Poor people are expected to wake up, grind as hard as possible, spend as little money as possible, complain about nothing, and go to bed.
Amidst the holiday shopping sales and frenzy, I decided to treat myself to a necklace I’d been eyeing for a while. It was $180 — normally a cost that is way out of my realistic price range. But I wanted to treat myself just like the majority of Americans will this season— to the tune of $1 trillion. Once I moved the necklace to my cart and checked out, I was overwhelmed with guilt. I texted a bunch of friends asking for affirmation that it was fine to spend money on myself and obsessively checked and double-checked my budget.
This wasn’t just ordinary shopper’s guilt, though. The thoughts racing through my mind were less about shopping and more about perception. What if someone sees my new necklace and wonders why I bought that instead of paying down my debt? I felt ashamed knowing that I’d spent money on myself rather than on my parents. My friends knew I helped out my family back home. Would they think I was being selfish? Would they think I was lying about my financial situation? I have three jobs to afford rent, medical expenses, debt, and helping my family. Would I even need three jobs if I didn’t buy myself this necklace?!
I was spiraling. I was fighting a notion that is hammered into our minds in a capitalist society:
Poor people need to work hard and enjoy nothing until said work lifts them into a higher socioeconomic class. Only then can a previously poor person enjoy the fruits of their labor. Only rich people deserve to participate in American consumerism. The rest of us are just too lazy to have nice things. We poor people aren’t financially literate enough to make the right monetary decisions. That’s why we’re still poor. The blame cycle goes around and around– always landing on the disenfranchised and the marginalized.
This is the same notion that created the “welfare queen” in the minds of Americans convinced that (mostly Black and brown) people receiving public aid must be abusing the system. Living in conservative, white Orange County as a child, I cannot count the times I heard rich white people gossip about the poor Latina women they saw with their hair and nails done. The vitriol in their voices was audible. They didn’t think those poor brown women deserved to go to salons.
Rich people in the U.S. (but also in most of the west) think that poor people cannot manage their own money — for no other reason than the fact that they are poor. I work in international development at an organization that provides unconditional cash transfers to women. This means they can spend the money however they want. It’s theirs. Without fail, we are bombarded at every conference with the same questions, “How do you ensure that the women won’t spend money on frivolous items like lipstick?” We don’t. It’s not our money. It’s theirs.
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We see this obsession with poor people’s spending habits especially with people experiencing homelessness. Housed people are so wary of giving homeless people actual cash for fear they might spend it on drugs or alcohol. This is misguided for so many reasons, but the hypocrisy is so clear. Why should someone with a house get to buy cannabis or a bottle of wine to enjoy in the comfort of their home, while a homeless person can’t do the same? Your five dollars that you gave to that homeless person isn’t going to get them into housing– but it does give them five more dollars to do with what they please. That includes buying themselves a drink if they want.
People with economic privilege want to micromanage poor people so badly all the while boasting about their wealth and hard work like any of us give a shit. Poor people are expected to wake up, grind as hard as possible, spend as little money as possible, complain about nothing, and go to bed. If they are found spending money on anything other than the bare necessities, they’re called out and shamed.
No one — apart from me on Twitter — is telling this rich surgeon lady from the Refinery 29 Money Diaries not to buy a 2000 dollar dress for a party. The subtext being that she worked hard enough to deserve that dress, while there must be a moral failing that kept someone poor enough not to be able to afford it. The real story is that her parents paid for medical school and she inherited enough money to buy a four-bedroom home in D.C.– but I digress.
Capitalism will never give poor people what is really needed to become healthy, happy, safe members of society. We must continue to fight for a world where SNAP benefits aren’t being cut, but where no one goes hungry— jobless or not. In the meantime, we sure as hell shouldn’t be shaming poor people for having moments of enjoyment — even if that enjoyment comes from buying themselves something nice. Take all that judgment and place it where it should be: on rich, white capitalists who refuse to abandon a system that destroys the lives of millions for their own gain.
And if any of you care, my necklace arrives today and I’m excited as fuck to wear it.