to acquire those things that they believe will make a positive impression? Of course, heaven forbid she end up on any kind of public assistance in the future, because then everyone will be clucking about welfare queens buying luxury goods and "why are you on food stamps but you've got a Celine purse?"
Poor people are expected to present themselves well, but not TOO well.

queenofbithynia

@j-i-a Plus! Also! I read a bunch of responses to this elsewhere where people were basically sneering at the poor who didn't even understand what the "proper" status markers were that they ought to be buying -- like, a real rich person looks at someone with a poverty wardrobe plus one expensive accessory, and is not fooled, so ha, joke's on you, poors. I don't know how anyone says such things and does not then have a moment of epiphany and then go off to set a Barney's on fire.

& but when it's a pure status purchase, I have all sympathy for overshooting the mark. it's like the comment above about how it would be more sensible to overreach just a little bit and buy a Banana Republic bag. Yeah, it would, and it might even do a better job at obtaining the effect you're after, but how soul-flattening is it to consciously aspire to belong to the class of people who shop at Banana Republic?

j-i-a

@queenofbithynia "how soul-flattening is it to consciously aspire to belong to the class of people who shop at Banana Republic?"

AHHH AND YET, SO REAL

Oliver St. John Mollusc

Love this. Recently a friend of mine posted a really interesting discussion on Facebook of the related issue of people spending their welfare checks on indulgent foods like lobster. Her point was a similar one: when you're really poor (as she used to be), sometimes you just need something a bit extravagant, and that everyone else needs to get over it because the occasional lobster is NOT the one thing keeping this person poor and dependent on food stamps.

Also, sorry to go all former-accountant, but the money you get back when you file your taxes is a refund, not a return (the tax return is the actual piece of paper you file). Sorry, sorry, sorry -- I hate me too right now.

j-i-a

@Oliver St. John Mollusc hahahah yes you're right yikes i think i've been using those words interchangeably all my life. editing now

Oliver St. John Mollusc

@j-i-a Don't worry, everyone else does too! I think accountants are literally the only people who know or care about the difference. And we wonder why we get made fun of!

Tafadhali

@Oliver St. John Mollusc "sometimes you just need something a bit extravagant, and that everyone else needs to get over it because the occasional lobster is NOT the one thing keeping this person poor and dependent on food stamps."

EXACTLY.

I get so frustrated when people act as though being poor means you should never, ever get anything just because you want it or it's fun or you needed a pick me up or any of the millions of not "sensible" but STILL IMPORTANT reasons that literally everyone buys things they buy.

I consider myself pretty good with my money, and I have a pretty healthy savings account. But I'm not making very much right now because I'm in grad school, and so if I were really being completely responsible I would never go to interesting, pricier restaurants with my foodie friends and I would remember that I'm a librarian and stop buying new books and I wouldn't blow so much money on making stupid costumes for the one or two geek conventions I make it to a year (or on going to conventions!) -- but good food and new books and dressing up like Captain Kirk are basically the things that make me happiest in the world and so spend money I do. And, because of my socioeconomic background and middle class profession (where my earning is currently at the poverty line, but the possibility for networking and future advancement and the "feel" of the profession matter more for perception), I don't usually get any flack for that spending.

So the idea that a person, because they live in poverty, can't have the occasional lobster dinner -- or own a television set, something which 97% of American households do -- is just absurd. POOR PEOPLE ARE ALSO HUMANS. HUMANS SOMETIMES WANT THINGS THAT ARE NOT 100% NECESSARY FOR THEIR SURVIVAL.

adorable-eggplant

@Tafadhali And here's the moment where I make my obligatory pitch for "The Road to Wiggan Pier" because it's a) still super relevant, esp the coal pickers who do a similar task to people who pull metal scraps from landfills and b) Makes this exact point, re white sugar (because wealthy philanthropists used to make 'ideal' food budgets for poor people and George Orwell rightly thought that was crap).

But yes, luxury, indulgence, being an irrational actor, etc., should not be the sole domain of the rich (or up-to-ears-in-debt middle class).

angelinha

@Oliver St. John Mollusc And the assumption behind those comments is that if "those people" could just keep themselves from the lobster for a couple of months they would miraculously increase their income so much that they no longer qualified for or needed food stamps and would never be poor again. As if poverty in this country were always temporary, and financial self-sufficiency always almost within reach.

leonstj

As a person who grew up and for a big part of my adult life right on that "working class" edge of "poor" and "shitty, but just barely middle class", I think the 'buying status' thing is totally true.

To this day I don't know if the reason I am obssessed with the idea of learning to sail (which I can't afford to do) is because it signifies 'being rich folk' or because 'boats are awesome'.

At the same time though, I know when I was broke, and I did things people thought of as "stupid" with my money, sometimes it was just escapism, pure and simple.

Like I racked up tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Part of that debt was a couple hundred bucks living allowance per months.

Once, I made some side-hustle cash, and instead of "investing it in my future" or "Paying overdue bills", I bought a pair of fucking gorgeous suede adidas.

I was 25k in debt and had $400 in bills overdue. I could make an imperceptibly small dent in that, or I could have shoes that made me feel awesome. Easy fucking decision.

The fucked up part to me is, rich people get rich in a capitalist & consumerist society - they wouldn't even BE rich if we weren't so obsessed w/ consumption at all costs for any reason.

And then, they have the ignorance and fucking gall to call us out on it when the consumerism that is their lifeblood ends up fucking us over just as indirectly as it does directly. So wack.

leonstj

@leonstj - I mean, for the public record, I'm not a communist or anything (anymore), and I don't even mind rich people, I just think it would be nice if people weren't so shitty towards each other.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@leonstj The way you just phrased that is just so perfect that I can't even say anything because I would ruin it.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

I'm sorry to be THAT person, pinners, but can someone please give me some context about what "a nurse from Canarsie" connotes? I tried Googling this neighborhood, but didn't get much other than it is working class.

j-i-a

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose working-class is all i meant to connote, really - i'm not from nyc but canarsie is deep brooklyn, formerly italian/jewish working/lower-middle class, now mostly caribbean i think. it's at the end of the L train, and to me, the buy-a-celine-purse, hop-on-a-45-min-subway-ride thing is the most fascinating (and to her, resolved) cognitive dissonance of the story

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@j-i-a Oh. Not being from NYC, I guess I don't really understand why lengthy train rides would mean someone is less qualified to buy an expensive purse, but I'm assuming it's because they aren't rich enough to live downtown?

H.E. Ladypants

@I'm Right on Top of That, Rose New York doesn't really have a downtown. It is too big and decentralized for that. What it does have, though, is a massive central zone (Manhattan and parts of the surrounding areas) with no real middle class to speak of. In order to get to a part of the city where one could reasonably except to find decent living conditions and still live without a ton of money you have to travel a long time. But the jobs are in the middle, so that 45 (probably an hour and change, to be honest) train ride is probably a fixture of our life. Twice a day. Everyday.

Urwelt

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose The farther you get into the outer boroughs, the cheaper rent is, and the poorer you (probably) are. Until you hit Westchester or Connecticut, and then it flips!

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@H.E. Ladypants Thanks! I hope I don't come across as some countreh bumpkin, but never having been there, I just really didn't know.

@Urwelt That makes sense! Kind of like an affordability sandwich, with rich bread on the outside.

peasofmind

@H.E. Ladypants

. . . which is why I will never freely choose to live in New York.

H.E. Ladypants

@peasofmind There is a richness to the city that makes up for a lot of things to my mind. (We speak over 300 languages! Our summers are filled with free concerts in beautiful parks!) But class in New York is strikingly obvious in ways that still take my breath away. I am from a tiny town in most rural of rural America, and in my first couple of years here that was the sharpest part of the learning curve.

Medusa

I'm a social worker, and I find that social workers have the exact opposite attitude. I know several people who work in welfare, and they tell me that they're less likely to give benefits to clients who are dressed in expensive clothes or even ones who *gasp* have their nails done. In my department (we provide financial assistance for domestic violence victims), my colleagues are extremely judgmental about how clients spend their money. One woman got the tires on her car replaced after we denied her assistance to do so, and my coworkers made a lot of negative comments about how she was spending her money, and implied she was a prostitute.

Mira

@Medusa Her tires?? Is that a luxury good in some way I've never heard of? Because that sounds like a crazy thing to criticize a DV victim over.

Medusa

@Mira Yup. Just regular tires. I work at a domestic violence organization with a reputation for being the most liberal in the (deep red) state, and my coworkers are judgmental as hell. They also are really invalidating of mental illness. It's very frustrating.

Medusa

@Medusa I'll add here that we have no money, and a lot of clients, and I think for the most part we spend our money well. I work 12 hour shifts and get paid $8 an hour.

tofuswalkman

@Medusa ugh, i used to work at whole foods, and you wouldn't believe how many food stamp-related comments were constantly constantly made by people who work at whole foods and make ten dollars an hour. I MEAN some of our coworkers were on food stamps. because 10 bucks an hour is not enough to support a family - what a concept. how did americans learn to hate the poor so intensely? especially when nearly all of us are not rich.

Urwelt

@Medusa Yeah, I was really interested in that part. I don't want to invalidate the writer's experience with social services, but I have to wonder how often dressing well is a boon vs a liability. When my mom used to work at WIC and talk about teenage mothers coming in couldn't afford to feed their babies, but dressed them in leather jackets and name brand sneakers, she was not... admiring? I'm not saying saying she used that to deny anyone benefits (although I guess I have no way of knowing) and she was definitely aware of the role status symbols play, but I don't think coming in with clothes she couldn't afford herself would have helped. Especially looking at her own life as a struggling single mother whose own child was dressed almost exclusively in hand me downs and Salvation Army clothes. Then again, she told me that we were eligible for food stamps when I was younger, but she didn't use them because the natural foods coop didn't accept them at the time.

theharpoon

@tofuswalkman "how did americans learn to hate the poor so intensely?" because we're told our whole lives that America is a colorblind meritocracy, therefore poor people must be lazy and stupid? but yeah. sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a place where compassion is a national value.

Medusa

@Urwelt I'm guessing that the people the writer talks about dress nicely in the hopes that they'll be treated better, but I don't think this is necessarily the case when it comes to social services. It seems to me that if you come to your appointments wearing nice clothes, you're likely to be assumed to be a prostitute (if you're a woman), a drug dealer (if you're a black man), or trying to scam the system (if you're a white man). But this is anecdotal from my experience with social worker colleagues. It's disappointing, because I got into social work due to be politically radical and a hardcore feminist, but 99% of the social workers I meet are very moderate, with some surprising conservative leanings. An MSW student in one of my classes actually gave a presentation about how social workers need to be helping rich people more instead of concentrating on poor people. It's frustrating.

cupcake

@tofuswalkman i'm not surprised by this. It's an old trick of pitting the poor against the poor. Everyone needs someone to look down on.

stuffisthings

@Urwelt I'm an educated white guy and I've been on food stamps. I didn't dress particularly well when I went in but I was clear, direct, and to-the-point (since I grew up upper middle class and know how to deal with bureaucracies). But I wasn't abject or crying or anything -- I was just like, look, I have no money, and I need to buy food, is there anything you can you do for me? They were very nice and got everything sorted out promptly and efficiently. They also didn't give me any shit about having a college degree and not being able to find a job, in 2006. Could just be the luck of the draw but maybe also they were relieved I would be an "easy" client, and that I had my shit together enough to make their job relatively easy?

Medusa

@stuffisthings Well, food stamps are pretty uncomplicated; as long as you have your paperwork in order it should be a quick appointment. Food stamps are also mainly for people who work, are under 18, are elderly or are disabled. Food stamps is an entitlement program, meaning they can't reject you if you qualify. I'm talking more about TANF (welfare) or other benefits that are not entitlement programs, meaning even if you qualify, you can be denied them or given a different amount based on the discretion of the social service organization. Each state, and even each local office, can come up with different requirements for receiving TANF benefits. TANF funds come out of a block grant, meaning the state is given a set amount and then may distribute it how they see fit. Food stamps are funded directly by the federal government.

angelinha

@Urwelt I got the impression it was less about "expensive clothes" and more about "a general, overall sense of middle-classiness." I think it's absolutely true that social service and benefits workers are more likely (even if, and maybe especially, subconsciously) to give more compassionate service to people who, for whatever reason - dress, speech, how they carry themselves - seem like they weren't always poor. Like the unrealistic "ideal client" of every social service agency, someone who "just fell on hard times" and is only going to need assistance for a minute.

stuffisthings

@Medusa True but if your shit is really messed up, it's easy to say "sorry you don't qualify" versus "ok you need to go to this office to get a state ID so you can apply, and fill out this form this way" or whatever. Speaking as a person who now has a professional job but just got turned away from a bar because my driver's license has apparently been expired for like 6 months (don't worry, I don't drive.)

chickpeas akimbo

I can't fathom spending really any amount of money on a purse, never mind $2500, because I don't really carry purses and am also sort of sartorially indifferent. ("these clothes are clean? Great!") I did, however, spend some multiple of that number on my college education at a fancy well known school, which I am still paying off, and yeah, having that name on my resume has opened doors for me that would otherwise be closed. (I also got an excellent education, and the school paid for half my tuition in grants, so I am one of those people who pays my student loans more or less without complaint.)

So yeah, I get this, even if I think some of the individual purchases are ridiculous.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@chickpeas akimbo Right? It's more money than I can imagine spending on a purse because the cat would probably scratch it, or some douche on the bus would knock it off of my lap, or I would be as clumsy as I usually am. But without knowing her exact motivations for buying the purse, or the story behind it, who are we to judge?
We've all spent lots of money on things for various reasons and I'm sure that to some people they will or won't be seen as ridiculous purchases.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@chickpeas akimbo This is like when I watched the Real Housewives of Miami and their insanity with Birkin bags. And these are ostensibly wealthy women.

EleanorHiggsByson

MARGE AND THE CHANEL SUIT, y'all. (Proudly raised by The Simpsons.)

ThatWench

@EleanorHiggsByson
Oh Dear God, yes. That episode is spot-on, isn't it?

This feels like the first time I re-watched Newsies after reached adulthood and realized it's the most pro-labor movie I've ever seen... and it was made by Disney

H.E. Ladypants

@ThatWench Oh goodness. I saw the Broadway show recently and I felt like they were doing everything in their power to hide the fact that it is really "Unions are Awesome: The Musical."

adorable-eggplant

@H.E. Ladypants I would pay cash money to see "Unions are Awesome: The Musical" (front row ticket prices)

H.E. Ladypants

@adorable-eggplant I didn't regret it! Lots of leaps and high kicks, too.

bombazinedoll

@ThatWench Not just pro-union, but pro-soaking scabs! I've been showing it to all my commie friends lately.

mistersister

Bottom line: It's none of our business what strangers spend their money on. Just like it's none of our business how much strangers weigh or how much they exercise or how they do their hair. I just don't get all this criticism directed at people we've never met.

stuffisthings

A better question is, if you are a famous millionaire why do you need an expensive handbag to signal your status to other people? If we're judging anyone we should judge the people for whom a $2,500 handbag IS an affordable, rational purchase!

Laura Lee@facebook

Wouldn't it be awesome if we all just stopped picking each other apart and stuck to our own business? Rich, poor, fat, thin, old, young -- others do things differently than I do -- or than you do, for that matter. And what earthly difference does that make to me -- or to you? But if we don't nit-pick at them about every little detail, who knows what they might be able to accomplish with the time they will not have to spend feeling angry or sad or hurt because we intruded on them with our useless and self-interested opinions?

Better to Eat You With

I was raised pretty poor, and with an explicit directive to hide it, because it was shameful. The importance of passing as not-poor was one of the main lessons of my childhood. Though the racial profiling at play in these stores is far more insidious than anything I experienced in my poor white upbringing, I feel intensely the urge to buy shit other people think you shouldn't.

The impact on me, long-term, has been different: $2,500 is more than I paid for my car, and I can't imagine even paying $250 for a purse. But it's none of anybody's fucking business either way.

LittleKicks

I agree with what everyone is saying and the article and all that. Yes, yes - it's not my business/stop judging/etc. etc.

But in this *particular* case, and with these *particular* circumstances -- that lady made one stupid purchase, and I can't help but judge her for that. She's 21, works at Home Depot, has one child, and is pregnant with another. And she bought a $2,5000 leather purse.

I'll admit it -- if she'd bought some $500 Kate Spade bag, I wouldn't give it a second thought. Lobster dinners, iPhones, whatever. Who gives a shit? It's her money, sometimes it's important to treat yourself, gatekeepers, etc. etc. And I see a lot of comments about, "well where do we start drawing the line...." But moral relativism gets exhausting after a while, you guys. And it's a fucking $2,500 leather purse.

Maybe it's because a $2500 purse is arguably absurd and frivolous even by "middle-class, no children to support" standards? And maybe it's because I've never had even half of that to spend on any one thing at once, so I'm secretly just jealous. And maybe it's because I'm intimately aware of the stress and exhaustion of never having a cushion and what I wouldn't give for $2500 just to not be terrified of getting sick or needing car repairs or having a relative die and needing to get home. So maybe I'm projecting.

And maybe the kid's father is making a bunch of money or she comes from wealth and that $2500 won't actually mean the difference of whether her kids get a new winter coat or buying her baby's medication or heating their apartment this winter. Maybe she doesn't need a cushion.

But to this persona that I'm projecting based on my own life -- the one that doesn't have a cushion or a support system and for whom $2500 would mean the difference between constant anxiety or peace of mind -- that was a ridiculous decision.

However, it also doesn't mean she deserves to get stopped by the police or get preached to by some saleswoman. And true - it doesn't personally affect me one way or another what she spends her money on. But it also doesn't personally affect her if I'm judging her as irresponsible for it.

vine fruit

@LittleKicks It does affect her eventually, though. The more people have a mindset like "financial decisions can be ridiculous, people can be stupid or smart depending on what they do with their money", the more likely it is that someone will treat her differently because of it (judge her to her face, deny her certain kinds of help and support, etc.) because they think that they are justified in doing so. I'm not trying to tell you your emotional reaction is evil, I'm just saying that the attitudes of individuals do make a difference in the culture.

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