When it comes to forming an opinion on poverty, some Americans just can’t seem to understand why poor people can’t just stop being poor. One of the things that gets harped on is the idea that poor people spend money on frivolous things; somehow some people believe that, if the poor just gave up their cell phone and Nikes, they would pop up into the middle class.
What these people don’t realize is the extent to which being poor is 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 (their 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);
- and so, so many more things that don’t fit into those categories (technological gadgets, organic food, travel, expensive clothes and accessories).
They have to actively deny themselves these things every day. 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 someone sees 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.
Originally posted in 2009.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.