5 Reasons Why The Middle Class Doesn't Understand Poverty
Poverty is a well-worn subject here at Cracked. John Cheese has talked about it a lot, C. Coville discussed legal loopholes that can screw the poor, and we've also covered myths the media perpetrates. And now it's my turn to moderately wealthsplain the subject.
Unlike John and others, I grew up one year's worth of acoustic guitar lessons away from being the most stereotypical middle-class white kid ever. I didn't take yearly vacations to private islands to hunt men for sport, but I also never wanted for clothes and video games. And while us suburban kids were taught that it's good to help the poor, we were also accidentally taught to treat them with disdain. Here's how.
We're Constantly Told That "Money Can't Buy Happiness"
If you're friends with the right kind of insufferable people on social media, you've probably seen pictures like this:
How profound, guy with countless fans and a net worth of 150 million.
Or, God help us, this:
It's all variations on the same theme: Money can't buy happiness, true wealth comes from friendship and experiences, you don't need the solid gold butt plug when the polymer one feels identical inside of you, etc. Movies teach it, music teaches it, our parents teach it -- money is useless if you aren't living. It's not an inherently bad message, but try telling people at the homeless shelter to count the blessings that money can't buy, and see how long it takes before you'll feel blessed that you can afford health insurance.
Outside of images that the Care Bears would find insipid, "Money can't buy happiness" is what middle-class people tell each other when someone is trying to decide between two different jobs. "I make 70k right now and the new gig only plays 60k, so I wouldn't be able to travel as much. But I'd have more free time to play Ultimate, the benefits are better, and there's no way my new manager could be any worse than my current one." That's an important decision to the person making it, but they're debating between two different kinds of comfort. It's safely assumed that the money they will need to exist will always be there. It would be nice to have more -- to be able to go to more restaurants or to justify buying a second Roomba because deep down you know that the first one is lonely -- but there's always enough to keep the lights on and the kitchen stocked.
If the Minions are on your side, you might want to reconsider things.
You may have seen the study that claimed $70,000 a year is the ideal salary -- after that, more money generally doesn't make you happier. Well, that's great news for people hovering around that benchmark, but if you're poor, more money will abso-fucking-lutely make you happier. More money means healthier food, or a chance to get out of the house and have some fun. It can mean knowing the rent is paid for next month, or being able to afford medication.
The middle class isn't immune to money problems, especially if there are kids in the mix. Getting laid off at the wrong time sucks, no matter what your income is. But the middle-class people with money problems I've known were generally suffering from self-inflicted wounds. They had no savings because they wanted the new car or the luxury vacation. They wanted one of those experiences they were constantly told was more important than money, because the money for day-to-day necessities was always there, right up until it wasn't.
A sentiment that will read differently when employers start asking about the gaps in your resume.
That's part of the reason, I think, so many middle-class people laugh at campaigns to raise the minimum wage. "You want 15 bucks an hour to flip burgers? How about you just hold off on the new TV until you get a real job?" The middle class generally fluctuates between being able to afford a nice vacation one year and having to settle for a few trips to the movies the next. The poor can fluctuate between paying bills and being out on the street. But the idea that such essentials could just go unpaid is unfathomable, right up until you experience it.
We're Taught To Associate Low-Paying Jobs With Failure
When I was growing up, there was never a question of whether or not I was going to college. That's partially because the idea of my spindly idiot ass learning a technical trade or doing manual labor is the first step in creating an "Epic Fail!!!" YouTube video, but mostly because my parents had a fund set up for me. (It helped that I live in a country where a post-secondary education doesn't cost roughly eight quadrillion dollars a semester.)
So jobs that didn't require a degree were presented to us as warning signs. "You better study hard, or else you're going to end up just like that bull masturbator for the rest of your life! And I didn't intend that pun, so don't giggle!" Becoming a janitor or a gas station attendant or an internet comedy writer would have been considered a disappointment, an inability to take advantage of the gifts that were offered to us. Poverty was considered a moral failing.
I'm sure he regrets not studying harder for that ninth-grade algebra test.
No one ever just came out and said that, but the implication was always there. We tend to assume that other people are basically like us until they prove otherwise, which is why I'm constantly shocked to discover that most people don't like my favorite homoerotic golf academy anime, Wood Strokes. So we were never taught that working as a dishwasher or a grocery store clerk or a sperm bank fluffer could be an important stepping stone for someone with a different background than us. We were also never taught that, you know, it's still a goddamn job where someone shows up and puts work in and gets paid for their time. They were always just associated with squandered potential.
And man, when you hear that message constantly, it's hard to shake. It's easy to glance at a middle-aged dude working the checkout counter and automatically think "Well, I bet he's not the brightest guy around" or "Oh shit, is that what happened to Matthew Lawrence?" It's not malicious -- not initially. Being told to take advantage of your opportunities is not a bad message. But when that message is driven into you for decades, it creates a stigma around certain jobs. And from some people, it produces plenty of snide remarks about how the people working those jobs should get better ones, as if the person who's been a server for seven years has never considered just popping down to the job store and picking up a career in architecture.
"Sir, your snarky comments have changed my life. God bless you."
Janitors and baristas keep society running as much as anyone else. If all of America's coffee shops shut down for a day, the country would experience a nationwide narcolepsy epidemic crossed with The Purge. But when you grow up in the middle class, the only thing you're taught about such jobs is that you should get one as a teenager to build character, and then thank God that you'll never have to work one again as long as you don't fuck up in life. And as long as we consider that a sign of our superior work ethic instead of birth luck, we're going to keep dismissing as pathetic the jobs we'd all get angry about if they vanished tomorrow.
There Are Always Certain Things We Take For Granted
An education isn't the only thing that most middle-class kids can assume they'll get. A car to borrow, a phone, 20 bucks for when you really want to take a girl to what you assumed was a bad movie so you could make out in the back row but then it turns out that she's actually super into the plot of Gigli and wants to focus on it even though you were all set to reach second base and so you end up getting a confused erection to Al Pacino and it inadvertently shapes your formative years ... you know, all the little things that are part of growing up in Middle America.
"Can I ... introduce something to the bedroom?"
That's the end result of assuming that a good job awaits you, and that money is for throwing at problems and buying pizza instead of something to stress out about. Water heater broke? No worries, we'll just have to eat in the rest of the month to make up for it. Shoes all worn out? Well, you can't go to school like that, so go get some new ones. Gone on a losing streak at the Pokemon Card League and the groupies have started drifting off to the other players? Better pick up a few booster packs to get back in the game. You know you can't get greedy and start buying Armani, but as long as your needs are modest, the money will always be there.
So the idea of 20 bucks making or breaking someone is impossible to appreciate. It's just not a concept that clicks in our heads. It makes sense on a logical level, sure -- you need money, and you don't have it, and that sucks. But when you're raised in comfort, you can't put yourself in that head space emotionally. You can't understand the stress, or the fear that you might not be able to feed your kids. The closest we can get is watching Gwyneth Paltrow try and hilariously fail to live on a tiny food budget before going back to her $4,000 kale cleanses. That's kind of like empathy, right?
"Please think of the poor children who only get a single lime a day."
And because it's tough to relate to, it's tough to talk about. If someone tells me that they never got Christmas presents growing up, all I can respond with is "Uh, yeah, that sounds like it sucked. Well ... one time my grandma accidentally got me Super Murpio 67, so ... I hear you." Starting a conversation with a bunch of middle-class people about poverty is like bringing up Trayvon Martin at a country club. Everyone trips over everyone else's words to talk about how tragic it is, but then they distance themselves from the problem and the "buts" start coming out. And to further compound the issue ...
We Don't Witness Poverty, So We Don't Understand It
When I was growing up, my exposure to poverty was largely limited to sitcom families who would talk about how poor they were, but were still able to go on a wacky adventure every week. The Simpsons kept running into money troubles in their early years, but their house looked the same as mine. Even the family from Roseanne, the classic working-class sitcom, owned a house that's a palace compared to what a lot of people live in. The problem with portraying poverty in sitcoms is that it's hard to get laughs out of eviction and early deaths caused by crippling medical debt, so the lesson always ends up being "Poor people struggle with money sometimes, but in the end they always get by, and they have lots of laughs while doing it!" Sitcoms make being poor look fun.
What an unlivable hellhole.
Beyond that, once or twice a year, I'd go to some kid's birthday party and notice that his house was a lot smaller and more run down than mine. One of the kids who always got talked about in a slightly different tone of voice by the adults. I never gave it much thought because we went to the same school and both liked Nintendo -- how different could our lives possibly be? Maybe I'd see a story on the news that would put a positive spin on the issue. ("Look at how many volunteers with beautiful families showed up to the soup kitchen to help feed these filthy hobos!") Beyond that, the middle class just doesn't think about poverty.
We're always looking up, always wanting to go to the Christmas party at the rich friend's house so we can get a taste of what we're aspiring to. There's rarely a reason to go to the poor part of town. Tell jokes about it, sure, but go? We never have to leave the bubble, so we never learn what real poverty looks like. Poor people become invisible, this mysterious Other, a group that serves you food, and in return, you throw a couple of non-perishables and toys into donation bins for them over the holidays.
"Please, I'm no hero. I just needed new underwear."
Oh yeah, the middle class loves to donate food and toys and clothes and gently used ball gags and all sorts of other crap that we weren't using anyway. Food banks actually need money far more than they need your creamed corn that's going to expire in two weeks, because money just goes further. But people who will gladly part with 12 boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese and some Funyuns they found under the sofa get leery when it comes to handing over money, even though we're supposedly under the impression that we don't need it ourselves to be happy.
That's partially just because it's more satisfying to give stuff instead of money -- you can imagine some happy kid playing with your old Lego, and you get to clean out your closet. But remember, we're taught that the poor are stupid and lazy. We sit around telling each other stories about how our friend's cousin's boyfriend knows a guy who spent his welfare check on beer and weed. These are campfire horror stories for the most tedious suburbanites, and they're told in the hot tubs that they probably shouldn't have bought until the next mortgage payment cleared. We can't trust those people with money, because if they were smart enough to manage it properly, they'd be smart enough to have a better job. Also, they probably all have hooks for hands and murder teenagers while they're making out in their cars. Hey, we learn so little about poor people that it's just as believable.
We're Taught To See Ourselves As The Victims
I've known people with movie theaters in their homes and four cars in their garage who are convinced that society is against them, that life is a gloomy parade of suffering because their property taxes went up a bit. That's stereotypical rich people behavior, but it's there in the middle class too, in subtler ways. I live in a city where the economy revolves around a boom and bust industry, so people tend to make good money while complaining about taxes for a few years, then get laid off and go on government benefits for a while, and then get a new job and go back to complaining about the government. And if you watch the cycle, you see the same "us against the world" mentality, just with fewer BMWs in the mix.
You're off the hook today, Prince Baron von Money.
When middle-class people get laid off and go on welfare, they blame the economy, or their former employer, or the government. They never blame themselves. And they shouldn't! Much like a whale's erection, economies are big, confusing things that can't be controlled by the average person. It's not like they left photocopies of their asshole on the boss' desk. They paid into the welfare system with their taxes when times were good, and now they're using the system for exactly what it's intended: helping you out when you're unlucky. It's bridging the gap until you, a hard-working person who just caught a tough break, gets another job.
Except when poor people use the system, it's none of those things. Suddenly they're not getting help; they're just dumb, lazy leeches. Plenty of middle-class people are more empathetic and generous than I'll ever be, but the worst instinct of the middle class is to blame the system when the system fails us, then lecture poor people when the system fails them. I've heard the condescending explanations about how the world really works (which usually come out after a few beers when no actual poor people are around because the speaker would never be brave enough to say it to their faces) more times than I can count.
"Now who wants to hear my thoughts on immigrants?!"
The middle class has a weird relationship with the rich -- we alternate between complaining about them and wishing we were them. Money can't buy happiness, but a yacht certainly wouldn't hurt matters. Even if we don't like the rich, there's always the pipe dream that we could be them. But no one dreams about being poor, unless you're into an incredibly specific kind of role-playing.
Being poor is a problem (practically, not morally), and a problem is either the fault of the person or the fault of circumstances beyond their control. The latter means we in the middle class might have to do something about it -- or, God forbid, reflect upon our lifestyles, which is just the worst. It's much, much easier to assume that we're fine, that ultra-rich politicians and celebrities and investment bankers are the ones being condescending and awful to the poor, but also that poor people could probably stand to work a little harder. So, uh ... sorry about all of that. I'll donate some food at Christmas, though!
Mark is on Twitter and has a book that's made him rich in experience.
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For more check out 5 Things Only Poor Teens Understand About Poverty and 4 Things Politicians Will Never Understand About Poor People.
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