Irrationality

Most of this post is drawn from an old draft that I just rediscovered and edited to share.

I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge this story, discussing how credit card spending boosts self-esteem.  It’s something I’ve experienced, most notably when I was doing Americorps and received food stamp benefits.  After a long morning spent at the San Francisco Department of Social Services, I — who generally hate shopping — was eager for nothing so much as a trip to the mall.  I was desperate to drop a few dollars, not even on high-status objects to display an artificial sense of my own wealth, but just to feel as though I could legitimately participate in the broader economy.

This is, I think, a perspective that’s often lacking when we talk about poverty.  Too often, people in poverty — particularly people of color — are singled out for owning big-screen TVs, or fancy phones or shoes or whatever else.  These high-status objects are used as evidence that the poor are not economically rational agents, that it is their own bad decisions which have left them struggling rather than any kind of structural oppression.  The easy answer to reach for is that high-status purchases, especially on credit, are a way for the poor or the working-class to feign wealth, to amass enough bling to prove that they fit in.  This is the operative theory behind many people’s anger at the thought of foreclosure modifications; after all, if the poor were just buying big houses they can’t afford because they are lazy and looking for easy shortcuts to material comfort and success, why should anyone “bail them out”?

This is, however, a simplistic and unfair perspective.  Certainly there are lazy poor people, just as there are lazy rich people and lazy middle-class people — but credit spending by those in poverty is hardly so reductive.  Human beings are, after all, social creatures, and much of our society is organized around economic participation.  To be cut off from that is not a hurt that can be readily understood by those outside of it; deprivation is difficult to truly imagine, and manifests not only in the obvious material lacking but, more damaging, in a subtle but constant chipping away at one’s basic dignity and personhood.  Our society is very based on the concept of “pay to play”, and to be outside of that is to be, in many ways, invisible — in advertising, in housing and civic decision-making and planning.  Conventional society simply does not make room for participation by the poor; sometimes, participation is actively punished.

Objectification of the poor and the homeless is commoner sport than it should be amongst the affluent, or even the middle-class.  This video from The Daily Show (which had an excellent run this week) demonstrates perfectly how ostensibly well-intentioned interventions rarely offer any sense of agency for those in need.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon – Thurs 11p / 10cIndianapolis Homeless Talent Showwww.thedailyshow.comDaily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

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