Americans hate the undeserving poor. We hate poor people on welfare who drive nice cars; we hate poor people who don’t scrimp, save, and hustle their way into wealth, Horatio Alger style (does anyone still read Horatio Alger novels?). Unless you’ve pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, you’re not supposed to talk about your poverty, because it is clearly shameful and a sign of a personal failing.
One of the best blogs I’ve stumbled upon in the last six months is written by Tressie MC, over at some of us are brave. This week, she’s written about the rational reasons for poor people buying expensive consumer goods like clothes, phones, and cars:
I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. 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. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”
Everybody go read: The Logic of Stupid Poor People.