Teaching relatively class privileged students about why poor people can’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps can be extremely challenging. One of the things that they harp on is their impression that the poor spend money on frivolous things; somehow they believe that, if the poor just eschewed cable television and Nikes, they would pop up into the middle class.
I try to explain to them that being poor is like living a life of self-denial. To be poor is to be forced to deny oneself constantly. The poor must deny themselves most trappings of an adult life (your own apartment, framed pictures on the walls, matching dishes), a comfortable life (a newish mattress, a comfy couch, good shoes that aren’t worn out), a convenient life (your own car, eating out), a self-directed life (a job you care for, leisure time, hobbies, money for babysitters), a life full of small pleasures (lattes, dessert, fresh cut flowers, hot baths, wine), a healthy life (fresh fruits and vegetables, health care, time for exercise), not to mention all of the must-have consumer goods that are constantly marketed to us (mp3 players, organic food, travel, expensive clothes and accessories). And, since most poor people remain poor their whole lives, they must be prepared to deny themselves (and members of their families) these things, perhaps, for the rest of their lives.
So when my students see someone (they think is) poor walking down the street with a brand new pair of Nikes, perhaps what they are seeing is someone who decided (whether out of a moment of weakness or not) to NOT deny themselves at least one thing; perhaps they are seeing someone who is trying to hold on to some feeling of normalcy; perhaps what they are seeing is a perfectly normal person who just wants what they want for once.
I was thinking about this today when I saw a postcard at Post Secret (which, to be fair, may or may not have been submitted by someone who struggles financially). The postcard, featuring a PowerBall receipt, reads “It’s the only time I feel hopeful”:
For many poor people, hope and the absence of fear and worry, are also luxuries they live without.