Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why do poor people get to have things?

I encounter this argument constantly when discussing social issues. Some right wing asshole will whine about how a woman using food stamps to buy her groceries is clacking away on her Blackberry with her recently manicured nails. "I can't afford that $400 phone, so how can someone on state assistance afford it? Shouldn't they be putting that money into their grocery bill?"
Or -- and this one is my favorite, I encountered it while I was in college full time, working two jobs, and receiving food stamps so that I could pay my rent and feed myself -- "do you have a cell phone? internet? cable? Surely you could use the money for that on food instead of using my tax money".
People who have never been poor don't understand one basic aspect of being fucking poor: you get really good at getting shit for free. Using my own example, I had a cell phone and internet access, yes, my parents paid for my phone, and I was using free dial-up from a service that offered dial-up to people for free without any sort of registration. I made plenty of sacrifices (this was in 2006 people! I was still using dial-up until 2007!), and actually wasn't spending money on these things.
And of course, the woman with the newly manicured nails and "expensive" cell phone (this example I heard on a radio show once), probably got the phone for free when she signed up for the cell phone plan, and there are other ways to pay for a manicure than with money. Maybe she had a girlfriend who worked in a nail salon and offered her a trade. Maybe she worked in a nail salon making minimum wage and one of the perks of her job (a perk that didn't do anything to feed her children) was free manicures.
People who have never been poor make a lot of assumptions about people who are poor. A lot of them. Chief among those is that poor people aren't allowed to have nice things. Ever. It doesn't matter where it came from (a gift from a parent or relative? free gift with purchase? it's actually one of the shittiest phones offered by the company she signed up with?), poor people aren't allowed to have nice things. They should sell those things and use that money to feed themselves. Except that there aren't a whole hell of a lot of things that you can do without phone or internet access (or a car if you live in a 'burbs), but still you hear the whining "why are poor people allowed to have things?"
It's actually really annoying to have someone who has no clue about your circumstances try to lecture you on what your priorities should be. My income is pretty minimal right now, but I have to have a phone so that I can keep in contact with my customers. I have to have internet access so that I can maintain my business. It's not right to make assumptions about someone circumstances when the only real qualification you have to lecture someone on priorities is having a little bit more disposable income.


The Dreaded Rhubarb said...

A side effect of strongly capitalist cultures is that money is seen as equalling virtue. If you are poor, it's clearly because you are too lazy to have made a lot of money.

Similar things, of course, happened in the USSR. Unchecked, all society tends towards Oligarchy. Humans instinctively believe that the people on the top must deserve their success and the people on the bottom deserve a good kicking. It's one of our least endearing traits.

T.Allen-Mercado said...

This is a very interesting post. I've heard the same comments made, but never really took the time to think about where the nice things come from. I'm of the mindset that everyone falls upon hard times no matter how well off they once were. Severe depression drove me into a public aid office in 2003 to apply for health insurance, all of my paperwork was stuffed in a Kate Spade handbag...I'm sure people wondered about me too.

DaisyDeadhead said...

That title totally rocks!

Yeah, I work in the supplement industry, and as a result, have the most expensive supplement on the market right now (retail price about $69 a bottle) sitting in my cabinet. It's my JOB, people! They ply me with the freebies because they want me to like it and sell it... and sometimes that even backfires. (Because if it's shitty, I won't sell it.)

But yeah, I can often guess what business people are in and what their job is, by what kinds of stuff they have.

Lots of account execs get great perks--iPhones, free meals, clothes allowance, pricey company cars and shit, and they often tell me that is the main reason they stay with the job... the perks outweigh the actual salary.