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How to Be Poor

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February 24, 2016


This is an update on my recent piece, “The Irony of Writing about Poverty on Medium."

I just got a tweet from someone asking if I've seen the "truth" about how Talia Jane lives.  Much of the criticism of her piece focuses on the fact that she was, apparently, not living on rice alone but drinking expensive bourbon and indulging in expensive treats.


I have no interest in whether or not Talia Jane was lying, and I’m also not interested in being sympathetic or supportive of her.  I'm critical of both her and Stefanie Williams for trafficking in poverty porn, and of a larger cultural impulse to consume it rather than tackle the systemic problems that produce such great need.


As I’ve already stated, I’ll have more on the nature of poverty porn in a later piece but for now, I want to quickly address this issue of waste and the assumption that the poor have no right to enjoy anything other than mouldy bread and rotting vegetables.  Some of this occurred to me as I read this New York Times article on Matthew Desmond, author the new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  The reporter notes that “he doesn’t shrink from depicting less than sympathetic behavior by tenants, like the decision by Larraine, a 54-year-old woman who has just been evicted from the trailer park, to blow her monthly food stamps on a single home-cooked lobster dinner.”

Although Desmond does point out that, “[t]he difference between stable poverty and Larraine’s kind of poverty is so vast…[n]o amount of scrimping and saving is going to get her out,” Larraine’s decision is still described as a “bad” one.


This kind of finger-wagging is common when it comes to trying to understand why poor people might supposedly waste their money on what the wealthy consider essentials.  The same person who tweeted at me berated Jane for drinking bourbon that cost $45 a bottle. My response was that I hoped she enjoyed it.  


I’m poor as fuck and I live in donated housing.  But even with my limited resources, I find ways to consume good, stinky cheese and entire pints of artisanal ice cream.  I understand why Larraine, tired of sludgy, low-quality, and tasteless food might decide one day to not give a damn and eat lobster instead.  The poor are not expected to indulge in pleasure for its own sake. In response to someone apparently living beyond their means or not scrimping enough, people are apt to say, “You don’t know how to be poor.”

But what does that mean, to know how to be poor?  Do we now live in a society where to be poor requires a degree certification in the subtle intricacies of poverty?  What are the principles?  


Deny yourself all pleasure.  Here’s how to feed a family of five on one loaf of week-old bread.  Don’t throw away those coffee grounds: reuse them!  Make your own soap, your own towels, your own toilet paper from newspapers. Did you know that, with the proper knowledge of chemistry, you can actually make water? On no account must you eat chocolate, ice cream, or ever have really mind-blowing sex just for the heck of it.


When we berate the poor for their "waste" or, for that matter, the rich for their "excess," we are simply engaging in personalised narratives that do nothing to explain or even reveal the larger systems of power at work.

Instead of berating people, we need to do better at understanding and eventually dismantling the systems which make such extremes of poverty and wealth possible in the first place.

And in the meantime, we need to do everything we can to ensure that everyone enjoys their natural right to excellent, stinky cheese and great bourbon.


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Image: Rembrandt, Portrait of the Late Mayor, Jan Six, 1654



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