I came across this article today: The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation and while I was reading it, I felt a familiar rant coming up. I actually agree with the level of disdain this author shows. I don’t know how familiar ya’ll are with a book written about 15 years ago called Nickel and Dimed. The cover looked like this (there was also a 10th anniversary edition which looked similar, but different):
The premise of the book is a reporter/journalist attempts to live a life of poverty for her job. Sounds great right? I mean, a woman(!) digging into the roots of poverty, trying to find out why it’s so hard to live at the lower end of the money spectrum. Which sounds like an awesome case study.
Except she did it wrong and then wrote as though she understood.
Ms. Ehrenreich made three rules for her experiment. (1)
1. she can not fall back on any skills derived from her education or usual work
2. she has to take the highest-paying job she is offered and do her best to keep it;
3. she has to take the cheapest accommodations she can find, with a reasonable consideration for safety and privacy.
She also has some additional considerations. (1)
1. she will always have a car
2. she will never allow herself to be homeless
3. she will never go hungry.
Now, before I get into my thoughts, the author makes note that she understands she will never know what poverty is. The tone of her writing suggests otherwise.
It’s not okay to take something which is a source of great discomfort and shame, put a spin on it and use it as something to glorify (if it is a choice-not a lifestyle). That’s the problem with cultural appropriation. It’s great if there’s something which was founded by one group then shared and used for the benefit of all. It’s another thing entirely to glorify something like poverty. It’s not right.
Issues I have with the author’s take on the book are numerous. Of my issues, at the top of the list are the fact that this book was marketed as a woman exploring poverty by experiencing it. She didn’t. Not even close. Let me explain to you how she should have done her experiment: She shouldn’t have.
Poverty isn’t an experiment. It’s a tragedy.
The issues I have with her rules (by rule):
1. her experiences included being an adult with a job. She knew how to get an interview.
2. she should have taken the FIRST job she was offered-high pay or no.
3. poor people will often sacrifice safety, privacy and comfort for what can be afforded.
The issues I have with her additional considerations (in order):
1. being poor means taking the bus, or walking. Having a running car is a luxury.
2. this one, while reasonable is still a heavy assumption.
3. poverty means hunger. Trust me, I know.
Now, some additional things to consider. She kept her car from her old job. So it wasn’t a beater. She also had an emergency fund. There is no such thing as an emergency fund in poverty because literally every purchase is necessary and money is spent before it comes in. Also, she had health insurance. Now, I know that it’s 15 years later and insurance is required. But at the same time, you and I know that that means, if anything, money doesn’t go as far at all. And I remember a time when health insurance was a luxury-and if you didn’t have it, you went to work sick. Because I have insurance, and I can’t afford to go to the doctor. So I don’t.
Let me tell you a story, perhaps you’ll understand where I’m coming from. It would be sixth grade, history. It was the week of my birthday and I knew my parents were strapped for money, so I hadn’t asked for anything extravagant. I just wanted Chinese food from the store in town and some frog toys (I loved frogs). I walked into class that day and the principle was in class as well, which was odd. We were told that there was a shortage of money in the school district, that we would now have to pay 10 cents for each page of our tests, our work sheets and everything which needed printed, and that in order to have access to the homework that day, we were going to have to give up two dollars right then.
I was 11 years old. Two dollars was all the lunch money I had. I was a straight-A student, never missed an assignment, all my teachers liked me. It was the week of my birthday and I was being told that I was going to have to pay a LOT of money in order to go to school. My parents were a little broke and I hadn’t had lunch yet.
As an 11 year old with a wild imagination, the only thoughts I could entertain as I put my money on the table and the principle checked my name off, was about how I was going to cause my family to lose our home, we were going to be on the street eating from trash cans. And, because my birthday is in December, I naturally assumed that I and my family were going to freeze to death. All because I wanted to go to school.
That is the reality of poverty. Little children being afraid that their existence is going to cost too much. That they are going to die because they cannot afford to live.
And for those of you who are curious, I did get my lunch money back. And no, we didn’t have to pay money for paper. It was an exercise to demonstrate how the colonists felt about the unfair taxes imposed by Britain. The principle had been there to reinforce the lesson (make it seem realistic and believable), and as a precaution, I’m sure. About a third of the class was crying as they left for their next class that day. I remember that the kid I sat by went to the bathroom and called his mother who came in to school and cursed out the teacher. A woman teacher (math) later told me that she wished she could bring her subject to students in such a relevant way. I remain appalled.
For the record, I never forgave that teacher. I know I should, but I consider him a monster. He ruined my birthday and taught me that the people who are often trusted to lead children aren’t necessarily the ones you want doing just that. “Derision for disappointed hopes” is a good quote to use here.
Nickel and Dimed was touted to me as an examination of the inner workings of poverty by the professor who required it for one of my classes. I ripped it to shreds in my review because the author knew nothing about the realities. As far as I know, she never required the book again. And that’s why the things the article’s author pointed out are also valid.
There is nothing chic about surviving on dollar menus, discount carts and living in trailer parks. People look down on you, it’s constantly worrying about money, about safety and you feel like the scum of the earth. People who “choose” to experience that don’t even understand the realities of the situation they flagrantly mock. All it does is damage the value of human beings who are fighting to get by. And that simply won’t do.
And if you’d like to hear some excellent words on millennials in 2016, here’s a video. But I will say, there’s some “adult” words. It doesn’t matter to me, but there are people who have concerns like that, so be aware. Snooze by Snow Tha Product (It’ll be featured in other stuff-because I REALLY like it.)
- Staff, TheBestNotes. “TheBestNotes on Nickel and Dimed“. TheBestNotes.com. 19 August 2016. 19 February 2015